Put the words ‘art’ and ‘game’ together and you’re bound to get a response. People will argue that art games are at the height of what gaming should be aiming for. Others will claim they aren’t even worthy of being called a game at all. So what happened when the Experimental Gameplay Project had to set out a new theme? They chose art, of course, and the result was a collection of interesting releases from some of the brightest lights on the indie development scene.
It’s interesting to see where the inspiration for these titles came from. Martin Jonasson, aka Grapefrukt, made a game called Leaf (pictured top right), his idea having emerged after taking a walk on an leaf1autumn day while listening to a song by Sylvain Piron. “I watched leaves falling and was fascinated by their floaty way of falling, almost as if they were trying to get the most of that final flight,” he says. It becomes clear when you play Leaf that he’s telling a particular story. However much a leaf may travel after falling from a tree, it always has the same result: it will land, and rot away. It doesn’t matter how much you try to change the movement of your little green leaf when playing, you always get the same result. “With Leaf, I tried to make a game that makes you feel something,” says Jonasson. “I’m not sure if I pulled it off. But I quite like it anyway.”
Paolo Pedercini describes his entry as being an “exercise”, as the EGP pushes him to make things he wouldn’t naturally think to create. In making Every Day The Same Dream (pictured middle right), Pedercini says he “tried to comply to the genre of ‘art games’ that has been established by works like Passage by Jason Roher - and among the others by Tales of Tales, Increpare, Messhoff, Catus, Ludomancy…” It’s interesting to see that Pedercini’s inspiration came from a short comic he made 10 years ago. “I was 19 then,” he says, “fresh from high school and directed edtsd1toward some kind of white collar job. It definitely reflects my concerns about the future I had at that point. Then I moved into art and design so my life now doesn’t look like that.” EDTSD is also an attempt to tackle the theme of alienation, dealt with so often in literature, but less frequently in games.
In some ways, EDTSD follows a similar path to Leaf: no matter what you do, you still arrive at the same result. Even when you take the most drastic decision to jump off the roof of your office, you still arrive back at the beginning of your working day. Kyle Gabler, World of Goo’s co-creator and one of the brains behind the EGP, feels that EDTSD was the pick of the bunch from the Art theme. “It was a game that made you feel and think beyond the boundaries of the little Flash file, and like a good art game, made you realise that your life is trivial,” he says. “Interestingly, when we announced the theme, Paolo said he wasn’t a supporter of the art game genre, then he blew us all away.”
Pedercini admits he had reservations about the theme. “I’ve never been an strong advocate of the art games. Being quite into new media art - as teacher and artist - I don’t feel there’s a sunshine1desperate need for such a category. Games can fit into contemporary artistic practice without labels, and they have been in museums, festivals and shows for since the mid ’90s. But I like what this idea produced in the indie game community. In a way, I think most of the so called ‘art games’ are not very interesting as art - Every Day included - but they are generally quite interesting as game experiments.”
What is interesting about the emerging titles is the stark differences in how they tackle the theme. Leaf is artistic in a literal sense: it looks, in many ways, like a living painting. EDTSD take the art theme in the same way that other titles have, by presenting a thought-provoking experience. Sunshine, Kyle Gabler’s own entry (pictured bottom right), is the most traditionally game-like title. How does it fit into the art theme? “It has flowers?” smiles Gabler.
Despite the flowers, Sunshine also aims in some way to tackle the theme of alienation, albeit in a different way to Pedercini’s EDTSD. “Sunshine is a game about alienation of the modern artist, and sprouting and nurturing your creativity against a rainstorm of dissent, and having to create your own sunshine by eating people,” says Gabler. All very dark and mysterious, and a game that, interestingly enough, reminded me of World of Goo. Gabler’s thoughts on art games in general are worth considering. “It’s all Mary Poppins’ Spoon Full of Sugar to make the medicine go down, right? I don’t want a game to force a bunch of bitter medicine and art in my face. I want a game that is outright fun and genuinely interesting, and then slips in a bunch of themes and meanings and feelings before the audience even notices. It’s always more tasty and rewarding when the player discovers the hidden meaning on their own.”
The EGP has again shown what developers can do when given a theme and just seven days to work on a game. The art theme can’t have been an easy one to work with, especially considering the reservations Gabler and Pedercini had about the genre. The games that these developers made, though, are all very much worth checking out, even if only to see the diversity of what art games can be like. By Chris Evans