In the Eye of the Beholder: Hollow Knight and the exploration of Joseph Anderson

Video games are considered the domain of a very particular type of people, and those people are often not the same ones who create or curate more traditional arts. However, the ways in which traditional arts are understood still provide a framework through which the huge variety of video games can be understood. Not only is game critic Joseph Anderson seemingly aware of some of these traditions he actively considers what makes a game beautiful and arguably a work of art: it isn’t about having a particular type of game play but rather is about how the game impacts the player. Hollow Knight is a game that is in many ways an aesthetic experience that just happens to also include the elements of a Metroidvania game, where the player is forced to build the story by interpreting a decaying land. These are the types of issues that are vital to traditional fine art studies and Anderson is able to address these considerations without stepping away from his own genre of game critic.

Online coverage of video games often includes a lot of shouting and truly terrible audio, but Joseph Anderson is a critic whose videos are always calm, well organized and rational. He makes the videos that I think art people would want to watch because he goes into them prepared to have an educated discussion without assuming the person watching has experienced the works that he is talking about. In fact, this is a part of Anderson’s work that I think both the world of video game criticism and art criticism could learn a lot from since his videos are accessible without feeling overly contrived. His YouTube channel is worth watching for that educational value alone, but he also has an impressive way of handling some of the important questions around the overlap of video games and art.

Hollow Knight is part of a clear genre that has emerged in recent years as nostalgia for early gaming – the Metroidvania genre. However, this is not the angle through which Anderson approaches the game, rather he debates whether the flaws of Hollow Knight as a game are actually assets to Hollow Knight as an art. He is still working within the conventions of game review and criticism (he discusses the fact that the game is spectacular value for money purely based on length and challenge) but much of this feeds back into a consideration of what it means for a video game to be an art. Among the factors that play into this conversation is that this is a game produced by a very small team of developers. It doesn’t have the large commercialist tone that often sterilizes the games produced by major developers. Anderson connects these elements to the aesthetic quality of Hollow Knight and the kind of mental energy that exploring its world requires – the player is shaping the art that they experience. It is not dissimilar to how art theory considers the reciprocal looking process that creates meaning through the idea of ‘the gaze’. In the end it is about how the art object and the viewer collaborate to make meaning – something that is evident in games like Hollow Knight where the viewer must build a narrative of a fallen city largely on their own. These are elements that would make the game ‘good’ for anyone who decided to pick it up, but Anderson is able to draw together the elements into a true discussion of the piece as an art.

Ultimately what makes Joseph Anderson unique, and interesting to listen to even for a non-gamer is his abilities to work within the conventions of game review while moving beyond the kinds of questions that are normally the focus of this kind of writing. It is his brand of thoughtful critique that might help to build the recognition of video game projects as fine art. Because in reality the discourse that surrounds art objects is often what defines them as art. Anderson even begins to put forward some of the questions that will become important when (or if) interactive media become a part of the art world: How do you display a video game in a museum? How would these kinds of works integrate with art history courses?

If art is about aesthetic experiences or about implicating the viewer in the making of meaning than video games certainly have the means to do so. Joseph Anderson makes wonderful defenses of these games as art in his videos while remaining firmly in line with the video game community while also steering viewers towards important questions about what will happen when the video game as art becomes more widely recognized.  These are not questions with easy answers but they are ones that I think will become increasingly relevant as video games continue to ask valuable and challenging questions of the people who play them.