What are art games? Pt. 1

Every time someone asks me what an art game is, I never seem to give a satisfying answer. I think that's because there are a lot of qualities that are associated with this type of game, which makes it hard to sum up in a few sentences. It's not an either-or question: all sorts of games can possess qualities that are associated with art games. In this two-part blog post, I'll cover a few qualities that are typically associated with art games as I see them.

In this first part, I'll examine how the development conditions of a game can influence the end product.

Papo y Yo

Indie game ≠ Art game

First off, many people aren't clear on the meaning of the terms art game and indie game. At quick glance, these terms may seem interchangeable, but that's not the case.

An indie game is any game created by a small team or an individual without financial support from a games publisher. This means that indie developers have creative freedom since they don't answer to another company in exchange for financing.

Because of the creative freedom these indie developers have, many indie games tend have elements of art games (detailed below and in pt. 2). But whereas the vast majority of art games are indie games, the opposite is not true. Lots of indie games are made to be fun and are comparable to traditional games. For example, Super Meat Boy is one of the most successful indie games, but I wouldn't call it an art game.

Super Meat Boy
Creative Freedom

The question of creative control in videogame development is arising more and more often. Traditionally, videogames are completed by a team of people using high-end technology, requiring a large project budget. Thus, development teams must often seek financial investment from publishers (like Activision or 2K) to fund the development of the game (if they aren't already working for a publisher, that is). Publishers generally also handle advertising, manufacturing and marketing. But, in order to mitigate risk, publishers usually impose restrictions on the developers.

In these situations, the designers are basically commissioned to make games. Does that automatically exclude it from being great or having art game qualities? Of course not. Throughout history, lots of great art was commissioned by the church or other organizations, and they're still great works. In relation to videogames, though, it typically means that the designers lose some, if not all, creative control.

Spec Ops: The Line

Here’s an example of a developer-publisher relation: Yager Development pitched an idea to 2K Games, one of the leading videogame publishers, but the idea was rejected. Instead, 2K offered to hire Yager to develop a new Spec Ops game:

While a flattering proposition, ... it was not quite what the developer had in mind. Until, that is, 2K uttered the magic words, "There are no restrictions." Ultimately, so long as it was a Spec Ops game and military themed, Yager had carte blanche. (Click here to read the entire article)

Yager accepted, and made an awesome game. Mechanically, it's a generic military-themed shooter game, but it also has many art game qualities that I'll detail in part two of this post. It's one of my favorite games, and it's interesting enough to have inspired a killer 50 000-word critical analysis.

Artists having creative freedom is generally perceived as a good thing and it's an important factor in traditional arts. The fact that indie games have much more creative control is definitely a factor in why their games are often called art games.

Journey (Image from forbes.com)


Some argue that videogames lack authorship, an important quality of many art forms. The production of a videogame is much like that of a movie: it's generally a team effort. Still, film are recognized as art, with the authorship often associated with the director. Tarantino, Kubrick, and the Coen brothers are some of many auteur directors.

For AAA (or big budget) videogames, it's usually the creative director who, like the film director, is sometimes thought of as the author of a game. There are less examples of this than in film, but Hideo Kojima, Suda51, Ken Levine and Miyamoto come to mind. It's hard to think of these games without their lead designers coming to mind.

While this sense of authorship is uncommon with AAA games, it is extremely common with indie games. Since the vast majority of art games are developed by small teams or individuals instead of hundreds of people, it's easier for designers to become associated to their games.

Take Fez, for example. Montreal designer Phil Fish had to deal with a lot of shit, but he finished the game after five years. Better late than never! While playing, you can see the incredible amount of care and imagination that went into the game's vibrant, creative and detailed world. Phil Fish dreamed up Fez, and the game wouldn't exist without him. While it isn't the best example of an art game, it shows how indie games in general have a strong sense of authorship.

Fez (Image from oxcgn.com)

What goes on behind the scenes influences people’s opinion on art, notably with music and cinema. Videogames have an interesting scene too, and the development conditions of games matter. The award-winning Canadian documentary Indie Game: The Movie  shows a behind-the-scenes look at the development of Super Meat Boy and Fez. Check it out!

Another side of authorship is authorial intent. Artists with something to say are people, not companies. Ian Bogost puts it well: "When we ponder the subjective themes of human existence, it's hard to do so in relation to the nameless anonymity of corporate creation. Thus the strong presence of a human author is prevalent in these [art] games, whether an individual or individually identified members of a small group." 

I'll look into personal expression in the 2nd part of this article, but here's a quick example: Gonzalo Frasca is a journalist who had something to say. He didn't like the US's response to terror, so he made a newsgame about it. While it isn't technically a game, the fact that you can't win is very much intentional. Click here to try it out! Games have a long history of being used as political or activist messages, but that's a subject for another time.

In the case of September 12, making a game was an effective way, if not the best way, of getting the author's point across. The simple game rules hold deep meaning. More on mechanics as meaning in the 2nd part of this article.

To Be Continued...

Throughout this article, I've tried to explain that the conditions in which games are made determine some of their qualities. Indie games, by nature, tend to have aspects typically associated with art (and, by extension, art games) simply because of the way they're made.

In the next post, I'll dive into more tangible qualities that are associated with art games, like mechanics as meaning, personal expression, experimentation, and subversion.

What are your thoughts on the subject? Leave a comment and we'll discuss videogames! I'll leave you with another Bogost quote:
Games - like photography, like writing, like any medium - shouldn't be shoehorned into one of two uses... After all, we don't distinguish between only two types of books, or music, or photography, or film. Rather, we know intuitively that writing, sound, images, and moving pictures can all be put to many different uses.


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