Some people believe that, when you die, you're expected to answer a difficult question about life before you're allowed to enter heaven. I'll tell you right now if I find myself in that final queue and an angel asks me, "Are games art?" I already have plans to turn around and throw myself into the filthy arms of Satan.
OK, that's hyperbolic. I do believe video games are an art form; I just hate being pulled into circular discussions about why they are or aren't. "Art" isn't something you can easily define or quantify.
The very same circular discussion recently flared up again when Andrew Allanson, the co-director of YIIK: A Postmodern RPG, went on the controversial The Dick Show podcast and declared games aren't art because players don't like intensely problematic characters who must gradually better themselves (Rockstar Games has 23 million copies of Red Dead Redemption 2 say otherwise, but OK).
Allanson's frustrations are tied to the generally "meh" reception his RPG received, and part of that reception is indeed tied to its unlikable main character, Alex. "Alex himself is this game's millennium bug, preventing the player from even rooting for their own actions, because they are all filtered through this deeply unlikable proxy," states Rock Paper Shotgun's review of YIIK.
This is an awful take. There are plenty of games that have really unlikable protagonists. The difference is they're well developed pic.twitter.com/tu9VxWAi65— Lardo On Break (@TheLordOfLard) April 20, 2019
I haven't played YIIK, but I've watched a playthrough. Though it doesn't strike me as a game I'd dig at all (Alex monologues endlessly, the battle system is ridiculously slow, and load times are agonizing), I'm comfortable calling it "art" despite Allanson's declaration that games are just toys. New works of art are inspired by previously-published works of art, and it's clear YIIK badly wants to be the next EarthBound. The evidence is all over YIIK's pastel, paranormal-infused world, and Allanson's admiration for EarthBound removes doubt.
A lot of indie RPGs want to be EarthBound, actually. Like YIIK, most of them fail to really nail down the heart and soul of Nintendo's classic 1995 RPG. It might be time for indie devs to stop treading in Ness' shadow. Or if they're committed to the idea of their game being "like EarthBound!!", they should at least step back, examine Onett from a distance, and regain an understanding for what makes EarthBound one of the most special RPGs ever made. Then they should develop anything other than a game about quirky people in a quirky world that's brimming with pop culture references.
While that sounds harsh, I honestly believe indie game developers ape EarthBound because they love it deeply, not because they want to pull in fans with a cynical cash-grab. In 1995, there wasn't anything else like EarthBound, and it's still a highly unique adventure. The west only came to know about Ness' journey because its dedicated fanbase wouldn't stop banging a gong until we finally all turned around and paid attention. Now the people who grew up revering EarthBound understandably want to "pay tribute" to it with their own games.
But where similar tributes to RPG series like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest wind up carving their own paths and telling their own tales, EarthBound-inspired games always seem to fall back into "wacky" tropes about modern-day misfits entangled in paranormal happenings. Then people get irritated, because EarthBound isn't just a game where you buy pizza instead of potions, or where stop signs and melting Dali clocks replace typical slime and dragon enemies.
Earlier, I said it's difficult to define or quantify art. I think it's hard to adequately explain what makes EarthBound a special game, but that hasn't stopped my sorry butt from trying. I think there are two reasons EarthBound's appeal hasn't deteriorated. First, its creator, Shigesato Itoi, drew a lot of inspiration from Stephen King's IT, a novel and movie about childlike innocence and wonder being used to great effect against Lovecraftian evils. Second, and more important, EarthBound is a game about kids saving the world with simple values and beliefs, even as adults succumb to fear and prejudice.
Sure, there are jokes. There are goofy enemies and silly weapons. But there are also moments where Ness' best ammunition against evil are his half-faded memories of his infanthood and the kindness of his young parents. The baseball bats and yo-yos are secondary. Unfortunately, EarthBound's heartfelt themes and lessons don't land when they're delivered by cynical college graduates who wield LPs as weapons and fill potentially thoughtful moments with wordy monologues. I'm not saying RPG developers shouldn't be inspired by EarthBound. I'm saying they should reflect on the reasons why EarthBound means so much to them (hint: It might be more than the shopping malls and hamburger shops), and then use that energy to make a game that's "like EarthBound" without "trying to be EarthBound."
I believe Undertale is a successful example of a game that clearly has EarthBound under its hood, but is much, much more than a checklist of Things That Should Be in an EarthBound Tribute. Everything that happens, all the characters you meet, all the enemies (and friends!) you fight, they're all clearly born from developer Toby Fox's gray matter. Undertale is its own game; EarthBound is just somewhere deep in the transmission. It's a vital part, but it's far from the only part. (Incidentally, YIIK's eerie soundtrack is the closest it gets to capturing EarthBound's spirit—and it was composed in part by Toby Fox.)
Again, I believe games are art, but I also believe they're an immature medium that will continue to improve as it grows. Maybe indie developers enthusiastically making "EarthBound clones" is something the industry will grow out of, and we'll see more RPGs that truly put their own fingerprint on Itoi's beloved work. Young artists, writers, and musicians all go through that "tribute" phase where they blindly make content that simply parrots the artists who inspire them, right?
Not me, of course. I totally don't have a binder full of stories that are all vomitus pastiches of S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders.