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Games as Art - title image

Play on Meaning?

- Computer games as art

The Princess Murderer by Geniwate and Deena Larsen

The Free Culture Game by Molleindustria

The Marriage by Rod Humble

Samorost 2 by Amanita Design

The Graveyard by Tale of Tales

Gravitation by Jason Rohrer

discussed by Edward Picot

This article is co-published by The Hyperliterature Exchange and Furtherfield.

Computer games enjoy a special position in the canon of new media art. One of the most distinctive features of new media is its interactivity, and because computer games are inherently interactive they have always attracted a good deal of attention from new media theoreticians. They seem to offer the opportunity to create artforms which are participative rather than dictatorial in structure, and thus to redefine the relationship between artist and audience. No longer will audience-members simply act as passive recipients of whatever the artist chooses to put in front of them: instead, through their interactivity, they will become co-creators.

Oddly enough this line of thought has been particularly important in the field of hyperliterature. This is partly for historical reasons: in the 1970s and 1980s home computers had little or no graphics capabilities, and an adventure-game interface entirely based on text and imagination was a good way of sidestepping the problem. Early "interactive fiction", as it became known, derived a good deal of its inspiration and functionality from the hugely-popular dice-and-rulebook role-playing games of the 1970s, notably Dungeons and Dragons - which in turn derived their inspiration largely from Adult Fantasy or Sword and Sorcery novels. Computerised role-playing games, therefore, were literary in style not only because they were initially text-based, but because they had a literary ancestry - and this ancestry remained very much in evidence at least up until Myst, initially released in 1993, which was the biggest-selling PC game of all time until The Sims replaced it in 2002.

The interactive fiction genre was also associated with hyperliterature because it reached its creative peak in the 1980s, at the same time as hypertext fiction was coming into existence via Hypercard (a system of interlinked hypertext pages, created prior to the Web itself, which was pre-installed on Mac computers from 1987 onwards). The students and young academics, mainly American, who embraced hypertext fiction as a new literary form were often quick to embrace interactive fiction too, and it has remained a cornerstone of hyperliterary theory in the USA ever since. The New Media Reader (2003), edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, included not only a good deal of discussion of early computer games, but a CD with emulations of "Spacewar!", "Missile Command", "Adventure", and "Karateka". Likewise, Volume One of the Electronic Literature Collection (http://collection.eliterature.org/) (2006) included a number of interactive fictions: "All Roads", "Whom the Telling Changed", "Bad Machine", "Galatea" and "Savoir-Faire".

The insistence on interactivity as an important element of hyperliterature - and on computerised role- playing games as a paradigm of interactive art - has always begged a number of questions, however. First of all, champions of "traditional" literature are inclined to argue that new media theorists are starting from an incorrect model of the relationship between author and reader. Readers do not receive text "passively" - they interpret it, and many modern(ist) texts, far from spoon-feeding their readers with predigested messages, are deliberately written in fragmented, ambiguous or enigmatic ways so as to oblige the audience to make interpretations. If this is granted, then the claim that interactive fiction is "liberating" its readers by re- defining their relationship with its authors begins to look simplistic.

Furthermore, some new media practitioners themselves have come to the conclusion that far from setting the audience free, involving them in a game rather than simply giving them text to read is trading one form of control for another. Geniwate and Deena Larsen, for example, writing in about their piece The Princess Murderer in 2003, commented that they "wanted to create this frustration of power and powerlessness as a response to early hypertext works that placed readers as coauthor..." (http://tracearchive.ntu.ac.uk/review/index.cfm?article=76). The work - pointedly subtitled "No Exit" - deliberately uses interactivity as a means of entrapping readers or viewers rather than liberating them.

But the fundamental question, which haunts all attempts to create art from computer games, is whether it is really possible to reconcile the two. It could be argued that art requires a different kind of concentration from a game, and uses a different part of the mind - and that the more intensely you play a game, the less inclined you will be to pay attention to any artistic qualities it may possess.

The Princess Murderer exemplifies the problem. It isn't by any means a fully-fledged computer game, but a hyperfiction which incorporates a number of game-style design elements. It's cleverly-conceived and well-written, but its Achilles' heel is the fact that the more you engage with its game- playing aspects - basically, clicking rapidly from one "page" to another in order to change the scores displayed at the bottom of the screen - the more difficult it becomes to pay attention to its literary content.

The Free Culture Game imageAnother more recent example of the same difficulty is the Free Culture Game (2008), from Italian collective Molleindustria. This game bills itself as "playable theory", and as the introductory screens explain it illustrates the conflict between the market, where "knowledge is commodified and sold", and "the common", where "knowledge is cooperatively created and shared". The common is a white circle in the middle of the screen, inhabited by a number of green stick-men with lightbulbs popping out of their heads. Round the outside of the white circle prowls "the vectorialist", a rapacious copyright symbol which magnetises and gobbles up the lightbulbs unless you, the player, can guide them back towards the green men with your cursor. If the vectorialist gobbles up all the lightbulbs, the green men turn grey and stop producing new ones. Again, it's a nice piece of design, but the first problem is that its meaning is too thoroughly explained in the introductory screens - the vectorialist's aim is to "copyright ideas and create scarcity in the common", and "people who can't access knowledge in the common will stop producing new ideas and turn into passive consumers". The game itself merely illustrates these statements without developing them. On the other hand, once you start to play, you quickly become absorbed by the slightly-irritating challenge of trying to keep ideas away from the vectorialist, and the trickiness of this task distracts you from the meaning of the game, instead of reinforcing it.

The same problem even haunts Rod Humble's celebrated computer art-game The Marriage (2006). Humble, according to Wikipedia, "is the executive producer for the Sims division of the video game company Electronic Arts since 2004. He has been contributing to the development of games since 1990, and is best known for his work on the Electronic Arts titles, The Sims 2 and The Sims 3." The Marriage has been widely written up and generally well received within the gaming community. It starts with a blue square and a pink square floating towards each other until they "kiss" - whereupon the blue square gets smaller and fainter, while the pink one gets larger and more distinct. Through the screen fall a number of coloured circles. Contact with these circles makes the squares larger, unless the circle is black, in which case it makes them smaller. Over time the pink square fades, and can only be made distinct again by contact with the blue one - but this contact makes the blue square smaller and fainter. If either square becomes too small or indistinct, the game will be over. You can make them float towards each other by mousing over them - and the trick is to allow them to drift apart until they have "eaten" some of the circles, and thus enlarged themselves, but to bring them back for a "kiss" in time to prevent the pink square from disappearing. If you can manage to keep this going, then as the game progresses the screen-background will go through a number of colour changes, from blue to purple to green to pink and eventually to black - and your couple will then disintegrate in a firework-display of tiny pink and blue squares, which is the closest you get to "winning".

The Marriage imageThe main thing which makes us regard this game as a work of art is its title, The Marriage. If it was called "Keep the Squares Alive" it would probably never occur to us to search for meanings in the game rather than just playing it; but because of the title, we immediately identify the blue square as male, the pink as female, and their drifting-together as the start of a relationship. As a knock-on effect, we feel inclined to interpret all the other game-elements symbolically as well - the falling circles are life-events, the black circles are bad things happening, the differently-coloured screen-backgrounds represent different stages of the marriage, and so forth. The directness with which The Marriage presents itself to us and demands this effort of interpretation is undeniably poetic in its effect - but there are problems. The first one is that the colours blue and pink, although they enable us to identify one square as male and the other as female, suggest a rather stereotypical view of the sexes, and various other aspects of the game seem questionable in the same way. Why does the blue square get larger and better-defined as it drifts around colliding with circles, whereas the pink square gets larger to a lesser degree, and keeps fading? Why can the pink square only become well-defined again by re-colliding with the blue, and why does this contact make pink larger and blue smaller? But the second problem is the familiar one: after you have played the game for a while, you stop thinking about what the various symbols on-screen represent, and just want to keep the squares going for as long as possible. The artistic meaning of the game fades into the background, and the activity of playing it takes over.

Despite these flaws, The Marriage undeniably has an artistic impact. Humble himself has written an extremely suggestive article about the artistic potential of games - "Game Rules as Art", published in The Escapist in April 2006. In this article he argues that

...the rules of a game can give an artistic statement independent of its other components.

- and as an example of what he means, he cites (amongst others) Snakes and Ladders:

As a lesson about life's nature, Snakes and Ladders is interesting work: Firstly, it is entirely luck based, and secondly, no matter how well someone appears to be doing, there is always a chance he will land on a snake... and be whisked back down the board.

So far so convincing, but Humble is on less certain ground when he argues that the power of game-rules derives from childhood psychology:

I believe that childhood play is about practising within the rules designed for adulthood, testing them out in a pretend world first. Later on, grownups deconstruct literature or art for rules (and the ways they have been tested) in a similar fashion.

This seems rather a simplistic view, both of childhood play and its purposes, and of grownup attitudes towards literature and art. Humble would like to establish rules as the common denominator between games and art, but although some types of creative work are undoubtedly rule-governed - a sonnet, a fugue, a lumiere video or an Oulipo project, for example - the rules in these cases differ from game-rules, in that they affect the artists and their endeavours, rather than the audience and their interactions; and it remains far from clear whether rules are a defining characteristic of the arts right across the spectrum. But Humble goes on to categorise different types of game in terms of whether their rules are created in advance or on-the-fly, suggesting that there are four categories:

  1. Rules are created in advance, and fully understood by the players as they play (eg. Snakes and Ladders)
  2. Rules are created in advance, but too complex to be remembered, and therefore a book or umpire is required to clarify them during play (eg. Dungeons and Dragons)
  3. Rules are created in advance, but modified during play (eg. "professional military umpired war games")
  4. Rules are created when the game starts, and modified during play ("This type includes children's play or make believe")

It is in the fourth of these categories that Humble's over-emphasis on rules becomes problematic. "Children's play or make believe" is not necessarily rule-governed at all. To a child, the phrase "Let's play!" means something different from "Let's play a game!" The second phrase means "Let's play a game with predefined rules", whereas the first means "Let's have fun", and may involve rules or may not. When my brother was six or seven years old, his favourite pastime was digging holes in the back garden. Rules were imposed on him - "Don't you dig up my flowerbeds!" - but these were nothing to do with his enjoyment of the activity. Nor was it in any direct way a preparation for adult life. Was digging holes a game? Not by any normal definition. Was it play? Certainly. Running and jumping, make-pretend, pulling faces, standing on one leg, skipping, singing, painting and playing Monopoly are all types of play, but not all of them are games, because not all of them have rules. In other words, games - recreational activities defined by their rules - are a subset of play; and play is a spectrum of behaviour which also includes the arts (such as painting and make-pretend).

Humble's attempt to create a link between games and art by suggesting that both activities are rule-governed is ultimately unconvincing. But this is not to say that there cannot be common ground between the two, or to deny that - as in the Snakes and Ladders example - rules can sometimes convey meaning. And where Humble's analysis is really useful is that it allows him to see through what most people regard as the most important aspects of computer games - "representation systems" and "simulation", as he puts it - to the inner structure. It is this insight which allows him to drastically strip away so many of the computer game's most familiar gizmos and strategies - the levels, the lives, the point-scoring systems, the sound-effects and most of the visual effects too - in The Marriage, until he arrives at something which combines some of the visual qualities of abstract art with some of the economy of suggestion of a modern poem.

Samorost imageSimplification of format seems to be a common feature amongst the more successful computerised art-games. Samorost 2 (2005), from the Czech company Amanita Design, is another example. It's basically a puzzle-solving game. A little cartoon man lives on a small planet with a dog and a pear-orchard. The game begins with two aliens landing in a rocket, stealing his pears and abducting his dog. The little man launches his own rocket and sets off in pursuit. The rest of the game takes us through a number of screens as the little man attempts to get his dog back, but finds himself confronted by one difficulty after another. In each screen there is a puzzle which has to be solved before he can make any further progress - in one, for example, he comes to a flooded chamber and has to work out how to drain away the water before he can reach the submerged exit. This is accomplished by pulling a flush mechanism and then turning a stopcock to prevent the water from coming back.

One reason why Samorost 2 works in artistic terms is because it doesn't hurry us. You can take as much time as you want (or need) working out the puzzle on each screen, which means that your attention isn't dragged away from the game's artistic aspects by the need to get on with playing it. And the artistic aspects are well worth noticing. The graphic design is wonderfully quirky, full of textures such as bark, moss and rust which give the Samorost universe a unique identity - small-scale, retro and homely - not at all what you would normally expect from a science-fiction computer game. There are also numerous flashes of humour. At the start of the game, for example, the little man has to bang a dozing robot over the head to make him open an iron gate; in order to do this he has to steal a mallet from a slug-monster; and he obtains the mallet by concocting a potion which makes the slug-monster drunk.

What takes the game one step further into artistic territory, however, is that as the little man reaches the end of his quest we learn why the aliens stole his pears and abducted his dog in the first place. He finds himself in a pear-pickling factory. The aliens, it turns out, serve a hedonistic slug-king addicted to pickled pears, and they have imprisoned the dog in a treadmill (with a sausage just out of reach to keep him running), which drives a fan to keep the slug-king cool. It's all very light-hearted, but even so it does give us the feeling that in playing Samorost we are doing more than just solving a series of puzzles: we are exploring a world, and unearthing its secrets.

One last aspect of Samorost worth noticing is our relationship with the little man himself. Because he has quite a distinct character of his own, when we play the game we don't really feel that we are inside him. Again, the pace of the game helps with this effect. When you play a high-pressure game in which, so to speak, you are constantly having to fight or run for your life, there is no room for a sense of separation between yourself and your avatar. In Samorost, on the other hand, there is an odd and persistent sense that it's the little man himself who is solving the puzzles on each screen - even though it's really us. In the flooded chamber, we're the ones who have to work out how to pull the flush and turn the stopcock in order to get rid of the water - yet when we succeed, we feel as if the little man has done it. And this sense of watching a character from the outside as he makes progress through the game is part of what makes Samorost feel more like a story than a conventional computer game.

Graveyard imageInterestingly, this sense of separation from the central character is also a feature of Tale of Tales' 2008 game The Graveyard. In this game, our task as players is simply to guide an old lady along a path through the middle of a cemetery, until she comes to a bench in front of a chapel. When she sits on this bench the game enters a non-interactive sequence, in which a song on the theme of mortality is sung in Flemish, with subtitles. After the song is over we are able to control the old lady again, and our task is to walk her back out of the cemetery, which completes the game. The only variation is that if we pay $5 for the full version, the old lady may die while she is sitting on the bench.

A lot of the discussion about this game has focussed on two questions: firstly whether it's really a game at all, and secondly whether it would have been just as effective as a short film, given that the middle section is non-interactive, and that your options as a player are strictly limited even when you are supposedly "in control" of the avatar. On the first question, Michael Samyn himself (one of the co-founders of Tale of Tales, the other being Aureia Harvey) responds by attacking the boundary which separates games from art:

We donít mind calling our work games because we believe that contemporary computer games have already crossed the borders of traditional games. Most of them just donít realize it yet. They donít realize that the most interesting aspect of their design is the way in which they express the story: through the environment, the animations, the colour, the lighting, etc... [But] when we talk about ďstoryĒ ... we donít mean linear plot-based narrative constructions... we refer to the meanings of the game, the content, its theme... With Tale of Tales, we try to develop a new form of interactive entertainment. One that exploits the mediumís capacity of immersion and simulation to tell its story... It is the experience that matters, not the length of the game or the number of levels or enemies or weapons, etcetera. (http://tale-of-tales.com/blog/the-graveyard-post-mortem/)

These remarks also shape an answer to the second question - whether The Graveyard would have been just as effective as a short film. Samyn's argument is that a computer game possesses qualities of interaction, immersion and simulation which cannot be reproduced in other media, and which make players experience the content of the game quite differently from a film or a written narrative. Interactivity is the key ingredient, but not the only one. In The Graveyard, the three-dimensional environment also plays a very important part. The virtual cemetery through which we guide the old lady is displayed on the screen in two dimensions, but it was created using 3D software, and the sense that we are moving into the cemetery as the old lady walks, rather than looking at a framed picture of it, is central to the feel of the piece. The 3D modelling gives a feeling of perspectives changing all around us as we move. As in Samorost, playing the game is a way of exploring a world: and as in Tale of Tales' other games, The Endless Forest and (most recently) The Path, this sense is greatly augmented not only by effects of light and shade - clouds passing overhead, turning the environment from sunny to shady and back again - and by the sound-environment - the noise of traffic from outside the cemetery, birds twittering, a dog barking - but also by a sense of what we can't see: a feeling that the three dimensional structures in the game are blocking our view at times, which implies that there is more in the game-world than we are being shown.

In some respects the game's most important qualities are negative ones: it makes its statement as much in terms of what it isn't, and what it doesn't do, as in terms of what it is and does. It is such a deliberately dialectical and provocative piece, a poke in the eye for "traditional" computer games design, that it's really no wonder it has provoked howls of outrage from the diehard gaming community. ("The Graveyard... infuriates me. I think it's a pretentious, ineffective waste of the interactive medium, and I hate it." - Anthony Burch, http://www.destructoid.com/indie-nation-39-the-graveyard-110611.phtml, July 2008.) It's a game set in a cemetery; the central character is a decrepit old lady; you can't make her jump or fly or even walk very fast; there's no point-scoring, no way of winning, no challenge to be overcome and no skill involved in playing. Furthermore the range of things you can do as a player is so strictly limited that the word "interactive" is almost a misnomer. Almost, but not quite. What nobody seems to have picked up on is that the tension between what we expect to be able to do as computer-game players and what we are allowed to do within The Graveyard is one of the game's most important messages. The sense of frustration, thwarted expectation and powerlessness is intentional. This is what old age and death are like: you run out of options: all you can do is follow a pre-ordained path. But within this grim message there is a hint of positive philosophy. Life, the game seems to be saying, is not necessarily about doing, achieving and winning: it's about experiencing. Your aim should not be to overcome the universe in which you find yourself, not to win prizes from it, but to attune yourself to it. Beyond The Graveyard's critique of "traditional" computer-game design lies a wider critique of our consumerist, achievement-oriented, individualistic society.

Gravitation imageIn The Graveyard it isn't just the content of the game which is significant, but the underlying structure: it isn't just the fact that we recognise the gaming environment as a cemetery and the avatar as a little old lady; it's also the fact that our options as players are very strictly limited and it's impossible to make the game go very fast. This use of structure to convey meaning is something which The Graveyard shares with Jason Rohrer's Gravitation. In Gravitation, your avatar is a pixellated man, who you initially discover standing next to a fireplace, in a small illuminated square surrounded by blackness. If you walk to the left, the square travels with you, and you discover a yellow-haired child with a red ball. The child throws the ball towards you, wanting you to play. If you get underneath the ball and bounce it back towards the child, the child starts to emit love-hearts, the illuminated screen around your avatar expands, and you can see that above the room in which you are playing there is a maze of upper levels. After you have played with the child for a bit, the illuminated area around your avatar expands to its maximum, flames start to come out of the top of your avatar's head, and by pressing the space-bar you can jump up into the upper levels and explore them. They are full of stars, which tumble down to the bottom as soon as you touch them. After a short while the illuminated square begins to shrink again, and your jumping power declines, which means you have to go back down to the bottom to refresh your powers.

When you get there, you find the child walled in by the stars you have collected, which have turned to blocks of ice with scores on them. You can free the child - and collect your points - by pushing these blocks into the fireplace, where they melt. Then if you play with the child again your powers of inspiration come back, and you can once more leap into the upper levels. You can only do this a couple of times, however, before you find that when you return to the bottom of the game the child has vanished and there is nothing left but the red ball. This is the game's most intensely emotional moment: the illuminated square has shrunk back to its smallest dimensions, and you find yourself walking your avatar up and down in the dark, in an attempt to discover where the child has got to. The game is time-limited (at eight minutes), but it normally goes on for a while after the child's disappearance. Furthermore, the illuminated square expands again after a while, and your leaping power comes back - which gives you a chance to reflect on how different the leaping and star-collecting feel when there's nobody else in the game apart from yourself.

Rohrer describes this as a game "about mania, melancholia, and the creative process". It's also, of course, about the relationship between a parent and a child. Playing with your child fills you with inspiration, but in order to pursue your ideas (or, to put it another way, in order to use them as a means of earning points) you have to abandon the child and risk not only disappointing but losing him or her. As in The Graveyard, the limits placed on what you can do as a player are integral to the meaning of the piece - you can only acquire the ability to jump to the upper levels of the game, and thus to score points, by playing with your child; but when you get into the upper levels you can't see the child any more. Unlike The Graveyard, however, Gravitation has more of the attributes of an orthodox computer-game: point-scoring, a time-limit and an element of skill (jumping from ledge to ledge in the upper levels requires some dexterity). Where the game departs from orthodoxy is that it seems to suggest that point-scoring may be a waste of time, or perhaps even harmful. It doesn't really get you anywhere - it doesn't, for example, earn you access to another level - and when you return to the bottom level you will either find that the stars you collected have walled your child into a corner, or that your child has disappeared entirely.

In this way, like The Graveyard, Gravitation seems to be offering a critique of the normal game-playing mindset. If you don't go into the upper levels at all, you can spend the entire game playing with the child, and the child won't disappear - but you won't score any points. Thus you can play the game "safely", but only by resolutely ignoring much of its potential. As soon as you fully engage with it, and start trying to score points, you gain in one way but lose in another. The effect is one of irony and complexity. Instead of the usual game-playing credo, that winning equates with virtue, Gravitation seems to be suggesting that in life there are no clear-cut winners and losers, only difficult questions with no correct answers.

From these examples there seems little doubt that the answer to the question whether computer games can also be art is yes. It may be possible to object that The Graveyard pushes so far in the direction of art that it ceases to qualify as a game, but this accusation cannot be levelled at The Marriage, Samorost or Gravitation. Furthermore, although there is an ever-present danger that game-play and artistic appreciation may be at odds with one another, these games show that there are various strategies which can be used to get around the difficulty. The first is to use the structure of the game itself for symbolic purposes. The second is to slow the game right down, eliminate time-constraints and do away with the need for players to display skill or dexterity - thus allowing them more freedom to concentrate on the game's artistic aspects. The third is to create a sense of separation between the player and the game's central character, so that the unfolding of the game becomes less like a personal challenge and more like the unfolding of a story.

But the most obvious strategy, used by all of these games, is simply to choose an unusual game-scenario and develop it in an unorthodox manner: a marriage, a little man trying to get his dog back from aliens, an old lady visiting a cemetery, or a man getting inspiration by playing with his child. All of these games make us stop and think simply because they are different from what we would normally expect.

According to an article Esquire magazine published about Jason Rohrer in 2008,

Clint Hocking, a designer at Ubisoft best known for Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell, was so blown away by Passage [Rohrer's previous game] that he made it a focus of his Game Developers Conference talk earlier this year. In front of an audience full of the industry's most influential game designers, Hocking growled, "Why can't we make a game that fucking means something? A game that matters? You know?"... Then he put up a slide of another small indie game, the Marriage, coded by Rohrer's friend Rod Humble. "I think it sucks ass that two guys tinkering away in their spare time have done as much or more to advance the industry this year than the other hundred thousand of us working fifty-hour weeks," said Hocking. (www.esquire.com)

But the fact that these games are produced by individuals or small teams is significant in itself, of course. It's far easier for individuals and small teams to come up with something really original than for large organisations working fifty-hour weeks and locked into an industrial cycle of production and mass-marketing. The problem in the past has always been that such small-scale individualistic work has found it difficult to reach an audience: but the Web has changed the laws of the marketplace to some extent; and the Web's potential for bringing really original work to the attention of interested parties right across the developed world may be the real key to the future development of computer games as art.



© Edward Picot, May 2009

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