Can Video Games Be Art?

Roger Ebert says no, but Jonathan Coulton weighs in on the power of some games to move you.
  • Transcript


Question: What did your song about "Portal" mean to you as a video games fan? 

Jonathan Coulton: I was very proud to work on "Portal." I had been a fan of the company Valve for some time. I had played their games before. So when they asked me if I'd be interested in writing music for them, I said absolutely, without hesitation. And I played an early version of that game and like the rest of the Internet, I had seen the teaser trailer for it and so I was excited about it, and I knew it was going to be cool. And then when we came up with this idea to have one of the characters sing a song, at the end, basically put a musical theater number in the game. It seemed fun and awesome, but also like maybe it wasn't such a good idea and it wasn't going to work out. But when we were finished, we were all kind of happy with the results. But we didn't know how people were going to respond to it and of course everybody just went crazy, which was extremely gratifying. For me, I grew up playing video games, and there's that thing that happens at the end of the game. In particular, a game that has a long story arc to it or a kind of quest to it. You get to the end and you're a little sad, you know, because you've been existing in this world and you've been participating in this story and then suddenly it's over. And you know that there's no new that thing anymore. You're done with new that thing and so I took inspiration from that. The parade of all the characters at the end of Super Mario brothers, it's a celebratory moment too, but there's also a little bit of sadness, when you sort of sit back and watch the credits because damn it, you've earned it. 

So I wanted it to be like that. It's funny, my daughter and I, my daughter who's five, we just played a game called “A Boy and His Blob,” which is a long platforming game where you have a friend who's a blob of stuff and if you feed him certain jelly beans, he'll turn in to different tools that you can use to solve puzzles. And so she and I played that together and for weeks and weeks, I watched her figure out how to play a video game, which was awesome. And then, at the end, we killed the last bad guy and the credits started to roll and she started to cry. And I was like, oh I know, I know exactly how you feel because that's what it is at the end of the game. So, I'm of course pretty pleased with how Portal turned out and how it was received and I still think it's a terrific game, even leaving aside the song, it's just such a brilliantly drawn character that you get to know in GlaDOS throughout the game and you come to really love her and understand her by the end, even though she's trying to kill you. And I think that's a remarkable achievement in any medium. 

Question: Do you think video games can be an art form? 

Jonathan Coulton: I do. Roger Ebert actually wrote a blog post recently where he declared his opinion, which is that video games can never be art. And immediately there were thousands and thousands of comments from people disagreeing with him. And I won't get into the details of his argument, I think we just have a fundamental disagreement about semantics, which immediately makes it a really complicated issue to discuss. But, yes, I certainly think that video games are a young medium and only recently have we been able to have the kind of video and audio experiences that are strong enough to really carry a story and create a vision and all that stuff. 

Although, that said, I think the trend of art games is really interesting, games that are playable but not really winnable; they are experiences and they are artworks. There's a game called Passage, that is really just a sort of metaphor for going through life and making choices and ultimately dying and it's really very powerful. It takes a few minutes to play. It's not a very interesting game to play and then at the end of it, it moves you. And you know if that's not art, I don't know what is. 

Question: Will there be a sequel to “Portal?” 

Jonathan Coulton: I have not started working on it yet, but yes, I have had some discussions with Valve about writing music for "Portal II" and it does look like it's going to happen. I don't think I'm allowed to talk about any details but I have seen some demo stuff of the new game and there's a lot of cool stuff in it and you know I'm really pleased to be dipping back into that universe again. I think the game is going to be fantastic. I am also terrified about that because it's, I don't think there's any way we can follow up on the success of "Portal I." But, we'll do our best.

Recorded on May 6, 2010