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The Art of Game Design

Indie video game designers are pushing the experience into the real of art.

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The Art of Game Design

  1. 1. The Art of Independent Game Design by Louise Buyo I magine a form of creative expression that seamlessly integrates aspects of various artistic disciplines, resulting in an art form that incorporates narra- tive, aesthetics, sound, performance and movement. Imagine that this medium demands active participation instead of passive observation. Imagine works of art in this medium are dynamic, changing as you interact with them and offering uniquely personal events each time they are experienced. Were you imagining a video game? Challenging Gaming Perceptions graphics for a simpler and more conceptual approach aimed at Although the concept is still very much in its infancy, video creating a meaningful experience for the player. games have begun to emerge as a new medium for independent “My goal is to push the limits of what can be done in games artistic expression. As art, video games offer radical possibilities and to innovate the way people play them,” says Edmund because they combine visual, audio and performance elements McMillen, a video game designer known for independent games with motion and an unprecedented level of interaction (a nod to such as Gish, Super Meat Boy, Coil and Aether. “I want to get my relational aesthetics). Unlike mainstream commercial video work and ideas out there to people who will appreciate them, games, which are designed for entertainment, art video games are and possibly inspire others to try to use game design as a way to designed specifically to evoke emotional reactions in their players. express themselves and not just as simple craft.” Rising to the challenge of elevating video games to interac- Game designer Rod Humble is also experimenting with tive fine art are a new fraternity of game designers, primarily these concepts. Humble has been in the video game industry those with experience or careers in the commercial industry, who since 1990 and has worked on more than 200 games. While he is are creating their own independent art game titles and hoping to currently the head of Sim Studio at Electronic Arts (EA), change the ways in which people engage video games. This small Humble develops independent art games on his own time, hop- (but impassioned) contingent of independent game designers ing to bridge the gap between game design and other creative push the boundaries of gaming into the realm of art by experi- mediums that he enjoys, such as painting. His influential art menting with game design and play, and abandoning high-end game The Marriage was one result of these endeavors. In The Marriage, players are invited to examine the dynam- ics of a relationship between two individuals; one individual is represented abstractly by a pink square and the other by a blue square. Players come to the realization that the pink square grows as it comes in contact with the blue square, while the blue square is sustained by spending time away from the pink square. The player, then, must find balance between the needs of the two squares. The design of the game is spare and largely esoteric. Humble explains that his inspiration for game’s simplistic design came from his fascination of abstract art and its possibilities. “I was very heavily influenced by Kandinsky. I was reading his writings, and he would ask himself, ‘Can I express something using color and basic shapes as opposed to representation? Can I get closer and closer to what is pure about painting? How much feeling can you put into the colors on the canvas?’ And I thought that maybe that applies to games. How much can you put into the rules themselves — the way one part interacts with another?” The Marriage was very much an experiment for Humble, and while he was interested in getting constructive criticism from the people who played it, the last thing Humble expected was the In Coil by Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl, you play from the perspective of an evolving organism. amount of attention the game got among people from all walks 24 Art Calendar ı July/August 2010 www.artcalendar.com
  2. 2. of life. In a 2007 interview with Jason Rohrer, creator of the exis- tential art video game The Passage, Humble remarked on the sur- prising response The Marriage had among non-gamers, “When you make a game and see it getting picked up on marriage guid- ance sites and relationship bulletin boards, then your eyes are 6 Independent Art Games You Can Play for Free Quite understandably, you might be curious to opened to just how far games can grow as a business and as an art experience art games yourself. In no particular order, form.” here are a few examples you can try: Creating Compelling Game Experiences 1. Coil by Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl For any video game, the concept of play is fundamental to An experimental Flash game with no instruction or the medium, much in the same way that three-dimensionality is clear direction, Coil changes as it progresses and requires the foundation of sculpture or sound is the basis for music. As its players to adjust to its different incarnations. Play it at Alexander Galloway, author of Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Armor Games: http://armorgames.com/play/764/coil. Culture, asserts, “If photographs are images and films are moving images, then video games are best defined as actions.” 2. La La Land series by Matt Aldridge, It is safe, then, to say that an art video game is a conceptual a.k.a. “TheAnemic” and “biggt” experience and will never be an art object like a painting or a Short and surreal, each La La Land game (there are sculpture. Even if someone were to set up a permanent monitor or five in total) drops you into a dream world of bizarre sit- screen in a gallery or an art museum, viewers could never just pas- uations. A ZIP containing all five games can be down- sively observe the video game, as one would with music or film, loaded at designer Anna Anthropy's Web site nor could it be appreciated on aesthetics alone. While there is (http://www.auntiepixelante.com/?p=264). potential artistic merit in the way a video games looks, the graph- ics are essentially a vehicle for the game play. If you don’t engage 3. Don’t Look Back by Terry Cavanagh the game, then the art doesn’t happen. Inspired by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, Don’t But are video games compelling? Can they evoke emotion? Look Back is a great example of how a video game can invoke a mood. In this case, one that is both menacing “I strongly believe that game design can be art and that emo- and monochromatic. Play it directly on Cavanagh's Web tion can be expressed through a game’s design as much as through site: http://distractionware.com/blog/?p=672. a song or a painting,” states Edmund McMillen. McMillen is one of several independent designers who also 4. Mirror Stage by Stephen Lavelle worked on the seminal independent art game Braid, created by Mirror Stage takes its name from the psychoanalytic game developer Jonathon Blow, one of the most established inno- theory of Jacques Lacan, which Lavelle distills into vators of art games. The Braid design team combined platform abstract simplicity. Can be downloaded in multiple plat- and puzzle game play with painterly, motion-oriented aesthetics; forms on Lavelle’s Web site: “organic and complex” music; and underlying conceptual ele- http://www.increpare.com/2009/03/mirror-stage-done/. ments as the driving forces behind the play. Braid explored quan- tum mechanics, time and the nature of regret, with its defining 5. Stench Mechanics by Jonatan Soderstrom, game element being the player’s unlimited ability to reverse time a.k.a. “cactus” and redo actions, even after death. Soderstrom has a reputation for being a relentless Despite Blow and his team being driven by artistic intention experimenter. When designing games he is both quick rather than commercial goals, Braid achieved tremendous critical and prolific, and with more than 30 games posted, his and commercial success. A preliminary version of the game was Web site (http://www.cactus-soft.co.nr) can keep you released in 2006, where it won the grand prize at the busy for a while. This short science fiction adventure is a International Games Festival (IGF). Then, in 2008, the game was great way to acquaint yourself with his work. released as a download on Xbox Live Arcade, and within six months grossed more than $4 million, becoming the highest- 6. Moon Stories Trilogy by Daniel Benmergui, grossing independent game on the platform. a.k.a. “ludomancy” “Braid was the first independent game considered an art Moon Stories is actually a trilogy comprised of I Wish I game that has been successful in the mainstream,” says Were the Moon, Storyteller and Today I Die, and it won McMillen, citing that many industry professionals were surprised the Jury Prize at 2009 IndieCade (International Festival of by how well the game sold and began looking at independent Independent Games). Each component has the distinc- tive aura of introspection and melancholy of a sad, games differently. romantic poem. Download all three games or play On the heels of that achievement came greater visibility and directly on his Web site: interest in game designers focusing on art and experimental game http://www.ludomancy.com/blog/downloads. design. Jenova Chen, Kellee Santiago and their company www.artscuttlebutt.com Serving the Visual Artist for 23 Years 25
  3. 3. ments into art is not. Many new media artists have long been experimenting with game design, and forward- looking installation artists have begun using games as a means of inviting a new level of interactivity. For exam- ple, art collaborative (art)n has been using video games to explore political and socioeconomic issues since 1983. Russian artists Vladislav Efimov and Aristarkh Chernyshev meld computer games, statistical models, data transmission and robotics to bring viewers into the central role, effectively casting them as the heroes in their works. While these works are interesting and thought-provoking, few achieve the technical proficien- cy of independent game designers. In Braid, Jonathan Blow married his two influences: English and Computer Science. As a result, the game play is inspired by subjects as diverse as quantum mechanics and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Perhaps the bridge to artists integrating more compelling game play elements into installation work ThatGameCompany achieved critical and commercial success lies in greater collaborations between artists and designers. with their game flOw, an experiment in the theory of dynamic Recently, renowned video artist Bill Viola teamed with the difficulty adjustment, in which the challenges adjust to the USC EA Game Innovation Lab to create The Night Journey progress of the player, customizing each experience. The compa- (www.thenightjourney.com), an art game based on earlier works by ny followed this game up with Flower, an immersive aesthetic Viola. Concerned with mysticism and spiritual tradition, two semi- experience in which the player explores the tension between nal themes in the artist’s works, the game drops players into a desert- “the pastoral and the chaotic,” with the pace of the game again ed landscape to begin on a virtual journey toward enlightenment. adjusting respective the player. Both games are available as Finding enlightenment isn’t easy, and neither is The Night downloads on the PS3. Journey. The game was designed to be enigmatic with a game play Santiago and Blow see the commercial successes of games that “rewards you for slowing down and for introspection … The like Braid, flOw and Flower to be signs that art games are con- more you do things mindfully, the more is revealed to you.”1 necting with people and that the players feel that experimental Although The Night Journey is not due to be completed until games offer unique experiences compared to mainstream titles. In the middle of this year, previews of the game have been received an interview with IndieGames.com, Blow elaborated on why he favorably, both in the art world and in the independent gaming felt independent game design is so vital to mainstream video scene. The Night Journey had a write-up in ARTnews, and the game industry: unfinished version was exhibited at the Foundation for Art and “Games are an important medium for communication. They Creative Technology as part of “Space Invaders: Art and the have a mode of expression that’s very different from what other Video Game Environment” (www.fact.co.uk/2009/space-invaders). media can do. However, the mainstream industry does not spend much effort exploring the expressive power of games; that’s where Convincing the Critics the indies come in. Indies can make whatever games they want to There are signs that the art world is not only aware of this make, because they feel those games are interesting — which is medium, but that it is interested in embracing it seriously. More something the mainstream industry is no longer capable of.” and more video games are being included in exhibitions at respect- Some large game developers seem to be catching on to this ed institutions. There was the recent “Artxgame” exhibition curat- idea, and there are now instances where it seems the dynamic ed and presented by Giant Robot (http://artxgame.com); “Art between mainstream titles, the independent movement and art History of Games” Symposium (www.arthistoryofgames.com) at games may come full circle. Companies like EA and Nintendo are Georgia Tech and Savannah College of Art and Design; and beginning to hire creators of art games as consultants to bring in “Game Play: A Curated Exhibition of Game-Based Art” curated new blood. For example, Rohrer has consulted on LMNO, a game by Echotrope (www.echotrope.org) and hosted by the University being developed at EA under the direction of Stephen Spielberg. of Nebraska at Omaha. “The Art of Video Games,” scheduled for But while some art game designers have no problem with March to September 2012 at the Smithsonian American Art commercial success, others want nothing to do with it. Museum, promises to be a major 40-year retrospective highlighting “In terms of the commercial reception, I could care less. I am “the influence of world events and popular culture on game devel- very pleased right now that art games don’t make any money. Long opment, and the impact that the games can have on society.” may that be the case as far as I am concerned,” comments Humble. Still, many cultural critics, largely outside the video game industry, have treated the idea of game design as art with great The Bridge to the Art World skepticism. Some critics point to art’s transformative power, stat- While the concept of video games as an art form in and of themselves is relatively new, the integration of digital gaming ele- 1 Sheets, Hilary. “Click Here for Enlightenment.” ARTnews. April 2010, p. 98-101. 26 Art Calendar ı July/August 2010 www.artcalendar.com
  4. 4. ing that, in their eyes, the games fail to achieve these lofty heights and struggle to attain the scope of estab- lished art forms. In late 2005, film critic Roger Ebert set off a firestorm online with his unequivocal declaration that “video games are not art and will never be.” He has revisited the topic a few times since, most recently in April 2010 when he responded to a lecture on game development given by Kellee Santiago at the University of South Carolina. Santiago concluded that while it was true that the medi- um of video games as art was in a rudimentary stage, it cer- tainly fulfilled the basic function of art to say something about the world to its audience. Ebert was not swayed. “I remain convinced that in principle, video games In Flower, designed by Jenova Chen and developed by ThatGameCompany, players control the wind in a field cannot be art,” Ebert said. “Perhaps it is foolish of me to of flowers. Flower is intended to stimulate an emotional response in players, in addition to being challenging. say ‘never,’ because never … is a long, long time. Let me just say that no video gamer now living will survive long enough consider, as Rod Humble has, that the best is yet to come: to experience the medium as an art form.” “The mystery of art is very precious,” he points out. “One of Even within the independent gaming community, the effec- the greatest things about art is that you can never tell when some- tiveness of art games is disputed. Jim Sterling, a commentator on thing new is going to emerge or change is going to take place.” AC Destructoid.com, is a vociferous opponent of what he feels is a trend towards unimaginative pretention in art games. In his post A former art consultant and curatorial assistant, Louise Buyo is the “Indie Games Don’t Have to Act Like Indie Games,” Sterling assistant editor of Art Calendar. To see a portfolio of her writing, visit points to art games The Path, The Void and The Marriage and her Web site at www.LouiseBuyo.com. Louise can be reached at argues, “The factors that make these games dull, boring, frustrat- LBuyo@ArtCalendar.com. ing or smarmy don’t add to the introspection or artistic value of the game. They only serve to turn people off.” In his editorial “Suspend My Disbelief,” Dana Massey, editor of video game review Web site MMORPG.com, challenges inde- pendent designers “to think of games that make you laugh, cry and think.” Only then, he says, will games be worthy of the investment of self that audiences bring to music, performance, writing and the visual arts. Want Your Art Seen & Sold? Designer Jason Rohrer has said that while he may not agree with the individual points of Ebert’s argument, he does believe If you’re a serious artist you need a serious online that no video games in existence come close to approximating the impact of the greatest works art or literature — yet. He does Espresso Artist Websites To Go: 21st Century believe, however, that video games truly can be art if they are designed properly. Art Marketing Machines from Beautiful Artist “In some ways, that’s a controversial viewpoint because some Websites. We give you the tools to Brand, Promote people really love the medium of games and defend it and say, and Sell your art to collectors and arts professionals. ‘Why are you even working in this medium if you think it’s not good?’” he explains. “But I am coming at games from this position of trying to figure out how can I make games that strive for that kind of quality level and sophistication that I see in my favorite works. I don’t think we’re there yet. But it’s a step.” Ready to caffeinate your art career? For designers of art games or experimental games, reconciling the realities and limitations of the medium in the face of their cre- Espresso Artist Websites to Go ative expectation is the deep issue that they wrestle with in their work. If there is a silver lining to be found in the tirades against info@espressoartistwebsites.com video games, it is the fact that it has seemingly inspired more and more game designers to prove him wrong. Perhaps it is best to Payment plans available 2 Watch Santiago’s lecture at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K9y6MYDSAww. www.artscuttlebutt.com Serving the Visual Artist for 23 Years 27