Can Video Games Be Art?


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

Jonathan Coulton:\r\n I was very proud to work on "Portal." I had been a fan of the company \r\nValve for some time. I had played their games before. So when they asked\r\n me if I'd be interested in writing music for them, I said absolutely, \r\nwithout hesitation. And I played an early version of that game and like \r\nthe rest of the Internet, I had seen the teaser trailer for it and so I \r\nwas excited about it, and I knew it was going to be cool. And then when \r\nwe came up with this idea to have one of the characters sing a song, at \r\nthe end, basically put a musical theater number in the game. It seemed \r\nfun and awesome, but also like maybe it wasn't such a good idea and it \r\nwasn't going to work out. But when we were finished, we were all kind of\r\n happy with the results. But we didn't know how people were going to \r\nrespond to it and of course everybody just went crazy, which was \r\nextremely gratifying. For me, I grew up playing video games, and there's\r\n that thing that happens at the end of the game. In particular, a game \r\nthat has a long story arc to it or a kind of quest to it. You get to the\r\n end and you're a little sad, you know, because you've been existing in \r\nthis world and you've been participating in this story and then suddenly\r\n it's over. And you know that there's no new that thing anymore. You're \r\ndone with new that thing and so I took inspiration from that. The parade\r\n of all the characters at the end of Super Mario brothers, it's a \r\ncelebratory moment too, but there's also a little bit of sadness, when \r\nyou sort of sit back and watch the credits because damn it, you've \r\nearned it. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recorded on May 6, 2010

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

Related Articles

How does alcohol affect your brain?

Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.

(Photo by Angie Garrett/Wikimedia Commons)
Mind & Brain
  • Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
  • Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
  • Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists sequence the genome of this threatened species

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.

Surprising Science
  • A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
  • It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
  • Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.

Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.

elephant by Guillaume le Clerc

Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons

13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.

It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.

But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.

John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."

What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.

Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.

Why cauliflower is perfect for the keto diet

The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.

Purple cauliflower. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Surprising Science
  • The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
  • The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
  • It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
Keep reading Show less