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29 Jun 2009

[This week’s all-new Monday Musings tackles the issue of “art games”, and how we’ve largely been doing it wrong.]

If A Tree Falls In the Forest...

One of the apparent principles of “high art” - in any medium - seems to be the expectation of a certain amount of effort on the part of the audience to understand the work, a concept elegantly described by the phrase, “You get out of it what you put into it.” When it comes to “art games”, however, this idea seems unnecessary, and tends to be badly abused.

Some creators have something substantial to say, and appear to do so effortlessly, producing art that resonates and endures. Other creators have little to say, or a poor idea of why they want to say it, but they nevertheless aspire to emulate their more focused counterparts. Often, such creators appear to have learned the wrong lessons from their role models: specifically, that a work that is hard to understand is more “arty” than one whose significance is immediately clear.

This leads to a kind of willful obfuscation of the meaning of a piece; an attempt - perhaps conscious, maybe unconscious - to mask the work’s fundamental lack of meaning. The misguided creator ultimately seeks to emulate the electrifying experience of total identification with a piece, but in fact succeeds only in emulating the frustration of failing to understand it, and then justifies the failing by falling back on the “You get out of it what you put into it” argument, retreating into a faux-elitist ivory tower from which to throw stones at the “uncultured masses”.

The idea that obscurity somehow increases the significance of a piece is wrong-headed and self-destructive. As goes the classic riddle, “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody’s around to hear, does it make a sound?” so too we can ask, “If an artistic work expresses an idea and nobody understands it, did it express anything at all?”

Experience Is Universal

It is fairly common for “arty” literature, music, and films to require some effort on the part of the audience to achieve full understanding of and identification with the piece. This idea has been applied to art games, and in fact appears to be at the core of today’s definition of “art game”, but this approach entirely fails to embrace games’ unique advantage: the universality of experience.

Literature, music, and film are passive media: ideas are presented in fixed form, and the audience reacts to those ideas. As such, deep emotional experiences must arise from empathy:

empathy noun the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Empathy is a skill, to be learned and practiced. When we say of fixed-media art pieces that “You get out of it what you put into it”, empathy is “what you put into it”. But some people are less empathic than others, and the value placed on empathy varies from person to person. It’s no surprise, then, that as fixed-media works require a more refined sense of empathy they simultaneously become increasingly niche.

Art games need not succumb to this fate. In games, the audience is having an experience, rather than empathizing with one. To experience is not a skill to be learned or practiced; rather, it is innate to the human condition. The problem of obscurity can be avoided for games by adopting an audience-centric rather than character- or plot-centric approach, thereby capitalizing on the universality of experience.

Breaking the Rules

In addition to willfully obscuring their meaning (if they have one at all) and creating indirect, empathy-driven experiences in what should be a directly-experienced participatory medium, art games have shown a fondness for breaking established rules and principles of game design, often for no apparent reason other than to be, essentially, “counter-culture”.

It’s not unexpected for there to be questioning of these rules, given the relative youth of our medium. And looking at the histories of other media, we see ample evidence of experimentation with contemporary rules leading to major creative movements with enduring significance (e.g. the Renaissance). However, when the rules of a medium are broken, it should be done for a well-considered reason.

Too often, art games shatter established conventions simply to be “different”. Any break with convention runs the risk of alienating the audience, and with art games already having willful obscurity and an inappropriate focus on empathy stacked against them, they can’t afford to jettison conventions the purpose of which are to anchor players in something, anything, familiar.

To be blunt: breaking the rules of game design without a damn good reason doesn’t make you “arty”, it just makes you suck. And if you’re thinking your game isn’t “arty” enough and you’re considering breaking a few rules to address that, then what you really need to do is go back to your fundamental concept and ask yourself if you had something of significance to express in the first place; odds are good that you didn’t.

Art Is Passion, Not Engineering

You can’t engineer art. The intangibles that make an experience satisfying, fulfilling, and significant are not quantifiable; you can’t dispassionately engineer them, and you’re not likely to stumble into them by accident. They come from the creator’s irrepressible passion for the work, and the audience can sense that passion, even if only subconsciously.

Creators should have passion for their concept, something to say or express that must come out, no matter what. They should also have passion for their medium: their idea must be expressed interactively, because no fixed medium can do it justice. And finally, they should have passion for their audience: it’s not just about creating an experience, it’s about sharing that experience, and if nobody can understand what you’re saying, then you’re not really expressing anything at all.

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design-essays game-design monday-musings video-games