I am decidedly against the idea that any art “should” be created in any particular way.
After my post on The Marriage, I felt like this was the obvious next subject. I’ve played a number of games claiming to use game design as the primary avenue for artistic expression. This idea is completely absurd.
These art games are interesting, I like playing them, they’re unique, and maybe they’ll help grab some attention, but they’re not proving anything we didn’t already know. On the contrary, by ignoring 90% of game capabilities and simplifying the last 10% for the sake of philosophy, we will severely retard the progress of our art form. In an industry with so few calling themselves artists, we need everyone we can get pushing games as far as they can. But let me slow my heartrate and digress. . . .
Let’s examine the feat of the art game: the hope to remove all other art forms from games and, in doing so, prove the importance of games to the art world. I’ll use Rod Humble’s The Marriage and Raspberry by Jonathan Blow as examples because these are a couple of games I like by designers whom I respect.
First of all, these games do not use game design as their primary mode of expression. They distinctly use it in conjunction with other modes, most importantly, the visual. It is true that they practice minimalist abstraction with their visuals, but they remain visuals, particularly powerful visuals, and they remain necessary to the artistic expression of their games.
No gameplay, but the most powerful feelings of the game have already been summoned. The question is, are we feeling what Humble wanted us to feel? . . . I know I am.
The Marriage initially greets us with a loaded title. Before even playing the game, our ideas and feelings have been stirred. Then the game begins. We see two squares, one blue and one pink. Individuals from all around the world, members of any culture likely to find this game on the internet, are sure to see these shapes within the context of the game’s title. They are not simply blue and pink squares, they are husband and wife. A tidal wave of unconcious assumptions come with the assigments of husband and wife, like the belief that incoming circles are also anthropomorphic. Then we have contact between our husband and a circle and he grows larger, a change we will all associate with power, health, strength. A similar circle encounters our wife and she shrinks, weaker, dying. Ideas collide and we have a concept, a rule: The husband gains strength from outside the relationship, while his wife is weakened by the same effects. I do not claim that this is the experience that Humble meant to design, because his intentions are irrelevant now, while we play. All that matters is what we interpret from his game, and thus far we have not interacted. We’d might as well be watching a film. So much for Humble’s use of rules, right?
No. Films have rules too. Films have physics and logic and what I would call “gameplay.” It’s that “gameplay” of a film that makes us hate movies when they do something unbelievable. They can include a million impossible events as long as they follow their own rules, but when those are breached, the audience is lost. The game is over. Disbelief is no longer suspended. It is exactly the same as playing a game and realizing that the computer is surely “cheating.” A game’s rules must appear consistent if it hopes to keep it’s player engaged and believing.
Humble’s film has taught us rules. But The Marriage has significantly different rules from most pictures at the theatre. We expect, because he called it a game, that his rules will allow us to move the mouse and directly interact with his world. We are limited, but we have more power here than at the AMC. So we move the mouse, and what happens? More visual changes! Squares shrink and grow and fade in and out while circles collide and vanish and interpretations explode spontaneously into the mind of the player.
All of it is visual. Every bit of it.
Now for Raspberry. The concept of this game was to treat game dynamics as though they were musical. Pieces linked together to form a score, manipulating the emotions of the character as ambiguously, but effectively, as music. Excellent idea. Fantastic. But how is it different from other games?
In this portion of the game, you move that star with the mouse to select a colored ball. When you select another ball of the same color, they both disappear and you get points. Very simple, but fun! Or should I say simple and fun?
Don’t get me wrong, the idea is very original, but it is fundamentally no different from other games. Yes, Blow has acknowledged a philosophical perspective from which a designer may develop their method, but that method did not have to be so present in Raspberry. Blow could have removed the explanation of theory and removed the vertically scrolling sidebar (an ode to the player piano, notifying a keen player of oncoming phases) to simply give us an interesting game that exploits the senses to explore unique dynamics of play.
This one may not be entirely visual, but only because it gives us the aural as well. Just 2 little senses. They just happen to be the primary senses of modern human perception and the most artistically explored of all. Nothing new there.
So you may be asking, “Chris, you pretentious bastard, will you ever be happy?” You’re thinking, “If it’s not ‘complain complain, not enough art’ then it’s ‘complain complain, this art’s the wrong kind.'” Well, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to sound so negative. I don’t like people that are negative and I hate having to be that person, but sometimes I don’t have a choice. I’ll prove I’m not just a complainer! I have suggestions!
Destroy your limitations. Crush your restrictions. Ignore any philosophical handicap. The only thing that should ever lead a game designer, or any artist, to restrain himself should be the need to expressive himself through his medium. You will need restraint to express yourself, to create wisely, but to decide that games should not indulge in every aspect they can snatch up is to decide that paintings should not include shadows, that music should only be electronic, that films must be in black and white or that dance can only ever be tap. It’s arbitrary and foolish.
That being said, there is discipline. To learn discipline requires practice and if a designer feels his games are too dependent on their visuals, their cinematics, their “flare and flash,” it would be wise to practice making games with less of those pretty extras. But never forget that it is only for the sake of practice. Never forget that you have only turned the volume down. Never forget that a game does not exist without some way for its players to perceive it and that form of perception will always involve the practice of an art form other than game design.
I have my own ideas about how gameplay is used to express feelings and ideas, but that is not for this topic. I will say that I agree with Jonathan Blow’s idea that the feelings conjoured by gameplay are akin to those of music. They are vague and primal, but also associative (aren’t all mediums that way though?). I have to stop. This really demands it’s own post and once I get going I won’t be able to quit.
Hope this meant something.
-Christopher J. Rock