Art games are definitely a niche market among videogames. That’s not to say that games can’t be artistic: for all of Roger Ebert’s bellyaching, even the Smithsonian recognizes that games are, if not art, at least capable of having artistic elements. And truthfully, one would have to have to be fairly obstinate to fail to recognize that many games are kinda purty. If Thomas Kinkade can be called an artist (with all due apologies to those with any semblance of taste), we can give Skyrim a pass, can we not?
When we start tossing about the phrase “art game”, however, we find ourselves in a different world, a world in which something other than gameplay is on center stage. While the above example of Skyrim may be a beautiful game with lots of opportunity for exploration of its many environments, it is still at its heart a traditional computer role playing game. It is centered around generous dollops of action packed combat and various winnable objectives, not the least of which is character improvement via stuff found or critters killed. The artistic elements are essentially stage props for a play concerned with adventure and derring do. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Jerry Seinfeld might put it.
Art games, by contrast, have something going on with at least equal importance to the gameplay. While the very word “art” is a slippery one at best, it’s fair to say that art games involve more than simple winning or losing but instead are primarily aimed at affecting the player emotionally or intellectually. Often, they have nothing approaching what most players would recognize as normal videogame elements. This doesn’t always make them popular with an audience that wants a few hours of pure escapism, and they often seem to attract a level of ire completely out of proportion to their actual market share Heck, even David Jaffee took the time out of counting the money he made from the God of War series to grant an entire interview centered around how art games are pretentious rot that threatens the precious bodily fluids of the gaming industry
HEY! YOU PUT PEANUT BUTTER IN MY CHOCOLATE!
Given this attitude, it’s no surprise that the more successful “art games” go ahead and include traditional gameplay anyway, sometimes to the extent of making the artistic aims less than obvious. The game Bioshock is a splendid example of this, and in fact its central message about the illusion of free will is made more powerful if the player doesn’t immediately recognize that the character really doesn’t have any freedom to choose his actions but must in fact act like a character in a typical FPS game. That said, for all the cleverness of that message, in order to convey it, Bioshock had to actually BE a first person shooter (and in all fairness, an entertaining one).
Trying to imagine a stripped down version of Bioshock without the extensive normal gameplay might be difficult, but in fact there is a snarkily cute browser-based game that makes a similar comment about RPG mechanics, the 2011 Hero’s Adventure It, too, uses the “it seems like a normal game until it isn’t” trope, and like Bioshock, forces the player to reflect upon the fact that anyone who actually behaves like a typical videogame character wouldn’t be all there. Unlike Bioshock, the gameplay is too simple to engage any real interest, but perhaps that’s just the designer making another comment about the RPG genre.
“All Art is Useless” -Oscar Wilde
While Bioshock gets deserved kudos for its integration of gameplay with its artistic ends, both it and Hero’s Adventure underscores the problem with that approach: it works only when the message centers around the concerns of videogames, such as achievement and control. It’s far too introspective to allow for a wider range of themes. But at the same time, it’s hard to sell a game that isn’t, well, a game. So we also see art games that use gameplay as a backdrop to what they’re actually trying to say.
Braid is perhaps the best known example of this, and its financial success no doubt gives would be indie art game makers a certain level of hope that they, too, may someday be able to afford non-generic mac and cheese. But is that hope entirely justified? A good amount of Braid’s popularity can be laid at the feet of its delightfully frustrating, yet elegant puzzles that have to be solved in order to advance the plot. While the use of conscious allusions to the 90s era platformers evokes nostalgia and ties in with the overall themes of time and remembrance, at the end of the day, it can’t escape being a platformer, just as Bioshock couldn’t escape being an FPS. True, the central game mechanic of time alteration ties into the plot’s, but truly, what one ends up with is a puzzler that unlocks portions of a prose poem. The poetry is no more central to the gameplay than the bonus art unlocks of Batman Arkham Asylum. The actual experience of playing the game doesn’t really add to that far too separate narrative.
PEOPLE ARE STRANGERS WHEN YOU ARE STRANGE
But in the world of indie and browser based games, there are still more than a few developers willing to stop fussing about whether what they’re trying to do is actually a game or not and focus on the experience. Tale of Tales pioneered this paradigm shift in 2009with the release of their signature game The Path. Ostensibly a horror game modeled after Little Red Riding Hood, it follows six girls through a dark and beyond surreal woods where they encounter various objects that may or may not have any significance.
And then they die at the hands or paws of an occasionally literal wolf. That’s not a spoiler, it’s in the game description. After the obligatory death, the player is rewarded with a rather discomfiting dream sequence in a nightmare version of Grandmother’s house. Often accused of being surreal for surrealism’s sake, the key to actually enjoying The Path is to recognize it for what it is– an art installation. Interactivity is basically non-existent, but honestly, so is a trip to your local art gallery. No one is going to let you collect paintings and sculptures in the hope of leveling up your art patron skills there. The Path does have a joke score page at the end of each girl’s death, and truthfully, I think it could have done without it. It rather self-consciously says “Look, we’re not a game, get it?” That sort of thing is a needless snark, along with a flower collection system that resembles power ups but does absolutely nothing. There’s no need to poke fun at games if you’re doing something entirely different.
Like Finnegan’s Wake, The Path is perhaps one of those things that people talk about more than actually experience. As brilliant and moving as it was, I’ve never replayed it. But perhaps replay value is yet another one of those videogame concepts that doesn’t translate to virtual art in general. With a few exceptions, we don’t typically reread books more than a couple of times. It’s not necessarily a failing if another medium is similar in that regard.
That said, weird with limited replay value aesthetics does little to enhance commercial success. Tale of Tales has gotten art grants, but even so, they barely broke even on The Path A similar game, Eight, has been in production for some time, languishing for lack of funding. It doesn’t bode well for similar projects.
BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A DIME?
Perhaps it will be in the “labors of love” that we see the art games of the future. A search for “art games” on Kongregate or Jayisgames will yield any number of single developer, largely 2D games. Call them the short stories of the art game world. Hardly as sprawling as The Path, they nonetheless use their simple engines to convey a single idea, or sometimes not even that. There’s nothing wrong with a fun “web toy” like Feed the Head, for example. Is there some meaning to a head that can grow a propeller for a nose or open up to reveal various exotic animals? I doubt it, but at the same time, it was amusing enough. Not all art needs to be serious, thank God.
That’s not to say that these simple games can’t be profound. Some are a touch heavy handed, of course, like Gray with its ironically simple portrayal of group interactions (while preaching the point that no one listens to compromise anymore) or Every Day the Same Dream that says little more than “too much routine isn’t good for you”. I think the average fellow in a cubical job is perfectly aware that his life has far too much repetition in it. Clever bits like the ability to walk out the door without pants leaven the game’s message with humor, but still one is left wondering if the developer actually knows any office workers in real life: people slogging away at their job to feed their family, not because they’ve failed to free their souls. As social commentary, it’s literally two dimensional.
On the other hand, using nothing more than static click and point mechanics, the developer of The Museum of Broken Memories delivers an introspective journey into the past of the narrator, as he wonders about old photographs and war memories. The claustrophobia of the flooding level and the pure helplessness of the level in which you are blind is truly wonderful. By wonderful, I mean “quite likely to give you nightmares”, of course. Free for download, it originally came out for Windows XP, but a Vista patch was released. Sadly, no Windows 7 version exists. I should say, “yet”, as the creator has said he wants to create a new version this year. But as of this date, there’s been no more news on that. Sadly, one can only surmise that once again, the lack of funding for art games reared its ugly head.
THE TIMES, THEY ARE A-CHANGING
Things are looking up, however. The recently released Dear Esther is a beautifully rendered stroll across a desert island filled with metaphor. (and do read our Dear Esther review!) And yes, the main character confronts his feelings about loss, guilt and transcendence of the spirit. I admit I’m looking forward to someday playing an art game that is at least a bit happy. That said, it’s a tremendously moving experience, even though in terms of mechanics it’s little more than an environmental exploration. There is no ability to even pick up items, much less change things or alter the final ending. Without spoiling the game, that fits thematically, but it does little to provide “gameplay”. Originally designed as a free download using the Half Life 2 engine, it might very well have been yet another one of those labors of love we’ve been discussing that gave the development team great satisfaction but little or no compensation.
But fortunately, they were able to enlist the support of the Indie Games Fund, a group founded by a number of successful indie developers (including Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid). While initially skeptical of the potential success of DE on PC, they nonetheless backed release on Steam for PC.
And then a miracle happened. Dear Esther was the bestselling game the day of release, and recouped IGF’s $55,000 investment in five and a half hours.
Things like that give hope for future diversity in games, or whatever we want to call art that uses videogame technology. The world of videogames has changed and become larger over the last decade or so. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a first person shooter, just as there’s nothing wrong with an action movie. But it would be a sad world where only the Michael Bays and George Lucases of the world got a chance to make films. Perhaps the next Coppola or Kubrick of videogames is fiddling about with an open source game engine right now, wondering how to get his or her eccentric vision out to the gaming public.
Or perhaps we should just say, the public.