A couple of years ago, video game designer Kellee Santiago and film critic Roger Ebert got into an online debate over whether video games qualify as art. Ebert, a naysayer when it comes to the subject, watched a TED talk that Santiago gave at the University of Southern California in March 2009. In it, Santiago declared that video games are art, and Ebert dug his heels in further, poking what he saw as holes in the designer’s argument. In her defense, Santiago noted Ebert’s inexperience with gaming and wrote, “It’s good for dinner party discussion and entertaining as an intellectual exercise, but it’s just not a serious debate anymore.”
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Santiago, the co-founder and president of thatgamecompany, a Los Angeles-based studio that develops experimental games, even challenged Ebert to give Flower, one of her games, a try. Santiago sent Ebert a PlayStation 3 and a copy of the game, but there has been no word on whether he has played it. Flower, released in 2009, is featured in “The Art of Video Games,” a highly anticipated exhibition about gaming’s 40-year history, which opens at the Smithsonian American Art Museum on March 16.
Here, Santiago, provides her picks for five groundbreaking video games that show the evolution of the art form.
Infocom, a now defunct software company founded by MIT staff and students in 1979, was the mastermind behind Zork. The computer game came on a floppy disk and involved a player venturing into an underground world in pursuit of treasures. There were no graphics or sounds, just green text on a black background that provided narrative. The player would type in commands, such as “go west” or “open door,” to navigate the situation. “Turn on lamp” was an important one. Hungry monsters called “grues” lurked in the dark—but they retreated from light.
Zork was included in Call of Duty: Black Ops (2010) as an “Easter egg,” or hidden feature. From the main menu, the avatar, cuffed to a chair, can break free and locate an old computer running on DOS. Typing the word “Zork” brings you to the much-loved game.
From Santiago: Although there are probably a number of "top" multiuser dungeon, interactive fiction games that my esteemed colleagues in the games industry would list here, Zork was the one I grew up with. To me, it sums up the first age of digital games and what they could provide. Completely text-based, the graphics lay in the infinite imaginations of the players, making the world appear vast and magnificent. There was a real sense of place, of possibility, and the experience of playing it on a computer was completely unique.
Super Mario Bros. (1985)
Who can forget Super Mario Bros.? Nintendo’s spinoff to its 1983 game Mario Bros. stars Mario, a plumber, and his brother, Luigi, in a quest to save Princess Toadstool from the evil Bowser, a spiky-looking turtle. The game helped to popularize the side-scrolling format, in which characters were seen in profile traveling from the left side of the screen to the right. Collecting coins and mushrooms help Mario and Luigi progress through multiple worlds. Super Mario Bros. reigned supreme as the best-selling video game until Wii Sports ousted it from that position in 2009.
From Santiago: This is the first game where I remember thinking, "Oh my goodness. You can control cartoons on the TV?!?" Looking back, it seems almost ridiculous, but the team at Nintendo extracted so much personality out of those pixels. Like early cartoonists before them, they showed that we didn't need to wait for the invention of complex technologies to make emotionally compelling characters and memorable scenarios.