Video Games and the Arts: Dark Souls
By Wesley Rossenrode
Late film critic Roger Ebert caused some commotion several years back when he said video games can never be art. Many felt his broad critique on a medium he knew nothing about was unfair. I felt that too, but I was also appreciative of the conversation it started. Because it wasn’t until his comments that I began seeing video games as works of art.
A quick Internet search of the definition of art will yield many results and they vary from the vague to the exhaustingly detailed. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to go with Wikipedia’s definition of The Arts, because it’s short and also because it briefly discusses video games struggles in being included into the form. It states that, “The arts represent an outlet of expression, that is usually influenced by culture and which in turn helps to change culture...” and goes on to give examples, like music, dance, and baking. Now I’ve eaten some delicious cookies (those Keebler Elves know their stuff), but can we say that baking has changed culture and video games have not? Why are pastries so easily given a top spot in such a prestigious definition while video games still fight for a seat at the table?
There are more popular video games out there that can be easier argued as art, but I want to start this blog series with a rogue. It’s a game that frustrated me so much, I threw it aside and ignored it for close to four years. It’s a game that forced me to mature before it opened my eyes. It’s a game that I had to come back to fully appreciate.
The Dark Souls series is well known for its difficulty and unique approach to online play, but I feel those aspects have caused many, including me, to overlook its aesthetic beauty. It’s true; Dark Souls, when conquered with tempered persistence, creates a rewarding feeling, but it’s only when one becomes aware of the subtle beauty that surrounds the gameplay that this title shines as a work of art.
The world of Dark Souls is a hauntingly beautiful and perversely touching, like if the devil had a beloved ragdoll. Every section, though depraved and joyless, is beautifully put together with painstaking attention to detail. Each area, while starkly different, is seamlessly stitched together, creating an environment that’s dangerous when brushed, but absorbing when admired. Many video games have well-made levels, but this game forces you to become a part of it. I was immersed with every creaking plank in the muck and mire of Blightown and every insidious trap in Sen’s Fortress. A land called Anor Londo was so grand in scale and so different than any other area I had set foot in that I died while admiring the architecture.
The rich lore of the series is also deeply thought out. Unlike most video games that force the player to put down the controller and be informed of where the story is so far, Dark Souls takes a minimalist approach. The opening cinematic only gives the player a brief backstory of why the world is the way it is, then leaves it to the player to fill in the details. And it takes work piecing together those details. That freedom to discover coupled with a coy approach sparked a desire in me. I didn’t just want to play this game; I needed to know why I was playing this game.
Dark Souls is art. The emotions of the designers are on display, but it is up to each his own to interpret them.
It’s coming close to a decade since Ebert made those comments and video games continue to progress. If one wants to compare the days of Atari and NES to the cave painting era of humanity, then we’re on a fast track to the Renaissance. The current acceptance of independent game developers by the console giants helps me see that. But with these articles, I want to recall the games that got us here. I want to pay respect to the artists that, since the beginning, knew video games could appeal to more than just a childish mind.