On Wagner's conception, the union of the arts is a kind of civic republicanism. Each of the individual art forms attains its highest power by being incorporated into a common order, which subjects each of them to a higher principle and thus unifies them into a single aim. Dance, song and poetry only find their individual fulfillment when they are each bound into a single will: “It is in [the stage artist], the immediate executant, that the three sister-arts unite their forces in one collective operation, in which the highest faculty of each comes to its highest unfolding. By working in common, each one of them attains the power to be and do the very thing which, of her own and inmost essence, she longs to do and be.” Wagner's aesthetic rhetoric consciously evokes the political struggles that broke all across Europe the previous year, with the gesamtkunstwerk stepping onto the revolutionary stage as a model for political liberation: “This purpose of the Drama, is withal the only true artistic purpose that ever can be fully realised; whatsoever lies aloof from that, must necessarily lose itself in the sea of things indefinite, obscure, unfree. This purpose, however, the separate art-branch will never reach alone, but only all together; and therefore the most universal is at like time the only real, free, the only universally intelligible Art-work.”
Orchestral tonality plays a central role in this unification. Music's unparalleled capacity for emotional expressiveness enriches all the other performative elements, and makes it fit to serve as a lingua franca for the other arts: “the manifold developments of Tone, so peculiar to our instrumental music, unfold their utmost wealth within this Artwork; nay, Tone will incite the mimetic art of Dance to entirely new discoveries, and no less swell the breath of Poetry to unimagined fill... in the Orchestra, that pulsing body of many-coloured harmony, the personating individual Man is given, for his support, a stanchless elemental spring, at once artistic, natural, and human. The Orchestra is, so to speak, the loam of endless, universal Feeling.” In this sense, tonality is what unites the various arts because its emotional texture straddles the different senses. We say that different sounds are rough, cool, warm, elegiac, or foreboding, and when we talk this way we mean that these aural textures correspond to the feelings effected by other art forms like prose or painting. The effect verges on synaesthesia, in that the qualities of different senses bleed into each other. And so tonality provides the bridge between different visual and auditory media.
Naturally, Wagnerian opera is not the only art-form that can aim at the unification of the various plastic and performative arts. Music and graphics usually play an ornamental role in game design-- they're so many skins thrown over an indifferent frame of game-mechanics. And this is fine: not every game must to strive for concinnity, because the play's the thing. But I often think that the sought-after “art” in the is-games-art debate is the aesthetic unity we find in the total artwork.
The key point, it seems to me, is to recognize that gameplay has tonality. Just as music, a non-representational medium, can evoke certain moods and emotions, game mechanics can elicit emotional states.
One side of this tonality is tactile. We often say that controls feel crisp or mushy, and this is a way of describing the feel of the connection between your inputs and the ingame happenings. This is important too, but I mean to point to something more fundamental: the feeling of interacting with a world through a piece of molded plastic. Every game establishes a particular rhythm for what you're doing with your hands: mashing on buttons as fast as you can, steering your jumps with the sticks-- maybe waggling (if you're into that sort of thing).
Pixeljunk Eden doesn't require a flurry of buttonpresses to play well; the pace of your physical interaction with the game can be downright leisurely. The platforming in Prince of Persia has a unhurried but constant rhythm and flow. Controlling Mario in three-dimensional space is kinaesthetic perfection; the controls are perfectly pitched so as to communicate this distinctive feeling of lightness and momentum. In each of these games the gameplay exploits the kinetics of control and movement in order to impart a certain aesthetic feeling to the player.
The other side of this tonality is more psychological. The texture of your engagement with the game-world differs radically from one game to another. Different genres have different ratios of reflex action to problem solving to discovery to strategy. Most long-form action games modulate between periods of calm and periods of high tension, but other genres can be entirely tensionless. Some games require you to solve many small problems quickly (Tetris) and others one large problem slowly (Portal). The thoughtfulness, vigilance, or wonder that gameplay mechanics can inspire are key ingredients of gameplay tonality.
To my mind, games are at their best-- maybe, their most artful-- when they construct a synthesis of sound and vision around the texture created by the play. Of course, Mario provides a template for how this is done. Every part of a Super Mario Brothers title-- the gameplay, the music, the visual artistry-- conspires together and complements the others. And the net effect is that unmistakable sense of total fucking delightfulness.
But to me, the best contemporary example of this striving after holistic unity is Jonathan Mak's Everyday Shooter. It's not just that the music and graphics are brilliant, judged on their own terms. It's that these elements harmonize so perfectly with the gameplay. The levels of Everyday Shooter are structured such that the player's actions harmonize with the music and visuals. Each “track” presents a different set of enemy behaviors and a different chaining system, and these changes work in concert with the other elements to establish a distinct tone for every level. Some levels are frenzied and some are relatively serene; some require a lot of planning and others only demand quick reflexes. But in each case the art follows the mood established by the gameplay, and this is what makes it such an expressive and wonderful game.
The artistic program first glimpsed in games like Tetsuya Miziguchi's REZ is still young. But games like the recent PSN release Flower show the expressive possibilities that skilled designers can create through the aestheticization of gameplay. By uniting visual and musical art under the banner of gameplay, games can end their protracted tutelage to cinema and stand on their own. This is a worthy task for the art form of the future.