Video game as Gesamtkunstwerk

Robin Sloan, in the first issue of his newsletter about making a video game:

Some days—not all, but some—I think video games must cerainly be the 21st-century version of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total work of art” that draws upon and integrates all other forms. For Wagner, ca. 1849, opera was the Gesamtkunstwerk.

There’s a lot in this whole formulation that’s questionable, but here I will just plainly confess that, for me, its allure is not. In video games, you get to deploy story and prose and graphic design and moving images and music—you get to “play all the keys on the keyboard.”

This is interesting to me because, without knowing the word Gesamtkunstwerk until today, it has long seemed to me that film has been vying for this label—even to the point of incorporating the technology of games. It’s theater + photography + music + etc. But Wikipedia’s entry for Gesamtkunstwerk doesn’t even mention film, only opera, architecture, and visual art.

Meanwhile, video games arguable go further even than film, adding software to the list of incorporated crafts/practices/affordances/arts. Maybe Sloan is right. (Even when he’s not 100% right, you might have noticed that I consistently find him interesting. The “Robin Sloan” tag overfloweth.)

One last blockquote to share from this same newsletter, this one about why it matters that he’s calling his video game a video game:

As you might know, I produce a lot of odd-shaped digital projects; this thread from a fictional social network (?!) is a good example. I truly love making these things, but/and I am often frustrated that the only “critical response” available is what I’ve come to think of as the “nod of approval.” I like nods, and I like approval—but I like real engagement even more. When you’re producing work in a genre that consists of… only that work… it’s a tall order to expect people to like, invent a whole new way of talking about things… just to talk about your thing.

Just by calling something a game, you give people the framework—the permission—to evaluate it. To compare it with other things. To recommend it!

You’ll see, as this project progresses, that it would have been perfectly reasonable to call it “an extremely enhanced e-book” or a “super-duper interactive digital story.” I struggled with this for a long time; I am now over it. This is a video game.

As someone interested in making odd-shaped digital objects, I find this is a compelling argument.

One thought on “Video game as Gesamtkunstwerk

  1. Why nobody ever mention interactivity? Certainly it’s not software what really distinguish videogames from movies, because nowadays is really common to produce animation movies using real time engines. The modeling, the coding and all the others “software arts” are all there. Still, I agree that videogames are more closer than movies to a “total work of art”, because of interactivity, which is by itself part of the aestethic experience. You don’t even have to look at videogames to find interactivity as a mean of artistic expression, because there are a lot of interactive art installments. And even games like chess have their own aestethic value. But in videogames you get to interact with a virtual/digital world, where you can use interactivity at its fullest because you don’t have to cope with the consequence or limitations of interactions in the real world.

    I also think that no art can be more close to a “total work of art” than videogames. With interactivity you closed the circle. Think about all the experiences that we can make in real life. Visual experiences, sounds, concepts, smell and taste (these are still missing in videogames). But interaction is also a fundamental aspect of everyday life. To communicate with other people, for example, is a form of interaction. Navigating an environment, taking care of basic needs, working and solving problems. Most of the time we do these out of necessity, witouth paying attention to the aesthetic values of these things. But in videogames you get to experience all this (or a representation of all this), and also you can have experiences that are not possible in real life, like navigating a non-euclidean space, or more in general navigating a (virtual) world that simulates different physic laws than the “real” ones. I strongly believe that, once the potentiality of this aspects will be fully recognized by the world of art, then we will be able to achieve work of arts that are really total in every sense (because there aren’t other dimensions to explore, once you implement interactive worlds that can be explored with all your senses: a perfect simulation of life).

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