Writer in Residence

Video Games as Art: A Roadmap In

By Irfan Ali


Until very recently, lifelong video game enthusiasts like myself have always felt ourselves on the defensive back foot. Plagued as it was (and often still is) by sexist and racist stereotypes, painfully bad writing, and regressive attitudes, our medium of choice was often seen as a social liability. Yet, we maintained that there was something special about it. As a nascent art form, it was just experiencing the requisite growing pains as it came, as it eventually did, into maturity.

If you’re one of the majority who hitherto avoided gaming and, now that it’s increasingly recognized as a legitimate art form, are looking for an entry point, this is a brief list of games that might serve as a roadmap into the genre for the curious but uninitiated. The list is organized from least to most time- and energy-intensive. Note, of course, that my list will vary from the selections of other nerds, so please don’t get angry at me if you think I’ve forgotten something!

  1. Dys4ia (Anna Anthropy, 2012): This brief game details the creator’s experiences with gender dysphoria and hormone replacement therapy. Despite its brevity and the simplicity of its Atari 2600 styled visuals, the game’s storytelling was so powerful it literally made me tear up the first time I played it. There’s no real way to lose Dys4ia, so it’s a perfect entry point for a curious novice. One cautionary note: the game is built on Flash, the programming language which will no longer be supported by most browsers at the end of 2020, so you should try to find it sooner than later. Also, it can be a bit difficult to locate online as it’s no longer hosted on Newgrounds and itch.io, where it originally lived.
  2. Gone Home (The Fullbright Company, 2013): In this first-person “walking simulator”, you take the role of a young woman returning from overseas to find her family’s Oregon home eerily deserted and attempt to piece together what happened in your absence. Arguably, the game is best enjoyed by existing fans of the survival horror gaming genre as it builds on and subverts the tropes of that genre, but is still easily accessible to anyone thanks to its lack of challenge, immersive storytelling, and short length. 
  3. INSIDE (Playdead, 2016): Both INSIDE and developer Playdead’s other title Limbo would be easy inclusions on this list, but I think the former ekes out the latter by a slim margin. The game puts you in the shoes of an unnamed boy as he attempts to evade capture by a shady organization while he explores their strange experimental facility. With phenomenal art direction and smart environmental storytelling, INSIDE was an instant critical success upon its release. Though it’s certainly more challenging than the previous two entries on this list, it’s still quite manageable and brief enough to not require much of a time investment (I finished the game in a single sitting).
  4. EarthBound (Ape Inc. / HAL Laboratory, 1995): Revered by gaming fans, this cult classic is a must-play. Its sharp humour still makes me snort with laughter to this day; yet, beneath these laughs and its vibrant, childlike aesthetic, the game also delves into difficult themes of sacrifice, corruption, and power. While EarthBound’s aesthetic and challenge level make it quite accessible, it can, like most other games in the RPG genre, demand quite an investment of time and energy to see through to completion.
  5. The Last of Us (Naughty Dog, 2013): Following a father-daughter like pair as they navigate a post-apocalyptic America ravaged by a variant of the mind-controlling cordyceps fungus, The Last of Us was the first game that felt truly cinematic in scope to me. From beginning to end, it’s a heart in your mouth thrill ride through the worst parts of human nature. I distinctly remember reaching the game’s stunning and heartbreaking conclusion and feeling that it was the moment at which gaming had finally reached maturity as an art form.
  6. Shadow of the Colossus (SCE Japan / Team Ico, 2005): This game puts you in the shoes of Wander, a young man who journeys to a forbidden land in hopes of resurrecting his lost love. He makes a pact with an ancient entity trapped within the land, who tasks Wander with killing a number of giant colossi in exchange for the entity’s help. Despite its sparse dialogue and storytelling, Shadow never resigns itself to easy dichotomies of good and evil and does an expert job of making the player increasingly question whether their ends justify the means. While stunning in its execution, the game can also be difficult to penetrate: it’s likely you’ll need outside help to clear some of its more challenging moments. I highly encourage you to play the 2018 remastered version if you’re able as it makes the spectacle of fighting the titular colossi that much more awe-inspiring.
  7. Red Dead Redemption II (Rockstar Games, 2018): Arguably, the maturation of developer Rockstar Games closest mirrors the maturation of gaming as a whole. Beginning from the inane and highly controversial early entries of the Grand Theft Auto series, the studio has put out increasingly well-crafted narrative driven games over the last decade. The pinnacle of these is the Red Dead Redemption series, which follows a group of outlaws as they try to carve out a space for themselves and atone for past sins in the waning years of the Wild West. While both games tell brilliant stories, what makes the second in the series so good is its immersiveness and attention to detail. Taking full advantage of the hardware it’s built on, Red Dead II’s world is so beautifully realized it’s easy to pass hours just riding around on your horse, taking in its splendour.
  8. Bloodborne (From Software, 2015): Developer From Software is infamous within the gaming world and for good reason. Starting with 2009’s Demon’s Souls, the studio has garnered a reputation for creating some of the most difficult and demanding games of recent years. But, beyond mere difficulty, what makes these games stand out is their peerless art direction, storytelling, dialogue, and world building. Indeed, the opportunity to take in the games’ increasingly breathtaking vistas and grotesque monstrosities is a primary driver to push through their many challenges. From has also pioneered a new kind of storytelling. Eschewing traditional exposition, their games instead use their environments and subtle clues to build living, breathing worlds. I won’t lie, admiring and studying this aspect of their work is changing the way I approach exposition in my own writing. While opinion may be divided about which of From’s entries is their best, in my opinion that distinction belongs to Bloodborne, the studio’s brilliant 2015 take on Lovecraftian horror.

Honourable mentions:

  • Civilization VI (Firaxis, 2016): If you’re at all interested in history, this famous strategy game allows you to build an alternate timeline of how the world’s various civilizations could’ve risen and fallen over the millennia. No lie, the Civilization series was my first primer into much of ancient history. Be forewarned though, this game causes insomnia. I can’t count the number of times I got so lost playing that by the time I turned it off, the Sun was coming up...
  • Doki Doki Literature Club (Team Salvato, 2017): This recent freeware title brilliantly subverts the visual novel, a genre of dating simulators in which players gradually develop a romance with one person chosen from a group of attractive young people. Starting conventionally enough, the game descends into full-blown horror that transcends many of the limitations of traditional gaming. It is unsettling as hell. However, it might be argued that understanding the visual novel genre and other mainstays of weeaboo culture is a prerequisite to the full experience.

Okay, I get really giddy when I get the chance to talk about video games so I’m going to cut myself off here before I ruin my sleep. 

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Irfan Ali is a poet, essayist, writer, and educator. His short poetry collection, Who I Think About When I Think About You was shortlisted for the 2015 Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers. Accretion is his first full-length work. Irfan was born, raised, and still lives in Toronto.