The Legend of Zelda and the Fantasy Feeling: Do Video Games Have to Be Art?

On the 36th anniversary of the NES adventure game, The Legend of Zelda, I’m thinking about the fantasy adventure genre and why video games have a fighting edge over films when it comes to stories about a hero’s quest. It's the difference between watching the adventure and having it. The debate over whether games are “art,” however, is another kind of quest, one where proponents of one medium seek validation from the standards of another one. In a gaming industry increasingly defined by graphics and so-called “cinematics,” its status as art has become more vital to understand because the medium is caught right now between a desire to be profitable and a plea to be taken as seriously as the art of filmmaking. What I want to ask is not just whether video games are “art,” but why they have to be in order to be taken seriously. The Legend of Zelda taught me why the experience of video games is not above or below art but different from it completely. Recognizing its unique virtues is not a testament to "lower art" but an emotional acknowledgment of the only medium capable of recreating the feeling of the fantasy adventure in the hearts of those who play it.

In films, fantasy often faces a contradiction, as it desires the quaintest feelings of adventure and discovery while thriving on the most glamorous filmmaking technology to achieve them. Creating a fantasy world on film is often so difficult and costly that the pedigree stars and marketable action are all that justify it in the minds of producers. But games, particularly in the 80s, were not restrained by this contradiction. They didn’t have the equivalent of a famous actor or a trailer-ready set-piece to sell their unique experience. It’s why The Legend of Zelda despite its comparatively limited visuals contains more of the feeling of adventure specific to the literary tradition than a fantasy film (even those visuals encourage imagination as much as realistic ones stunt it). It’s not because filmmakers lack passion or strength or resources – their medium just lacks the place where the feeling can be found.

In the NES era, video games existed in an industry whose design standards had not been socially encoded yet. As a result, gamers didn’t always know what to expect from a game, which a savvy designer knew was both a blessing and an obstacle. The original manual for The Legend of Zelda may seem quaint now, but it demonstrates how different the game’s ideal player was from the average mindset that its designers expected to encounter. They knew that their first task was to create a game that could communicate to a Super Mario Bros. fan the shift in mentality required to succeed in The Legend of Zelda. The manual is filled with little invitations to this new mindset (“Link, the hero of The Legend of Zelda, does not yet exist … Look carefully. You never know … In order to show your credentials, you have to … Oh, I’m sorry! You have to find that out yourselves. Good luck!”).

This manual is really the start of the game's tutorial, which is a guide not just to the mechanics of the game but to its intended mentality. Tutorialization in games is a broad topic, broader than I can get into here. But suffice it to say that telling a player how they are expected to act in a game’s world, what they can do, and where they should go is a tough task, tough enough to be its own science. Nintendo is the master of this discipline in part because of The Legend of Zelda. In the case of this game, a tutorial for self-evident controls on a two-button controller was not needed so much as a tutorial for a feeling, the demeanor of the player that director Shigeru Miyamoto hoped would play the game, or else might emerge from them in the process of playing, like a peasant becoming a hero. It's an interactive fairytale.

To create this “tutorial,” Miyamoto used a simple situation and a single line of text. Dropped into a barren world, with monsters everywhere and no clear functions in your defense, the newly named player is drawn to a dark cave. In the cave, an old man says the fated words that are an interactive medium's equivalent of “Once upon a time" – “It’s dangerous to go alone, take this.” The act of hearing this and taking the sword is an act of heroic acceptance in the player’s heart, an act of free will that affirms the task unique to fantasy fiction of becoming a hero through adversity. It is the choice to endure hardship for the hope of victory or turn off the console and go home, turned into a moment of simple gameplay. That moment is the core of the whole video game experience and can be used to explain why the medium is not "art," as it is usually defined, as well as why it does not have to be.

Had the game begun with the protagonist already with the sword, as another game might do, or with a cut-scene that shows its acquirement without the player's input, The Legend of Zelda could not have endured in the minds of players as it has, and it would not be representative of its medium enough for a discussion like this. The old man’s statement offers several pieces of advice that tell the player how to act in this world: adversity is everywhere, you are going to be alone, but you might succeed if you find the right tools. It is in a single interactive moment the request to become better than you are, four feet high, with pudgy hands wrapped tightly around a controller. The game becomes a quest not just to beat the game but to feel as though you could conquer it, if you're brave enough. Not many kids were able to persist all the way to the ending, but even a single defeated boss was an unforgettable victory, in a huge and hostile world with everywhere to go and only wits, patience, and two buttons on your side. The game knew you would go into the cave and take the sword. But it gave you the choice so you could prove it to yourself.

So what does being interactive mean for the bigger question of whether video games are art? Roger Ebert once claimed that “in principle, video games cannot be art.” Others have counter-claimed that games are now progressing towards an art form from their rudimentary early days with the birth of the "art" game, as well as games increasingly labeled as "cinematic experiences." The question of whether a video game is art depends on a definition that does not exist, to which anyone could find a counter-example if it ever did. One common definition, for instance, is that art is anything created by someone to elicit an emotional response. But that leaves the door wide open for exceptions since it isn't based on any principle of a medium. If a man creates a Porta-Potty to elicit emotion and another man enjoys using it on an emotional level, have both of them created art? Yet if a painter creates a work for a gallery designed to elicit no emotion from the viewer, did he not create art? Any definition becomes a list of exemptions.

But it is useful in the case of video games to separate "art" from "play," to try and come to a practical definition, if not a complete one. Art is observed while play is experienced. Art has no end-state, but play does. Art viewers do not have agency over art, but players control the outcome of play. Art cannot enforce specific rules of engagement to control your response to it while games, by definition, must. In the context of that distinction, a video game "story,” whether told in a title screen or a series of movie-length “cinematic” cut scenes, cannot be art the moment the player regains control, regaining their agency. It becomes play, an experience unique to interactive mediums, including real life, which is just one big interactive medium. This is even implied in industry terminology, in the notion of a game "designer" or "developer," as though it is a piece of architecture or engineering, not a game "artist." From the perspective of this distinction, Roger Ebert was right – video games cannot be art, as it is usually defined (or ambiguously left undefined).

However, what I disagree with him about, and what discussions on the subject never make it around to clarifying, is the question of why this is a criticism against them. Why is "art" viewed as the high standard that video games have to be justified by attaining or criticized for failing? Why is it treated as a measure of quality, as though it could "become" art if it was good enough, rather than a classification for a different medium? No one would ever call climbing a tree with friends “art,” but that would also never be used as a way to criticize or devalue the experience, just as no one would ever say that you can “win” while observing a painting in a gallery.

Video games are uniquely endowed with the ability to translate the feeling of adventure into an experience, a feeling missing from fantasies in movies. The actual moment in literature when the hero takes the quest in their inexperienced hand and braves a scary world is something that a player can do, urged on by a knowing game designer who is part-architect, part-watchful parent. The swell of unexpected bravery and the fear of defeat and the buzz of triumph are sensations achievable by the player, not just observable. To gamers, the worlds that contain those sensations are as real as backyards, a distinction that the NES era did not try to live down to be more like the art on the movie screen – it exalted it.

Yet ironically, pretending to be a form of cinema now makes video games struggle to escape the definition of art because so many gamers argue for validation of a medium that does not need it. Video games do not need to justify their existence by claiming to be art. They also do not need to admit that they are “low art” or "entertainment" by suggesting that having fun is all that matters, as though the experience of playing a game is most justified when it is least investing. Since the NES era, game designers have been empowered by technology to translate stories to their screens in increasingly non-interactive ways. But this cannot change what games are. To the definition of the medium as art, this transition has been as helpful as a thick fog in a weary adventurer's path.

On the birthday of one of the most epic quests ever made, in defense of The Legend of Zelda and of the dream of adventure particular to video games, I have to agree with Ebert’s principle but disagree with his estimation. No, a video game is not art and no, better graphics, more cut-scenes, and more artistic pretension will not help. They will always be experiences, bound by roles, driven to end states, powered by play. But why should that be called a lesser thing for them to be, to aspire to be the best form of play they can, to deliver unforgettable emotional interactions to a realm of experience as distinct from art as a real swim in a shining sea is as different from seeing a Turner painting in a gallery? What people who argue for video gaming to be treated as art do not realize is that they are simultaneously arguing to revoke its status as the unique experience it aspires to be by design.

The act of asking the player to take on a quest takes the experience out of the hands of the designer and gives it to the emotions of that player. This turns video games into something other than art, by a feeling, if not by a definition. But this should never be interpreted as a criticism against the medium, or as a way to exalt an artform like cinema in comparison. No matter how highly films (and film critics) estimate the art of filmmaking, the video game experience will always have this moment, which turns 36 years old today, when children entered a dark cave to find purpose and were asked by a wise game designer to take the sword in their hand, face the dragons of a weary world, and save a princess, not because it would be the artistic thing to do, but just because they believed in it. That moment was not art. But it was also not a moment that a film, “on principle,” can ever have. And it's one I'll cherish forever.

Image is a screenshot from the game: ©Nintendo

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