The Last of Us
Lead protagonists Ellie and Joel in The Last of Us can be held up alongside characters from any book or film in terms of depth and development - does this make the game a work of art?Sony

To make a movie you need a camera. To record music you need a microphone. To write a novel you need a pen. And to make video games you need a computer.

Like any other art, entertainment, media – whatever term you like to use – video games are products of technology.

The Jazz Singer couldn't have existed without either the motion picture camera or the Vitaphone. Likewise, Grand Theft Auto V and The Last of Us wouldn't have worked on the Master System or original PlayStation.

As evocative, moving, or artistic, in the magical sense, you might consider these games, it took tangible advances in hardware to make them happen.

So games, like most if not all media and expression, need technology in order to exist. But video games themselves are not technology, and that's an important distinction.

In a consumer-driven culture, where big money both goes in and comes out of games, I understand why getting everything just as the audience wants it is important.

"We've listened to the fans" is a phrase you'll often hear from video game designers – the importance of 1080p resolution, 60 frames per second and multiplayer balancing cannot, as far as some game companies are concerned, be overstated.

And sometimes it's understandable. If you're producing a fighting game, or some big online thing that's perhaps more akin to sport or service, making it work flawlessly and exactly as your users desire is vital, since it's their repeat business on which you rely.

Journey PS3
Journey, released exclusively for and maximising the power of the PlayStation 3, is widely considered a masterpiece of video game craft, pairing two random online players with no means of communication other than the shared introspective experience of the gameplay - but is it art?ThatGameCompany

Technological sensibilities

But then you get something like Mass Effect 3, an ostensible novel of a game, having its ending changed because players were dissatisfied. You have a disclaimer at the start of Hotline Miami 2, warning players of upcoming sexual imagery and giving them the option to disable it. You have the pop-up in Modern Warfare 2, asking players if they'd like to skip the violent, disturbing "No Russian" level.

These are technological sensibilities encroaching on expression.

In the same way you might decline the CD player option in a new car, or only purchase a smartphone that carried X amount of storage, video games, though they often purport to be either entertainment or art, are designed like consumer electronics.

It's an idealistic, cavalier metric, especially considering the aforementioned giant budgets behind mainstream games, but as soon as you worry what your audience might think about what you're expressing, you forfeit the right to call it art.

Technology and video games are extremely close bedfellows, but designing something around the "user experience" or with technical proficiency as an end goal, is anti-art. Anything created to appease or appeal to a consumer base is inherently safe.

Any game, like Mass Effect, Hotline Miami or Call of Duty, where risqué subject matter can be disabled like a camera's auto-focus setting, is dragging down the principles of narrative, auteurism, even entertainment.

In the name of good financial sense and oftentimes job security for the people at your studio, there is a technical benchmark that you have to reach. Throwing together something glitchy and busted, then claiming it is liberated from the confines of traditional video game making is a cop-out.

But again, there's a distinction to be made, between a technically-capable game and a game created wholesale around the principles of technology design.

Assassin's Creed Unity
Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed Unity was to be a flagship title on the relatively new PS4 and Xbox One consoles, and visually it was quite impressive - when it wasn't glitching in nightmarish ways. It certainly left a stain on the psyche of gamers - does this make it art?Ubisoft

Sand the corners

By all means, work whatever hardware you're on to death – up the frame rate, sand the corners, kill the bugs. But it's unwise and counter-intuitive, surely, to apply that process of cleaning and smoothing over to loftier aspects like story, representation and politics.

Video games are technological artefacts insofar as they emanate from other technology, and require a large amount of technical knowledge to be made functional, in the computational sense. But increasingly they're predominated by theatre, drama, human interest and visual art, all of which should not be subject to the same creative principles as consumer electronics.

Like the instruments used to write a song or the type of celluloid inserted into a film camera, technology will always have a bearing on how a video game looks, sounds and is experienced – games will forever move in the same circles as hardware and software.

But games as a service - as predictable as new models of smartphone - is a depressing paradigm.

And if our beloved interactive medium is to ever be considered – or consider itself – artwork, the importance of giving people what they want and keeping up with prevailing standards needs to be talked down.