Once again, I must begin by referencing the post I wrote a few weeks ago on why I don’t like watching movies. You may recall that that post had a fairly random title. That title was actually a vague reference to a somewhat controversial issue within the video game community; namely, whether or not video games can be considered a form of art. As you might have guessed, Roger Ebert believes that video games cannot in any way be considered art, whereas I do. (I also threw in a reference to Futurama, cause it’s a great show.)
I’m not really that interested in directly engaging with Ebert’s arguments for why video games aren’t art (with one exception). I’d rather talk about a key experience in my gaming “career” and how it has influenced my views of video games as art. I’m also not particularly interested in coming up with a specific definition of “art”. Art is such a subjective thing that I feel like any attempt to define it is thoroughly foolhardy. So for the purposes of this discussion, art is simply any form of human expression that elicits an emotion of some sort.
“The Death of Aeris” refers to a scene from a video game, Final Fantasy VII, which is perhaps one of the most famous and most controversial scenes in video game history. First, a little background. Final Fantasy games are entirely independent of each other in terms of plot, although they do have certain elements in common. For example, most Final Fantasy games include large, yellow birds that people ride called Chocobos. Also almost every Final Fantasy game has a character named Cid. Finally, these games almost always involve an epic battle between good and evil.
In FFVII, the plot centers around a young man named Cloud, who is part of a rebel organization known as AVALANCHE. This group is fighting against an evil corporation, the Shinra Electric Power Company, who has used their monopoly of something called “Mako power” to take over the world. AVALANCHE is fighting Shinra because the use of Mako energy is actually killing the planet, and Cloud and his friends don’t want this to happen. I don’t want to take the time to explain the entire plot, so suffice it to say that the true villain turns out to be a man named Sephiroth, who wants to seize the planet’s energy and use it to become a god. Cloud’s love interest, a young woman called Aeris, is the only person who has the power to stop Sephiroth’s schemes.
About halfway through the plot of the game, Cloud and his friends have just recovered something called the Black Materia, which is crucial to Sephiroth’s plan. However, as soon as they get it, Sephiroth shows up and Cloud gives it to him. Cloud is shocked at his own action, but when Aeris tries to calm him down, he attacks her. He then freaks out and collapses. When he comes to, he discovers that Aeris has gone off on her own to a place called the City of the Ancients. Cloud and his friends follow after her, but when they find her, Cloud draws his sword and tries to kill her, stopping himself at the last second. Disaster seems averted, until Sephiroth himself descends from the sky and runs his sword through Aeris, killing her.
This may have been the first time in a video game that a major protagonist was killed. (I don’t know that for a fact, but I can’t think of any games that came before FFVII where this happens.) There were several minor characters who died in Final Fantasy IV, but one of them was old, and the rest come back to life in the end. Aeris was young and vibrant, and she doesn’t come back.
This scene caused a great deal of controversy among the video game community at the time. Many gamers were angry that Squaresoft (the company that made FFVII) would kill off a character that they had gotten to know so well. Even now, I would imagine that just saying the name Aeris to someone who has been playing games for at least 15 years would elicit some sort of strong reaction.
So, some of you may be asking, what is my point with all of this? My point is that, if art is a form of human expression that is designed to evoke some sort of emotion, then the death of Aeris proves that video games can be, and in fact are, art. No one can play through the first half of Final Fantasy VII and not feel anything when Sephiroth’s sword pierces Aeris’s body. Whether you are shocked, surprised, angry, sad, or horrified, it is a moment that is almost guaranteed to provoke an emotional reaction. And how could something that causes such a reaction be dismissed as incapable of being art?
Now, one aspect of Ebert’s argument is that he claims that he is not focusing on the story or the graphics or the sound or anything like that, but rather the actual mechanics of playing a game. This seems to me to be a bit too narrow of a focus. There is more to playing a game than pushing buttons and following rules. I, personally, play very few games that don’t have a deep and complex story. So for me, and many people like me, the story is an integral portion of the experience. As are graphics and sound. So to dismiss these elements as invalid to the argument of whether or not video games are art is akin to saying that color and line are irrelevant to whether or not paintings can be considered art.
In the end, none of this really matters. Video games are video games, whether or not they are considered art. Some people like them, other people don’t, and for most people, the question of art never enters the equation. So excuse me, but I need to go play Final Fantasy VII.