Video Games as Art: A Conversation with Artist Ross Boone

Ross does a clever thing with his artist name. His pen name is “Raw Spoon.” It’s a nice little pronunciation tweak on his real name. The kind of thing that makes people tilt their head and go, “Oh wow, I see what he did there.” I know this because I bring him up to as many people as I can and I’ve seen this exact reaction dozens of times.

That’s also the reaction that his art tends to illicit, various versions of “Oh I see what he did there!” His pieces are occasionally subversive and almost always bubbling with significance below the surface.

Ross (or Raw) is not a natural gamer, thus he let me pick the game he played before this interview and I naturally needed to pick a game with similar tilts to his art; messages just below the surface, brimming with outward beauty. The natural choice was Old Man’s Journey.

Old Man’s Journey

Released by developer Broken Rules, Old Man’s Journey is a two hour puzzle/adventure game featuring emotional gut punches that hit harder than a Kratos axe throw. We kept our conversation spoiler free, but if you haven’t played it, you must.

I’ll let you web surf to see the myriad of awards that people have lined up to throw at this title. Just like my friends art, Old Many’s Journey has people tilting their heads. People have clearly “seen what they did there.”

For the question “are video game art?” I wanted someone who’s had their hands in a lot of artistic pots. Ross fits that perfectly. As a sort of artistic journeyman Ross has done things like written a novel and then turn around and animate a music video for a band. He once created a little group of friendly looking monsters and turned them into an interactive sticker sheet and hid them all over Atlanta. There isn’t any type of art that he won’t at least consider, a mindset rare in a world where people become wildly loyal to their “thing” and wildly vicious to anything that isn’t their “thing.”

Did I tip the scale in my favor by specifically choosing an artist with a wide reaching definition of what “art” is? Yes. But he’s always worth talking to and we hit some points I would have never expected.

So I know you played Old Man’s Journey basically at our request (thank you for that by the way) Was that your first interaction with gaming in a while?

Thanks Nathan! I’m really excited and flattered to be interviewed! I’ve enjoyed the Splash Damage podcast, even as someone who usually has very little interest in gaming. And to answer your question, Yes! I am an artist and writer and I have long felt the purpose of my life is to create. So it has been hard for me to justify spending time playing video games when I could be producing art. But I really like you [guys] and I know how passionate you guys are about gaming. So when you told me about a game that was stunning visually and had a heartbreaking story, I thought it was worth jumping into your world. I’m glad I did!

Old Man’s Journey breaks your heart slowly, but it also knows how to put it back together.

Haha. When picking a game for you we specifically looked for something that would appeal to an artist, and Old Man’s Journey checks all the boxes for that. Did you find any inspiration from the experience? Lots of people love just listening to the soundtrack. 

The music was beautiful and the storytelling was powerful, but the visuals inspired me to make this piece of art. I guess let’s call it fan art so I don’t get sued. Ha! The tall and narrow one is the original, but I also made a format to be used as a phone background. Anyone can use it!

Wow! Was not expecting that at all! Thank you! (Art can be found at end of this article) 
So let’s get down to it. In 2010 Roger Ebert famously mentioned that video games cannot be art. His reasoning was essentially that a gamer is actively part of what’s happening (the gameplay) so therefore the gamer doesn’t have anything to critique because they themselves are part of the experience, molding and making the game into something new. So whenever I talk with an actual real-life artist I always like to ask; How do you define art? That determines so much of how we proceed. 

To answer your question I just googled the definition and asked if Old Man’s Journey applied. Here’s what Google kicks out: “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” I think Old Man’s Journey is applied creative skill for the purpose of beauty and causing emotion. Well, I assume the creators had this in mind, so I’d say ‘yes, I think it is art.’

But I think the deeper question would be, “What is the response you are trying to evoke, and why?” I, personally, think that unless art is meant to motivate us to act or think in a new way, it is no more than wallpaper. No more than a pleasing aesthetic to make your space more comfortable and to make the artist money, or praise for his skill. Yay, you’re good at art. The critics will praise you if you innovate and have mastery and stuff. And bringing beauty to the world is a skill worth being paid for. So it’s no worse or better than the person who makes a hamburger, or a software engineer who makes an app. But, I think if art is not being used to motivate us to act or think differently, its full potential is not being accessed. Good novels will make you look at the world differently. See yourself and others differently. See God differently. Visual art, music, plays, and movies can do the same. I think, out of the whole society, it is most important that artists and politicians are philosophers and ethicists. This is because the job of politicians and governors are meant to set the proper guard rails to keep society functioning as a whole. And artists hold the job of casting a vision of a life worth pursuing. So, yes. Old Man’s Journey is art, by the definition. But did it motivate you to think or act differently. I think it did. Through its heartbreaking story, and beautiful settings, it reminded me to cherish the world and people I love better. And that is a worthy purpose for art.

Old Man’s Journey deals with tough subject matter, in a very stress-free way

It’s so interesting that your definition of art has an aspect of intellectual challenge to it. I can’t disagree with that. People in a gallery will stand in front of the same painting for a half hour for that exact reason. Speaking of challenge, a lot of people have a problem calling video games art because there’s a level of skill involved. I’m unable to see the full artistic expression of the game unless I can prove I have the skill to overcome the challenges the game presents me. When you’re illustrating or writing do you actively ask yourself “How is this piece going to challenge people?” 

I often do, even though for each piece it may be asked in different terms. Some of my pieces are meant to add beauty to a struggle. Or perhaps to tie two unrelated concepts together in a way to reveal new meaning. Sometimes I will reference famous art pieces and do a new take on them to try and reveal a new insight using them. So, yes! I am challenging the viewer to step up their game. I’m thinking, there is more in this piece of art, more that I want to impart to you, if you choose to engage it. Although I have to admit that sometimes, especially in my older work which I stumbled upon again last night, I just make some things because they look, clever, funny, trendy, or cool. Like a duck with a crown on. That was one I found last night. No deeper meaning to that.

Haha! I feel like they’ve always seen themselves as kings and queens of the avian world, even with the Bald Eagle in the mix. I know that’s a joke but it points to the fact that messages can be pulled from art, even messages the artist didn’t intend.  With Old Man’s Journey we’re given the regrets of the old man but see them in a very calm serene package of visual arts. It lets the player get at the meat of difficult topics without being overly stressful. I just read that the Japanese gaming community has Old Man’s Journey listed as a “healing game” which surprised the makers over at Broken Rules studios. Another example of a message in art that an artist didn’t intend. I also just have to say; I’ve seen a few of your creature characters and some of them would make excellent game content, any possibilities there?

Ha who knows! I haven’t thought about that yet! I don’t have the skills, but it could definitely open up some new avenues of communicating the points my art is trying to relay! I have some thoughts on the art being interpreted as something the artist didn’t intend. I know some artists are emphatic that they do not explain the art, and that it is strictly for the audience to interpret. They may have their reasons, but that seems like a cop-out to me. I know that images will insight different connotations for each person, but again, I feel that art, being used at its utmost capacity is meant to communicate a message from artist to viewer. I encourage conversation, and alternate nuances or applications of the meaning, but my goal for creating it would be lost, and the power in it used against me, if the viewer came to a conclusion that was opposite the one I intended.
Regret at not appreciating moments in the past: A main theme of Old Man’s Journey
So artists should be open to different messages being pulled from their work, but should also be able to communicate what they believe the message to be? 
Yes, that is what I think should happen when art is used like it has the capacity to be used. And I’d emphasize that there are a range of interpretations that I would be happy for viewers to come to, but there are some conclusions that I would not be happy with. So I think the interpretation can be many things, but if someone interpreted my piece to actually be something in contradiction to my intended meaning, I would consider my work to have failed at that purpose! But remember, I think most artists don’t intend to use art to its full capacity, so they cannot be held to these standards. Like my crowned duck! That was definitely not using art at it’s full capacity for changing minds, minds, and behaviors.
So there’s art, (like a duck with a crown) and then there’s art (like your books, or Old Man’s Journey) that makes you feel challenged and somehow more awake. I think we might need a new word for the second one. Artspiration or something like that? Can you give us any hints on the new artspirations you’re working on? 
Haha yes! Artspiration! I like how it sounds like we are giving people Aspirations (Things to aspire to, but not the other definition which means blocking peoples airways ha). Yes, I’d love to share what I’m working on! I’ve been working on a novel series for 20 years. The first book tries to answer the question ‘why would a good God create a suffering world?’ I’m working through edits suggested by my editor. You’ve read some of my work on this series!
I also have ideas written down for a short story of what I think heaven would look like. It would involve people each passionately working at what the love doing and are built to do, and waiting on bated breath for the next time the king will appear among them. With this I aim to tap one of the great powers of art: to cast a vision so beautiful and contagious that it actually changes our desires. And when our desires are changed, our beliefs and behavior reflects that. This is a small way I hope to help people, and touch the world. By giving them aspirations through artspirations. 🙂
Screenshot credit for this article goes to our co-host John Lipari. 
Below is the Old Man’s Journey fan-art piece that Ross has gifted us with. It’s in a savable version and intended for phone wallpapers, do enjoy.
Nathan is an assassin of the creed and co-host of the Splash Damage Bros Podcast.  


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