Saturday, 19 September 2015

Artsy, not Fartsy...

In the Beginning...
There has always been an element of 'art' that has existed, and grown, alongside but generally separate (or underground) from mainstream computing, long before the computer games industry was invented. Likewise the 'can computers make art' debate has existed from the very beginnings of the medium.
Even the early Teletype operators used to send text generated pictures to each other.This was the beginnings of what became knows as ASCII Art, arguably the first true 'art' produced solely by using machines. Arguable, because some still say it was nothing more than akin to computer graphite. Is graphite art? Well that's a question for a different blog...

Sticking with computer generated art, Conway's Game of life was possibly one of the first computer programs that could ever be considered a true form of computer art - rather than 'traditional' art made on a computer. The 'game' was based on a cellular automaton thought experiment originally devised  by John Horton Conway, a British mathematician, in 1970. His 'game' had no user interaction other than the placing of the first cells in a grid. These cells ether 'lived,' 'died,' or 'reproduced' on each turn of the game, based on Conway mathematical rules.

The rules to 'Game of Life' were few and simple, but many intricate 'living,' evolving designs could be made from the placing of the original 'seed' cells.

This zero-player 'game' was typically written for most of the 1970's mainframe, and mini, computer systems.

During the 1980's it was a typically included in various how-to programming books and listings magazines as a teaching program for most 8Bit micro computer machines.

Most 8Bit home computer systems of the late seventies and early eighties generally had simple painting type programs for them, and some interesting pictures were produced on these very limited canvases, but unlike 'game of Life' this was 'art' made on a computer, not made by a computer. As resolutions grew over time, this type of art faded as computer pictures became photo-realistic.

ASCII Art was still very much alive during this era, especially in the BBS world.

The BBS art scene had a thriving, if still somewhat underground, community of different groups all vying to make the best ASCII art, which was generally distributed through, and used to brighten up, the text based Bulletin Board Systems of the day.
Although this was an 'art' style that could only be produces using computers, like the early painting application output, or the even earlier Teletype operators, it was still made on or with computers, not by computers.

But some people aimed to fix that...

Art by Numbers...
Jeff Minter was one of the first 8Bit games programmers to start playing around with what he coined 'Light Synthesizers.' The first commercially available 'Light Synthesizer' application Jeff made was 'Psychedelia,' released for the VIC-20 in  1984.
The program allowed the user to make light patters in an on-screen grid using the joystick. Unlike most later programs of this type the patterns were not generated by music, although Jeff recommended you 'play' the patterns whilst listening to music.

Jeff went on to produce more 'games' on this theme, including Colourspace, Trip-a-tron, VLM 2, and Neo, using, various systems, refining the display and introducing music as a direct input to the on-screen graphics generation. A concept that was later picked up by most PC, MAC and Console based music players. But 'Psychedelia' was probably the first commercially available application to hold the seeds of this idea, and may be the first real attempt at an 'Art Game.'

Llike most things, there could be a counter clam to the fist computer generated art argument.

At, almost, the same time as 'Psychedelia' was being  released, others were already attempting to produce fractal pattern generating programs for the early systems, although most initial attempts at this were very slow and low-resolution.

By the time 16Bit home micro computers and XT PC systems were around fractal generating applications could produce fairly high resolution representations of the Mandelbrot and Julian sets, in a good amount of colours, although zooming still took some effort.

Unlike the previous music or action based procedurally generated patterning software, fractal generation could produce exactly the same image given the same set of starting conditions every time, and the amount of possible images is limitless.
So was this pure computer generated mathematical art? Some said yes, others no - because there was no thought to it, no soul!.

And that was pretty much where the debate stopped, for most people, for a fair amount of time...

Welcome to the new age...
So what has changed, and when did it happen?
When did the humble computer game become the computer 'Art' game? Honestly I have no idea. Some people would say it never did. Others would point to various different 'origin' games and applications.
But can anyone really point to one thing and say: ' That's it, that's the one that started Art Games right there?' Personally I don't think so.

If there is a fundamental difference in the new wave of art-games, it is in the thinking behind 'what is art?' In the beginnings of computer art people were looking to see if computers could independently make something which could be considered 'art.' And the answer is probably that people will forever have to agree to disagree, because at the end of the day it's a personal decision. So the new question is 'can people create a valid art form solely for and using the medium of computers?' See what they did there? Well if not you may want to take a minute to think about it before reading on...  ;)

The following is only my list of 'games' that I, personally, think were influential in the 'can games be art' debate, and deserve a mention for daring to be different:

1998  • LSD Dream Emulator - Sony PlayStation (that's PlayStation, not - One, 2, 3, or 4)
This was the first truly free-form 'game' I had ever seen. You basically just walk through a dreamscape, with no real goal, task or explanation other than discovering what's out, or in, there. In this sense it may be both 'open world,' 'sandbox,' and possibly the first 'walking simulator' game.

At release time some said LSD Dream Emulator was too free-from to actually be called a game. Where is the story, the point, people said. To which the reply was invariably along the lines of, 'Well there isn't any. It's not that type of game,' by those who liked it.
Funnily enough, almost two decades later I still see the same conversation being played out all over the internet regarding most, if not all, off the following titles...

2009  • Flower - Sony PlayStation 3, 4, and Vita
There is a basic game mechanic to Flower, in that you have to blow past specific flowers in order to advance your progress through the world. Although as game mechanics go it's minimal to say the least. If you think about it, it's the same game mechanic Pac-Man would have had if there were no ghosts!
So it obviously isn't the forced collection aspect of the game that makes it an early Art Game classic in many peoples eyes. It is of course the aesthetic, and the feelings it evokes in the player, or observer, that make people like it. And much the same thing can be said for any painting hanging in a gallery. If you 'get it' you 'get it', if you don't, well... you don't. Art?

2009  • The Path - MS Windows, and Mac OS
Generally (erroneously IMO) marketed as a Horror Game, this is one of the first fully formed 'Art House' game I played that attempted to elicit an emotional state, and some serious thought, through the medium of a computer game rather than an animation or live action film. It was one of the first games to explore what interactivity, free choice, could bring to the art mix.
In 'The Path' you have to walk along a straight path to Grandmas house, through a forest, using a variety of young girl characters of differing ages. Each of which have been told to stick to the path at all costs. The game can be finished by walking each character directly forwards to Grandmas house, but you experience and learn nothing. Instead you must head off into the unknown woods,with each character encountering an event that causes an, age appropriate, epiphany. I have seen reviews that hated this game, even to the extent of calling it a 'rape game' a view at which I was completely bemused, first off there are absolutely no 'rape' scenes in this game and secondly all the encounters are obviously intended to be metaphors for the various 'coming of age' trials people experience through their life. Also, as far as I can tell and contrary to what some reviews has said, nobody actually dies in this game . I'm not saying this game is perfect, as with most of these types of  games there are flaws, but this is another one which (IMO) received an undue amount of hate reviews.

2012  • Journey - Sony PlayStation 3, and 4
'That Games Company' took what they achieved with Flower and this time added a strong but still ethereal story element - something that isn't easy to achieve!
Again there are simple 'object collection type' game elements, although this time these are largely optional. You may find all the shrines to find out more about the back story. You can find glyphs that increase your prayer scarf, which allows you to jump/fly longer... but you don't have to. Journey is (mostly) built on open levels within a liner game framework, but it does give you the feeling of being lost and exploring an open and largely empty world.Again the replay value is all about the way this game makes you feel.This was possibly the first 'walking simulator' game that received overwhelmingly positive reviews, in general.

2012  • Dear Esther - MS Windows, Mac OS, and Linux
So what happens when you take all of the game-play elements out of a story/emotion led game? Well you get Dear Esther. And if you 'get it' you get a really thought provoking story. If you don't get it you end up with the type of 'I wasted my money on this non-game rubbish' type hate reviews that probably brought it a far larger audience that it would other wise have had. So a big thank you to all the haters for that ;)
Dear Esther is practically all metaphor, and is a 'walking simulator' game it it's purest form, but in my opinion it's no worse off for that. It is set on an unnamed Scottish (each man is an...) island, with no goal other that exploring and moving forwards.

2013  • Gone Home - MS Windows, Mac OS, and Linux
It took me a while, and some persuasion, to eventually take a look at this one. I initially assumed it was something it wasn't. What it actually is, is an expansion of the concepts found in Journey and Dear Esther, with the main character being able to work their way through the story by being able to interact with everyday objects. The story is a simple domestic one about ordinary people, but the game-play is in the discovery of this story as you find out about the lives of the people. If this sounds boring to you then perhaps it will be, then again perhaps not...

2015  • Everybody's gone to the Rapture - Sony PlayStation 4
I admit I haven't given this game a lot of time as yet, but I have seen enough to know that it is interesting it its own right. Although having read early marketing blurbs, I believe the end product is not quite what it may have originally been intended to be, and perhaps could have benefited from having a bit more 'Gone Home' type interactivity. This is the aesthetic of 'Dear Esther' taken to a whole new level, and it does introduce a very basic 'find the collectable items' type game-play, but (at least to me, so far) it doesn't appear to hide the linearity of the game as well as 'Journey' does, even though there are multiple paths through this game, and Journey is completely linear in its level design. With this type of game it's all about the feel of the thing. But still a good aesthetic evolution of the genus, and this is a genre that is largely about the aesthetic, and the mood it sets.

Not Fartsy...
I think some people still get a bit hung up on the 'snobbery' or elitist notions of 'Art' somehow not being for everyone, which is of course ridiculous.

We now live in a world where we are surrounded, some would even say bombarded, by 'art' every day. It comes from the TV screen and Monitor and attempts to make us buy things, or teach us something, or simply entertain.
All art doesn't have to be high-art, and even high-art doesn't need to be exclusive. I think art, in the broader sense, has found it's way into mainstream computer games, just as it is finding its way into other media.

There is no good reason Computer Games can't have their share of high-art, just as the other entertainment mediums do.

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