“The Art World” is a clumsy, indistinct turn of phrase that is much lamented and often criticized or lampooned for its overuse, but it has its purposes. We hear “the art world” and tend to roll our eyes sometimes, but it does imply the sites of art production, and related commerce, display and academic reflection that are tightly networked together, arguably increasingly global and homogenous, in our current situation. Simultaneously, as games are getting more sophisticated (technologically at least) the rhetoric surrounding their value as an experience has shifted from linear-yet-interactive narrative to microcosmic worlds for the player to explore. Whether or not games being produced are living up to this hype and are really that different is another discussion, but if we run with the assumption that games are or at least attempt to represent their own worlds, then, like little conceptual nesting dolls, wouldn’t each game world have it’s own art world inside when you pop it open?
Some games do. And even if they’re simplified copies of styles and systems existing in our “Art World,” as a person who loves both games and art history, I can’t help but notice. One of the long-term goals I become most feverishly obsessed with in the already highly-addictive Animal Crossing series is filling up the art gallery in my town. Unlike objects like furniture, clothes, and natural items, art can’t be found lying around or in the town’s main shops. Instead, you have to cut a deal with a shifty art salesman who drifts into town every week or so.
It takes a sharp eye (or in earlier games, pure luck) to be able to figure out which art objects to buy. The museum only accepts the “real” work of art, after all, and not “forgeries.” However, this leads to a pretty significant amount of dissonance when you discover that your character can encounter several of the “real” paintings and sculptures, as well as many fakes. Essentially, I can have Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in my house, give it as a present to a neighbor, AND donate one to the museum, and they’re all considered the real thing. It’s enough to make believers in aura and originality weep.
The Animal Crossing art market essentially deals in low-res and low-poly recreations of artworks that are cornerstones of our Art World’s construction of Art History. Even though Animal Crossing’s game world is one of talking animals, their art world is just a kind of strange, received echo of ours. The world of Animal Crossing doesn’t attempt to simulate reality, but it also doesn’t separate itself completely from our world. This leads to some fairly awkward dialogues and interactions, of which the process of collecting and displaying art is only one.
The neat indie horror title Ib takes a different approach. You control Ib, a little girl who is visiting an art gallery with her parents. When she wanders off, the gallery suddenly empties and the art begins to come to life. She has to solve puzzles and avoid the particularly vicious paintings and sculptures to set things back to normal.
The game is generally well received for its fantastically creepy atmosphere and interesting story, but it also builds up a fairly elaborate catalog of work around Guertena, the artist who created the sculptures and paintings that come to life. His output references the gamut of Modernism, from Surrealist paintings and huge, Abstract Expressionist canvases, to colorful sculptural installations that look like works Jeff Koons would reject for not quite being banal enough. Even though Ib‘s portrayal of an art gallery and artistic styles is somewhat received from our art world, the game does take a step that most don’t, to create an artist within the world rather than just populating it with copies from our own.
Maybe it’s the bias that comes from studying art history for… going on six years now (wow!) but I often find myself wishing for more games like Ib, or ones that go even further. Games that create their own art histories as frequently as they create their own lore and magic systems. In many cases, art is simply used as something to populate a space, to make an area feel more real. It’s rare that they can be interacted with or effect the player experience in any meaningful way. A potentially interesting exception, coming soon as it has just been greenlit on the Steam platform, is Painter’s Guild, a simulation of the Italian Renaissance in which you can change the careers and destinies of several famous artists based on how well (or poorly) you manage their studios.
And, of course, maybe there’s more to these pixelated reflections of our own art world that appear in game worlds than just serving as furniture or decor. John Gourley’s current project on the digital art site Manifesto-ish, The Video Game Art Museum, moves paintings that are often just a generic feature in the backdrop of video games into an online 3d gallery environment that encourages visitors to peruse them with the same care they would in any other gallery. He also keeps a running archive of more video game art (I guess the appropriate metapor here would be ‘works in storage’) on Tumblr.
Gourley’s work reconsiders the varied roles art plays within video game worlds, and how our “real-life” concepts of art history and the art world subtly shape fictional worlds. I hope this sort of examination leads to closer attention to what kind of art makes it into these games, and what sort of art history it represents. Likewise, there is obviously rich, untapped potential for game makers to put more thought into this aspect of their game world.