Tuesday, 26 July 2011

But is it art?

As a follow-up to my Strange games through the ages post I decided to have a look at those ‘art’ games I mentioned…
And ask some obvious questions like:
    1. What makes it different?
    2. What makes it art?
    3. Are they games?
    4. What is available?
    5. Where did this ‘movement’ come from?
    6. And perhaps both most and least importantly, how well does it sell?
The supposed art-house games scene has become a bit of a semi-underground phenomenon lately. But is this a real movement and a bona fide genre, or just more industry hype and spin?
I decided to have a bit of a root around with these self-styled ‘art games’ and see what I could find out. I asked the six seemingly most asked questions as above, and have attempted to answer each in turn. But remember this is all just my opinion, and I tend to veer away from the standard FPS and like stranger games.

  1. What makes it different?
So perhaps the first question is the most obvious, and I’ve read quite a lot of hyperbole about this. But what does it all boil down to?
Well as far as I can tell they all seem to be as much, about the appearance and impression of the thing as they are about any story and game-play.
Now a seasoned gamer would normally hear alarm-bells sounding at this statement, but I can sort-off see what they mean. I think this works more in some ‘games’ than others.
Take ‘Linger in shadows’ for example...
This has been slammed as a ‘tech demo’ but what’s inherently wrong with an artistic interactive demo. I’ve seen some very well thought-out and artistic tech-demos over the years. I think it’s all down to perception. If they say this is ‘art’ I’m honestly not going to argue. If they say it’s an ‘art game,’ well the ‘game’ part implies some form of control, and there is some control albeit limited. All the spin aside, this control-level is the crux of the matter for me. It all depends on the amount and form of control the user has over the ‘game.’
A lot of one specific type of ‘art’ game gives very little story-based control to the player. But the same could be argued for today’s mainstream games, they just make it seem like the player is much more in control, where the art-game focuses on the aesthetic more.
Have a look at ‘The Path’ and ‘The Graveyard’ from Tale Of  Tales.
Although different in implementation from ‘Linger in shadows’ they both follow the same basic construct. The story is set and you can take different (visual) routes through it to reach a pre-set goal. So what’s so different between these and a ‘normal’ game?
I think it’s basically all down to the way it’s implemented. Traditional games generally rely on the ‘puzzle and shoot’ formula, where ‘art games’ don’t necessarily have to; instead relying on more aesthetic and ethereal mechanisms to enhance and or advance the game experience.
Art-games also may not have a definite end-point, conclusion, or goal, another thing that the modern mass-market games audience expects, although this wasn’t necessarily the case with older, mainly 8 and 16Bit systems, games.
  • So, the non-conventional game-mechanic makes the difference?

  1. What makes it art?
Well this is the big question really, isn’t it? What makes anything ‘art’ instead of something else?
Is it simply because someone, possibly with perceived authority, says it is?
Is it because someone interprets ‘ethereal and aesthetic’ as airy-fairy, artsy-fartsy? 
Seriously though art was, is, and always will be, in the eye of the beholder, and anyone telling you different is blowing hot-air!
The difference seems to be entirely in the perceived function... This can be nicely illustrated by quoting Justin McElroy of Joystiq who said the difference is "the same as that between a sculpture and a building. Though a building can be aesthetically pleasing, an art sculpture is using its very structure to produce some kind of reaction."
Here the ‘art’ of the art-games are in the idea, the concept of the program…

If this is all sounding a bit hi-brow why not have a look at ‘RuneScape’ by Jagex, and then load up ‘The Endless Forest’ again by Tale of Tales. 
To me the ‘art’ is in the visuals and implementation. Both these games feature multi-player online worlds, but where the aesthetics’ of ‘RuneScape’ are that of a solid ‘game’ and follow the set game-rules, the other is obviously much more about the aesthetic and the idea behind it.
But does this make it art? Well I think that’s a personal decision. Some people will see the art in these programs, others won’t. It doesn’t make one opinion any more or less valid that the other.

But there is another argument here. The so-called ‘Art-house Or Indi’ debate is a product of today’s ever-growing independent games market. It all stems from trying to decide when games should be considered art-games, and when they are merely aesthetically pleasing independent games?
These independent games are flourishing in markets like Xbox Live and PSN and some games, like Braid and Flower, have been fairly high profile. And again it seems to come down to the idea behind the games inception. Perhaps one of the best knows examples of this are with the games from ThatGameCompany, an independent developer who made a fair-sized splash in the on-line marketplaces with titles like flOw, and Flower. Both of which are generally considered to be firmly in the art-games camp, mainly because that’s how they were perceived and marketed.
  • So, the idea makes it art?

  1. Are they games?
Again this seems to be a sliding scale and we first have to define what ‘they’ are. From the selection of titles I’ve looked at, the title of ‘art game’ seems to be applied to a variety of things with very different constructs and styles.
Yes, I’d say a lot of these are definitely games that also have a heavy artistic leaning.
Take ‘Pathologic’ ‘Cargo’ and ‘The Void’ from Ice-Pick Lodge for example.
All these are very much games.
They have that recognised game structure that I was talking about before, but they also have the ‘art’ elements in spades. But this ‘art’ isn’t purely limited to the visuals, it’s also very present is the aims and goals of the games, as well as in the non-standard game-play implementations. Another different example of this can be seen in the output from ThatGameCompany, with there games like Cloud, flOw, Flower, and Journey the traditional game-play is replaced with a much more open environment. While there may still be a point or goal to these games, unlike the traditional game it’s much more about ‘playing’ the thing rather than winning or completing the thing.
The interpretation is much more open-ended in this type of ‘art’ game.

Most ‘art games’ all seem to propose to tell an emotion-let story in some form or another: practically forcing the player to think about their motives and actions within the game. Again, whether this lofty goal bears through in the game-play is entirely a personal and subjective experience, but the intention, in one form or another, always appears to be a constant of the ‘art game.’
So, yes there are some that are unequivocally games. Others can be called ‘tech demos’ or such if you wish. But the intention of a ‘game’ always seems to be there. Again it’s subjective, and to me personally it’s programs like ‘Linger in Shadows’ that sit on the cusp.
  • So, the implementation ranges for definite game to possible demo?

  1. What is available?
I’ve already mentioned two software developers that are happy to jump on the art-house bandwagon and there are others.
Noteworthy Art-House games developers:

Most of these have all won some form of art and or design awards. So seem to be doing something right.

In addition to the out-and-out art-house products there are a number of older and newer games that are generally considered borderline art-house crossover cases. Some of these are from the more conventional software houses, like Outland a platform game published by Ubisoft, and produced by Housemarque . Like most of the modern independant games this is available on both the PSN and Xbox Live networks. This type of cross-pollination of style has lead to a certain degree of perceived merging of the art-game and the more conventional game-play with the current wave of independent games. 
Border-line neo-art games like Limbo from Playdead are currently doing well in the on-line markets.

Where these programs may follow a more standard design than most of the ‘art’ games, they do have a really strong artistic edge in their style and content.
So art-inspired-games themselves cover a very wide range of styles and implementations. The strangeness and often self-imposed label of ‘art-house’ seems to be the only concrete thing defining them as a group. Perhaps it’s all back to the ‘Buildings or Monuments’ idea, and the only definition that matters is the thinking behind the product.
Otherwise it all seems rather too subjective to decide what is and isn’t in the art-games genus.

 As well as the more established companies, often making bigger-scale games with a wider appeal, there are always oddities thrown up in the art-house camp… and I do mean oddities.
Take the Pac-Mondrian site for example.
This plays Pac-Man over the 1943 ‘Broadway Boogie Woogie’ painting by Piet Mondrian. Why?
Well why not.
Is this an art-game?
Is it enhancing existing art?

Again, that’s up to you to decide.

Or how about Every Day The Same Dream  by La Molleindustria.
This effort is a self-proclaimed art-house browser game. It uses fairly stark imagery to tell a fairly stark story, and is strangely compelling.

There are also a lot of other individuals out there...
all making both strange and interesting stuff. And this brings us on to another aspect of the art-game genre. Like the independent and retro-remakes (homebrew) markets, anyone can write a program and call it art-house. This all leads to a wide range of output with varying degrees of technical, creative, and artistic merit.
Now don’t get me wrong; I think this diversity is a good thing. It’s where the truly great ideas are born, but by its very nature not everything is top-quality, although sometimes that can add to the charm.

Things like the Experimental Videogames website by Daniel Benmergui epitomise this new gaming frontier for me. Some other examples of this type of new, and often very raw, art-house programming approach are passage, gravitation, and Judith… although there are many, many more.

The best art-house games are pushing the boundaries of game-play. And that can only be a good thing. Take Braid for example. This game broke new ground in time-physics and changes our perception of game-time. Another very interesting concept was explored by Inside A Star-Filled Sky.
This time the concepts of space and dimensional size were explored within a simple maze-game construct where the player could zoon into objects discovering ever increasingly layered mazes. So you can be in a maze inside yourself, inside and enemy, inside a power up, inside an enemy, inside yourself… all very confusing, but entertaining.

Then of course there is the widely awaited debut of Fez.

This is a game that plays with dimensions and perspectives, where the player traverses a 3D world by swapping between differing views of a ‘2D platform game’ type environment.
The game was stated to be designed to make you think about second and third dimensional space.

  • So, a wide range of games, of varying complexity and polish, are available?

  1. Where did this ‘movement’ come from?
The more I looked into this the more subjective it all seemed to get. The scene didn’t seem to coalesce into something tangible until the late 2000’s where there seemed to be a pique in interest resulting in many ‘experts’ appearing at various seminars and conferences thorough the world.
Professor Celia Pearce described ‘a collision between the worlds of art and video games’ at the 2110 Art history of games conference in Atlanta. She sited the 1960s Fluxus movement and the New Games Movement as prominent forbearers and influences of the modern art-game concept.

It seems that the art-house gaming concept has its roots in the electronic-performance-piece culture that began in the sixties and has evolved through the increasing complexity of technology to the various off-shuts and branches that exist today, one on these being the art-game.
The earliest true game-like products began to appear during the early to mid 1980s. One of the first of these programs was the performance-art like Alien Garden program by Jaron Lanier. Although marketed as a game it was generally not well received at the time, being described as a ‘software-toy’ and a ‘non-game.’ In hindsight this has since been stated as a direct forerunner of the modern art-game movement. I do believe the link between this early ‘game’ and the modern art-game is there, and can be glimpsed from these in-game screen shots but as with most, if not all, art-games the real difference is in the interaction between the user and the software.

In May 2011 the National Endowment for the Arts in America announced that it would update its grant scheme to include “interactive games.”
For many in the art community this was seen as a major legitimisation of the art-game as a true art-from. Perhaps partly on the back of such changes in perception, and partly on the ‘simpler-games for casual players’ backlash seen amongst today’s games consumers, it is argued that the ever greying areas between independent and art games have brought the art-game concept even further into the collective mainstream-gaming consciousness. I believe this to be true, as you only need to look through the list of titles available on PSN or Xbox Live to see this influence.

So while the subject of categorising games as art still courts some controversy, it does seem the there is a definable art-games genera and that the artistic community is somewhat in the process of amending it’s thinking to include more scope for interactive art, incorporating video-games-art and non-games art.
Although some nay-sayers still insist that games can never truly be considered art because they are by design defined for a specific purpose and art is by definition made for no purpose other than for the sake of art: e.g. games are and always will be a building and not a statue no matter how artistic it looks!

There is a wikipedia page that has some interesting information and goes into much mode depth on this subject, although it does quickly begin to sound a bit to ‘arty’ for my tastes.
(take this for what a wiki-page is worth, although there are quite a lot of good referral-links)
  • So, the idea came from the artistic community performance-art culture?

  1. And perhaps both most and least importantly, how well does it sell?
Games like Flower, Braid, and Limbo have already had a good commercial showing, ant they are all generally placed in the art-house camp. The releases of some art-house games, like Fez, are even eagerly awaited by certain areas of the games-buying public.
So art-house games can be relatively successful in today’s market. And these successes can no longer be viewed as isolated incidents. Others games like ‘flOw’ and ‘Noby Noby Boy’ have shown that the more abstract end of the art-game genre can also have a fair degree of commercial success.

Realistically I think you can only compare like-with-like sales from similar-sized independent developers.
And although the biggest selling independent success stories like ‘Angry Birds’ and ‘Plants Verses Zombies’ massively out-sold any art-house specific releases, with the possible exception of Braid, a decent percentage do seem to have held their own in the middle of the independent developers market.
The art game doesn’t seem set to take the mainstream industry by storm in the immediate future, and perhaps by its nature it is destined to stay niche.
But remember, SHMUPS (Shoot ‘em ups) are a niche market today, that doesn’t mean that is isn’t still a sustanable market.

You also have to remember that the art-game revolution is something that has very-much grown through an internet-ready world. And these games are fairly native to the internet world. I’m not saying they are as prevalent as the mainstream stuff but they are there. An on the internet it isn’t necessarily out-and-out sales that ultimately count towards popularity.
If you look at the number of users on ‘RuneScape’ against the users on ‘The Endless Forrest’ then yes there is a huge difference. In fact ‘huge’ doesn’t seem a big enough word! But then it was never intender to compete in a like-for-like marketplace. Perhaps some would say this is a bit of a snobbish ‘art is misunderstood by the masses’ attitude. Although I don’t personally think it’s that at all. Some people will want to play the latest generic FPS, and that is perfectly fine. Some people will always search this type of program out. Or be browsing similar material and happen upon them. And that is also fine.
Maybe they aren’t for everyone, and maybe that is just the nature of things…

But maybe not
 There has been some debate over whether or not the recently successful ‘Stacking’ game, now available on PSN, is an ‘art-house’ game. And I can see the arguments for this, although I’m not sure if this was intentional. Even if the pseudo-art-house styling wasn’t an intentional attempt to make an ‘art’ game it still may be an interesting portent into the shape of things to come.
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But this isn’t a new conundrum. With references from Ayn Rand’s novel ‘Atlas Shrugged’ and it’s rather unique aesthetic, which interacts closely into the game-play, the mighty Bioshock also raised the ‘is it art’ question.
Was this the closest a full-on commercial release ever got to having art-house game status? Some say yes, and while I like the looks of bio-shock I think it is perhaps a bit too mainstream to be seriously considered as an art-house game. Then again, is this all a peek into a future where games are growing up and art isn’t a snobbish high-brow word that seems destined to turn the average gamer away?
  • So, most games are at the mid to lower end of the sales food-chain; although there have been some infractions into the mainstream?

And now we come to my conclusion…
Well from looking down my bullet-points, an art-game can be defined as:
  • A game where the game-mechanic is non-conventional.
  • A game that has an artistic vision or concept lying behind the design.
  • A game-engine that can range from that of a typical game to a tec-demo.
  • A genre encompassing a wide rang of game styles of varying complexity.
  • A genre originating in the artistic community’s performance-art culture.
  • A genre that usually has moderate to low sales, with some success stories.
Or possibly not…

Wow, this has turned into quite a big post!
So what do you think?

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