2013-12-10

What are art games? Pt. 2

In the first part of this 2-part post, I examined how the development conditions of a game influence the end product. Now, I’ll look at a few concepts and elements that are typically associated with art games.

These are observations based on my personal experience playing art games. They aren't meant to be comprehensive, nor am I saying that games without these qualities are bad. They are only tendencies that I have observed in many games labelled as art games.

Self Expression

I've already covered the artistic intent side of things, but I’d like to explore personal expression a bit more.
Some designers use video games to relate their personal experiences or ideas. By their very nature, games excel at representing systems, rules, and interactions. These systems are subjective, just like any other artistic creation. They can also carry meaning or convey arguments (September12, discussed in the last post, is a great example).

Dys4ia is a 2012 autobiographical game by game designer Anna Anthropy.  She decided to express her frustrating experience with gender change through the video game. Click here to try it out! The game makes good use of the medium to convey her experience.

Why did she choose to make a game? Why didn't she just write about it, or make a documentary?

It shouldn't sound weird when someone chooses video games as a medium for self expression. Interactive media has its strengths and weaknesses, just like any other art form. Here's a quote from Anna discussing her game:
This was a story about frustration - in what other [art] form do people complain as much about being frustrated? A video game lets you set up goals for the player and make her fail to achieve them. A reader can’t fail a book. It’s an entirely different level of empathy.

In some cases, such as with Dys4ia or September 12, video games can be a very effective way to create meaning, convey an experience, or make an argument.

With the popularity of indie development, more and more games containing self expression are being made. Another good example is Papo & Yo: Montreal-based designer Vander Caballero crafted an intensely personal game about his traumatic childhood experiences.

Both Dys4ia and Papo & Yo succeed in telling personal stories, but how do they do it? How does the fact that they are video games change the way the stories are told?


Papo & Yo

Mechanics as meaning

Video games create meaning in lots of ways. They contain images, sound, elements of cinematography, etc., but fundamentally, video games are different than other art forms because of their interactivity and their ability to represent rules. Noah Wardrip-Fruin says it well:

[M]uch like we could argue that film's unique way of producing meaning is cutting sequences of film together, that game's unique way of producing meaning is on its foundation of operational logics. That doesn't mean that music doesn't contribute to the meaning of a film, it just means it's not that particular part that sets film apart.

I often point people towards Extra Credits' episode on Mechanics as Metaphor. Check it out if you haven't already! It explains the concept well.

In short, most games don't use interaction, the defining characteristic of video games, to tell their story. Gameplay and story are kept separate. So the concept of mechanics as metaphor just means using game mechanics, not cinematics, text, images, or sound, to convey meaning.

Passage is a classic example of a game using  its mechanics to tell its story. It's a simple 5-minute game, but for some, it can be a deep and provocative experience. I won't go into detail here, but if you play the game and want to discuss it, let me know!


Passage (image from digitalspy.com)

In an older blog post , I discuss the string of pearls structure of games. Most big-budget games are structured in a way that the player has freedom until he or she hits a bottleneck to progress the story. For example, in GTA or Assassin's Creed, you can freely roam the sandbox world, but as soon as you start a mission, you're restricted to a specific story path (cinematics, linear missions, etc.).

Why don't more games harness the power of interactivity to tell their stories? It's what defines the medium, after all. It's kind of weird when you think of it.

Subversion

In relation to art, subversion is when something challenges the status quo. For example, Schoenberg’s atonal songs shocked audiences and went against the established way of making music. By going against the norm, he influenced the way many people see music.

Games can also challenge things we take for granted. Spec Ops: The Line is a shooter that made me feel guilty about playing shooters. Journey showed me that online multiplayer with strangers doesn't have to be toxic. BioShock made me rethink freedom in video games. Someone wrote about how Portal is the most subversive game ever. Leigh Alexander recently wrote an article about subversive gamesGone Home subverts a lot of modern video game tropes and conventions.


Gone Home (image from digitaltrends.com

Players must have some knowledge of gaming culture to appreciate the commentary/subversion. For example, You Have to Burn the Rope pokes fun at the fact that modern game design tends to hold the hand of the player. Thus, to get what the game is making fun of, you have to know that some designers and gamers have been criticizing this modern trend.


Experimentation

Experimental games contain new or unconventional aspect(s). There is no single type of experimental game: the ''experimental'' quality can be achieved through different parts of a game, such as the design, the mechanics, the game art, the narrative, etc.

For example, Antichamber is an experimental game because it uses space very non-conventionally, Journey could be considered experimental because of the way it handles multiplayer, and Façade is an experiment in non-linear storytelling. If you have an iOS device, check out Device 6. It blends elements of writing, audio, video, and games into a great interactive experience. Anything that tries to push boundaries could be called experimental. Just like in any art form, you've got to give props to people who push the envelope.


Device 6

Not Always Fun

Art games can be fun, but they aren't limited by it. Some art games explore a broader range of emotions and themes, like the passage from life to death, the moral implications of border security, the balance of work and personal life, childhood abuse, etc. These themes aren’t fun, but they can be engaging and interesting to explore through video games. Check out this video by Extra Credits about how video games are moving beyond fun.


Papers, Please

Big-budget games are consumer-driven and need to sell, so they can't stray too far from fun, entertaining experiences. Once again, the fact that indie devs have more creative freedom means they can choose to explore different gaming experiences that a AAA publisher wouldn't greenlight.

Conclusion

Art games are a lot of things. As detailed in the last article, art games tend to be indie games because of the creative freedom and authorship they permit. But all indie games aren't art games! Certain ''artistic'' traits are associated with art games, including self-expression, mechanics as metaphor, literary devices, subversion, and experimentation.

Although I like playing art games, my favorite games are those who balance great gameplay with some of the art game elements described above. Braid is an amazing puzzle-platformer, and its subversive narrative uses mechanics to create meaning. Journey is a beautiful adventure game, plus it does cool art-game-y things. BioShock and Spec Ops: The Line are fun shooters while being subversive as hell.

It's not an either-or thing. Games can be fun and engaging as well as have art game qualities. We're starting to see games with some of these elements, like Journey, Braid, The Walking Dead, and Gone Home, becoming increasingly popular. Most of those games have even won Game of the Year awards. The gaming landscape is changing. (spoiler alert: it's changing for the better!)


Journey (image from thatgamecompany.com)


I hope this post helped de-mystify the vague and pretentious-sounding ''art games''. It's a neat side of video games that will only become more prominent as the years go by.

I leave you with a quote from Anna Anthropy's book Rise of the Videogame Zinester:

What videogames need right now is to grow up. The videogame industry has spent millions upon millions of dollars to develop more visually impressive ways for a space marine to kill a monster. What they've invested almost nothing in is finding better ways to tell a story, and in exploring different stories to tell... If people don't take videogames seriously, it's because, as an art form, they tell us very little about ourselves, so far. But authors outside of the mainstream ... have revealed much more. They have shown us a new perspective through their unconventionality, their creativity. They have shown us new ways for games to use rules, new ways of giving players liberty to act and play within those rules, new ways to create experiences that are unique to games.

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