Video games are art

The statement "video games are art" has been hotly debated for at least the last seven years. In 2010, Roger Ebert (yes, film critic Roger Ebert) famously wrote a screed arguing that "video games can never be art".

Ebert believes "No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists... painters, composers, and so on."

Part of his essay was in response to a TEDX talk by game creator Kelly Santiago, who argues that video games should be considered art and uses examples of games like Flower, which was inducted into the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 2013.

Still from Flower via the Smithsonian American Art Museum

But are video games only art if they ∗extremely Indiana Jones voice∗ belong in a museum? Of course not! Art is for everybody.

Twine games provide a platform for people to make games who don't have game development companies behind them, may not be able to write a single line of code, but can still create beautiful, immersive, moving experiences that we can argue are worthy of comparison with works of art (sorry, Ebert).

The accessibility of these tools and the increased visibility of indie games on platforms such as itch.io have been huge for democratizing the art of video games for creators and players. Let's explore some titles, bask in the beauty of the genre, and maybe even find something to play next.

Twine after twine

Originally created by Chris Klimasin in 2009, Twine calls itself "an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories."

Much like the hypertext fiction that we explored authors on Twitter creating, Twine games use the technology of the browser (HTML, CSS, and JavaScript) and take advantage of the games' clickability to let the player work their way into and through the world they create.

Unlike earlier text-based games like MUDs, Twines can include illustrations, embedded videos, often have soundtracks, and are usually played solo. However, there are many (like Mighty Owlbear's The Road To Adventure) that draw on the language of these early games, using directions like "Go North. Go South." to explore.

They're games made by and for people who love games and are familiar with tropes from MUDs, RPGs, JRPGs, survival games, and visual novels, as well as pop cultural influences that aren't reflected often in games (such as Crystal Warrior Ke$ha, the story of an epic magical battle fought by the pop singer).

Screenshot from Crystal Warrior Ke$ha

Mechanics-wise, you are always clicking on hyperlinks to advance through the story. Sleep is used as a narrative device in many text-based games, which take place over the course of days or weeks, and you may have to return to a certain page to do this. Once you find whatever action, like sleeping or exploring, moves the story forward, it's tempting to race through these games, but you'll find that actions taken will often have an effect on the outcome of the story and that Twine stories almost always have multiple endings.

It's unclear if B.J. Best's Unofficial Sea-Monkey(R) Simulation was actually built on Twine, but it's a great example. It opens with the Don DeLillo quote: "All plots tend to move deathward," and uses a chronological mechanic of interacting with your sea monkey colony every day to tell a story of child in a less than ideal home situation, with eight possible endings.

The genre and contents of games on Twine are diverse, but more often than not they explore personal problems and themes that aren't touched upon in mainstream games, art, or literature. The authors of Twine games are generally people whose stories aren't told at all through traditional media; gender non-conforming artists, minorities, and people telling stories from a neurodivergent perspective. They also often have content warnings for themes like abuse, assault, self harm, and substance abuse.

Yes, of course I am sick of my dumb human body

One of the most well-known games created with Twine is Zoë Quinn's "Depression Quest." The game illustrates the struggle of performing everyday tasks with depression and "aims to show other sufferers of depression that they are not alone in their feelings, and to illustrate to people who may not understand the illness the depths of what it can do to people." It's one of the most well-known examples in the genre of empathy games, which let you embody someone else's experience through the gameplay.

In the realm of indie games, the authors are often acknowledging their struggles with their own bodies and minds, and how they've used others' games and outlets in art and media to cope. In SABBAT: DIRECTOR'S KVT, developer ohnoproblems' extended version of the game SABBAT, they ask straight up:

"have you ever gotten sick of your dumb human body and depressing future prospects? why not play through a twine story in which you can coat your body in charged animal essences and enact satanic rituals to gain weird demonic body parts and terrible power?"

The answer to which is Yes, of course I am sick of my dumb human body, and virtually amassing demonic power through Satanic rituals sounds like a very fun way to spend an evening.

As you may have guessed by now, there are also many games that cater to more unusual sexual proclivities. A popular vore-themed game, Devour Comfort, is about resting inside the belly of a dragon. In the disclaimer on itch.io, they state:

"This is a SOFT VORE game - no teeth, no biting, no blood, no messiness, and no digestion. Much like Jonah inside the whale, should you succeed, you'll eventually just be spit right back out - in an entirely non-gross fashion, I promise."

Of course being eaten alive isn't what gets most people's gears going, but it's really cool that there are people creating media for people who it does!

It's also a great genre of games for people like us here at MONTAG, who want to think way too much about technology and the future. Cyberpunks, start your engines:

Heartscapes and Quick Faves

These are all games from just a few of our favorite creators that have to do with technology, humanity, and the future of both.

Porpentine Charity Heartscape is one of my favorite visual artists and game creators. These two Porpentine stories told through only text, colored links, and blocks of gradient color with ambient soundtracks are a testament to how complete her world-building is and how immersive a game told only through the browser can be.

Screenshots from With Those We Love Alive

With Those We Love Alive tells the story of an artificer brought into the court of a cruel empress (mine wears majestic ram horns, a mantle of flesh rags, her eyes burning with cold fire) and the arrival of someone you thought you would never see again. Themes include fantasy, magical artifacts, denial, identity, trauma, and loyalty.

Screenshot from Vesp

Vesp: A History of Sapphic Scaphism is a "vespo-sapphic pesticidepunk UV romance thriller." In a cyberpunk dystopia overrun with deadly, venomous wasps, the protagonist struggles in therapy sessions with the overwhelming desire to identify with and become one with this threat to civilization. She aids a terrorist attack against the city in the wasps' favor which throws it into pesticide-drenched chaos, ushering in the age of insects. Themes include society, monstrosity, gender, madness, death, contagion, eroticism, devotion, transaction, empathy and hallucination.

Screenshot from Queered Static

Queered Static by @RiotJayne is a beautiful mashup of found glitch art and a narrative about trans issues and anxiety ("with a little trans erotica thrown in for good measure.") It's very much NSFW, but if you enjoy queer stories and net aesthetics it's a quick must-play.

Screenshot from ARC

ARC is a black and green pure text story about being a cyborg and doing some crime:

"The Minos job was supposed to be easy money, especially for someone with your skills and cybernetic hardware. So naturally, the mission was an ambush, your boss might be out to screw you, and a hacker you've never even met is in your head. But you're going to need her help to get through this."

If you haven't had enough of Better Bodies and thinking about all the cool things we could do with networked eyes and super robot legs, you'll love it.

Screenshot from Recipe for Love

The last recommended game is called Recipe for Love, in which a robot has rented you (hello, gig economy!) to teach it what love is. The illustrations are unsettlingly adorable, it's super short and SFW.

These are just a few of our faves, and you can find hundreds more Twine games for any identity, interest, or fetish on itch.io. If you have any game recommendations, interesting Twines, or just want to shout about whether videos games are art or not, email us at montag@getgrover.com.

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