…But is it Art? –Guitar Hero 5

January 19, 2010

It’s probably going to be a long time before video games gain the recognition they deserve as works of art, but I for one am a firm believer that they belong in the discussion. I can think of many games I’d consider to be works of art, but right now I’m more interested in examining a title about which I’m not so sure. I’m actually on a ten year lag when it comes to video games, and the only current titles I play extensively are all Guitar HeroGuitar Hero 5 for the Playstation 3, in particular. Before I delve into any specifics, however, I think it would be useful to establish some parameters for the evaluation of video games.

There are a few different elements of a video game that must come together for it to qualify as art. The visuals are the most obvious, and while I do not believe that good graphics can make a bad game good, I do believe that the graphics should not be so bad as to detract from the appeal of the game. In other words, good graphics alone won’t make a game a work of art, but bad graphics will disqualify it from being so. With the advent of HDTV, it’s easier than ever to place too much value in pretty visuals, and even though I list it first, this is the lowest priority in terms of critique.

The score of a game is another key element to consider. Music by itself can create mood and convey emotion, and can amplify any experience when coupled well with the visuals. It’s almost a shame that digitized music is no longer the norm, but now video games have no excuse not to employ a proper musical score given the capabilities of the systems and the resources available to the developers.

The narrative is another element in this equation, but it does not apply to every game. An argument can be made for sports titles as art, but they obviously do not have any narrative elements worth mentioning. The same goes for racing games and fighting games—and maybe even musical simulations like the one in question here. Nowadays it’s hard to find any game that does not include RPG elements, but it’s even harder to find one in which the story isn’t an afterthought. Narrative doesn’t just mean plot, either; it entails how the story is conveyed, whether that be visually, via text boxes, etc.

Gameplay is the one unique element that you can’t get from other media. How the gamer interacts with the in-game environment is crucial to the experience, and if an engine is broken then the game cannot be considered. I prefer simplicity over super-complex controls, but if a game with a high learning curve is worth the effort, then it makes the product all the more impressive. Pick-up-and-play is a plus, but there has to be enough there to keep you wanting to progress, both in the game and as a player.

In terms of Guitar Hero 5, the narrative element is immediately out. Yes, the game has a story mode, but it’s really nothing more than a sequence of songs. The graphics are decent, though mostly superfluous because you usually can’t enjoy them while playing; this is one of the few games out there that has background visuals instead of background music (not that other games don’t have background visuals, but that’s pretty much all you get here). It is especially cool when the animation syncs up with the music, though, which shows a nice attention to detail and good commitment by the developers to create custom animation solely for particular moments in a few songs. Gameplay works surprisingly well, too. There’s a fairly high learning curve if you want to play on the highest difficulty, but it’s rewarding and it’s enough to make you feel like you could actually be playing the song (in the in-game world, of course—not in real life).

Ironically enough, the soundtrack actually works against the game in terms of its artfulness. Sure, many of the songs in the playlist are art in their own rights, but the game cannot simply piggyback off their status. Having songs in the game that can be said to be art does not make the game art. They don’t exactly contribute to the game because they are the game, except being able to play Guitar Hero does not make you an artist (unless there is an art to playing video games, which there very well may be, but that discussion will have to wait).

I can’t really say that GH5 is useful—sure, it provides you with something to do at parties, and, yes, it can teach you some basic rhythms, but it obviously can’t teach you to be a musician—but I can’t say that it is art, either. Nor can I say that the game is beautiful, which is of course the primary condition as far as Aestheticism goes. Guitar Hero is perhaps too much of a novelty, too arcadey, too gimmicky, but it does what it attempts to do: give an otherwise unmusical gamer a taste of what it’s like to make sweet music. The game at least doesn’t try to be art, which is far better than having pretensions and not succeeding.


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