Independant Videogames and the Farce of Art

The question of videogames and art come up all the time. The question is actually a silly one, since whether or not they’re art is based on definition. So lets ignore that!

So way way back, I played Passage(I’ll be nice to link these stupid games). The game made groan in pain. Boring, with childish symbolism and no sophistication. On one hand I could say it’s a slight bit clever, but it was tepid and hardly enlightening. Apparently some people have had better mileage with it and the game became a big deal.

Really as I see it, people were just proud the retarded child drew a pretty picture.

The real sad backlash of this is what it’s done to the indy community. Between Passage and anything by Cactus, the independant game community gets the message of “If you put no effort into something and make a vague attempt at symbolism, you are clever and art making art!”

That’s not art! and if it is art, it’s TERRIBLE, TERRIBLE BAD ART. Thats the type of art that makes you say “These folks are hacks!” not “Wow look at this sophisticated medium”! They are doing a DISSERVICE to the medium, impressing no one but themselves, creating a circle jerk that produces even less then a real circle jerk! Amazing. Here are two examples I want to go over.

Seven Minutes: So pretty much a vague IWBTG ripoff of sorts, that replaces clever traps and humor, as well as polished ideas with… a vague Adam and Eve metaphor?

So you start in a room with a light in it. Some head (God) tells you not to touch the light(Forbidden Fruit). Upon touching it, GiantHEad tells you what a slap dick you are and if you want to have true enlightenment you will see the world end in Seven Minutes. So thats like, the break of innocence from the bible. So you spend Seven Minute running like hell to get through an ill inspired maze.

So the game is just meh in general. Nothing to cry over! BUT WAIT! if you touch the light and STAND IN PLACE FOR SEVEN MINUTES, GIANT HEAD CONGRATULATES YOU FOR YOUR ENLIGHTENMENT… and… makes you a God with him? It’s really quite insulting.

It’s I Wanna Be The Guy if Cactus made it, pretty much. Only some other dude made it. Maybe is other games are better but he seems hung up on giant heads. Whatever.

Execution: This is a game where you shoot a guy. THATS IT. You load the game up, it tells you to DO THE RIGHT THING. Game starts and you got a gun scope and a guy tied to a post with no context. You pull the trigger and he dies. CONGRATS! You lost! You fag!

So you load the game back up and GASP HES STILL DEAD! Your actions have consequences! He is dead forever! …. or until you edit your registry. Which I did so I could kill him twice. Regardless. So the game is trying to teach you that actions have consequences and permenance. of course, anyone knows this. We are ingrained to know this. This knowledge is one of those things that make us better then lower animals. Kids know this for sure once they break their first toy. We may forget from time to time, but this is not how you remind people.

So what makes this funnier, is… why is he tied up? Did you kidnap him and decide to execute him? Is he a terrorist or something who killed babies? Are you just placing the responisiblity on someone else like a coward? The game is wrought with stupidy. For an unsubtle as Passage is, it’s metaphor at least holds up under some scrutiny.

Real Art

What real art does is not take a slogan, phrase or idea and repackage it in a way that just says it differently. It must support the message. It must support it in a way that makes us realize something new. Art isn’t easy really. Schindler’s List isn’t sad or touching or enlightening because it says “Man it sucks to be a jew during the Holocaust”! It gives a insight through characterization and example. It gives real emotion. Brenda Brathwaite made a boardgame called Train which people slowly realize they’re transporting jews for execution. Now, I’m not sure if that is good (it could easily be hammer-anvil symbolism, but from what I hear the rules are written in a way to try and make people get invested in the act to a degree. Either way I withhold judgement). This game came out of a ‘pseudo game’ she made, which I find more interesting.

Her daughter had learned about the Middle Passage in school and couldn’t quite understand why it was so horrible. Sounded like a pleasent cruise to her! So Brenda made up a little game with prototyping pieces she had laying around that simulated it and had her daughter play. They had little pieces of different sizes, grouped in families. When the ships left, families got broken up between the ship. As time went on in the game, it became clear that there wasn’t enough food for everyone to make it.

Her daughter cried because the game taught her something she didn’t understand by approaching it from a unique angle. Granted this was a quick little game for an 8 year old (or however hold she is), so it’s not quite developed art, but it approaches it from the right direction. The hard part is doing this for intelligent folk and without being totally lame about it. Current Indy Game makers don’t even seem to be trying. They’re either like me, making actual games that are fun, or making shitty pixel art second grade metaphors.

Game maker Zarathustra referred to these as Sadlets (Like applets, only sad!). Please. Don’t make anymore. Either make a real game or have some sophistication. Or better yet, do both! you’ll be a better man then me!

edit: Turns out someone on destructoid beat me too this a few days ago with a FANTASTIC Post on the matter. Lemme thank Logo for giving me these too links, which I highly recommend.

Destructoid Article

Gamasutra Followup

16 thoughts on “Independant Videogames and the Farce of Art

  1. It’s funny you’d post this today as two articles covering the same thing were recently written:

    Intentional Obscurity is just a slap in the face and is flat out rude. These pretentious games are preaching a meaning. Good Stories, like Schindler’s List, tell you an experience and let you come to the meaning yourself.

  2. A very nice article! I have played all of the other games by the creator of ‘7 Minutes’. I’ve found all of his releases some kind of experiments. Not artistic games though. They’re way too poor in gameplay to be games. These releases though get attention in the Indie community, because they, as you said, use minimal effort to be a ‘piece of art’.

  3. I wish I had some thoughts of my own to bring to the table, but all I can say is that you make a good point, and I completely agree.

  4. Hahah, I’m surprised your comment didn’t get flagged as spam. Thats how a long of spam posts are worded, but I can see you’re a real person! Well, maybe stew on it a bit and maybe you’ll come up with something interesting to say. I’m always interested in other peoples insights to keep my own opinions fresh and realistic.

  5. Thats a shame. On one hand there were some sorta impressive bits in Seven Minutes. I actually thought the length was perfect for that kind of game, which was nice, but the actual game play elements were lacking. The actual pretentiousness just drove the game into the ground for me though. I’d sorta hoped he’d produce stuff that was more interesting.

    I had a similar thing with the guy who made the Flash Game “Don’t Look Back”. I had mixed feelings about it. It was heavy on the “art” but put a bit more effort into it then other offerings, but the gameplay was….. iffy. But he went on to work on vvvvvvvvvv or whatever that game is. There was no way I was paying the super high price for vvvvvvv that was being asked of it, but the ideas and gameplay seemed very nice in the demo. That was a pleasant surprise. Guess the Seven Minute guy can’t do the same (or at least hasn’t yet).

  6. Damn, your post got marked as spam, but I gotta thank the crap out of you for showing me these. I think I’ll update the original post with these.

  7. I feel almost like I’m taking the devil’s advocate’s role in saying this, but I consider (some of) those pretentious art games important in enabling the growth of video-games. Of course, I’m one of those crazy people wants to see more “art” in video-games. Perhaps there’s some bias here.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think the term “sadlet” is a great one for these pretentious and insubstantial creations. But a few of these games do attempt to convey a message through gameplay rather than through cutscenes and linear plots usually involving saving the world. Finding a way to integrate gameplay into the narrative or artistic statement of a game, in my mind, is essential in supporting the claim that videogames are a valid medium for artistic expression. From what I’ve seen, we don’t have a game like that yet. Currently it’s either “make a game and have a story ontop of it” or “make a Sadlet and try to give it a message.”

    On a side note, I really think Jonathan Blow did a good job of making Braid a quality game while integrating the gameplay into the story. Not perfect by any means but it seems like a good direction to go for games that want be called art.

  8. I didn’t like Braid (a bit too slow and ponderous for me), but I respect Jonathan’s work. But anyways, I can’t say that all indie art games are worthless, but I’m seeing some flopping around and some growing pains. Part of the problem is that many of these games are so totally shallow in their message and weak in their gameplay integration that that actually DAMAGE things a bit. You know what did this right? It’s not Indie. It’s Shadow of the Collosus. Mileage varies with this, but it really puts the act of murder on your hands and many people feel a personal connection and the associated guilt with whats going on. Little details, like having to prepare each sword lunge to the weak point makes the experience tactile. That truly is the strength of video games — making the experience tactile and personal, like the Middle Passage game.

    Games like Passage try and make it personal, but what they really end up doing is narrating basic messages, while only allowing the sembalence of gameplay. Execute might have been something if the idea was extended and worked out carefully in a real project, but instead it just becomes some silly 1-2 punch.

  9. Stepping into this late and without anything to say on the game part of these, knowing next to nothing about design outside of vague feelings of this is fun and this isn’t.

    You mad some small mention of it in the 5th paragraph, that these games aren’t art they’re hack work. Sadly, the art world is full of this kind of hack work, where garbage, poorly made garbage gets passed along and lauded as the greatest artistic achievement of Mankind.

    Bringing “Art” people into games isn’t going to improve games, all they could do is reduce gaming to the same level that they’ve reduced art to.

  10. A lot of people say you can’t tell what was actually art until like 50 years later or something. But yeah, ‘art’ can be a real sham on it’s own and I’m in no hurry to get games involved in that.

  11. I can definitely see your point with a lot of these games but I have to wonder what you have against Cactus. Some of him games are probly not so good but he is a very capable designer and makes a pretty good shootemup. Clean Asia has at the very least an interesting gameplay mechanic (especially if you like stuff like Ikaruga) and attractive graphics, as far as vectors go, and several of his other shooters are at worst, playable. I haven’t tried them all but I dig Fractal Fighter and Ad Nauseum 2, Protoganda:Strings is good but not quite as interesting–but still pretty good for a freeware boss rush shmup. I haven’t played any games of his that I found immediately off-putting but I think that is because, in acknowledgement of his tendency to make random little games in a few hours, he lists the dev times and rates them as hot-cold right on his page, and I tend to only download his more cohesive offerings. I’m not sure what to think of Game Jam type games, sure it makes indie devs look like psuedo-artsy jagoffs sometimes, but it must be really fun for devs to challenge themselves to see what they can pull together in a couple of hours, and, as more of a sampler than a player, I’m even mildly interested to see some of those games. (but definitely not most of them).

    I know this post is 2 years old but I tend to read entire blogs in one sitting, and I almost never comment on a blog or youtube video or Cracked article or what have you, but I felt compelled to in this particular case.

  12. Hey, sure.

    I’ll be honest, over the last two years I’ve sorta relaxed a little. Plenty of great, polished indie games have come out (a lot even, GASP, for SALE!) and the indie menace of shallow art games seems more and more an unfounded concern. The sky did not fall.

    Still, Cactus’s stuff generally ain’t my bag. i’m a fan of…. long dev cycle games and while some of his longer games are certainly visually and audioly stunning, the whole feel is this raw, un polished vibe that can leave an impression but isn’t what I particularly like. So I don’t hold Cactus with as much contempt as I did but I don’t particularly like his work either. It’s more a “not my bag” sorta thing, though I still question the reverence some people have for even his emptier offerings.

    As for the game jam stuff, it’s harmless and can be good practice and a good way to experiment, but for the most part, I don’t find the results terribly interesting usually generally hope that the most promising ideas get polished up after the fact.

  13. Hell, I wish he would offer proper twinstick support in his arena shooters, I had to put together a pretty elaborate XPadder setup just to end up with a playable but somewhat dodgy way to play SeizureDome on my dualsticked gamepad. The mouse controls just reek of casual browsergame to me. It’s true that his games would be so much better if they had a longer dev cycle and had like, actual levels and stuff. It’s odd that that is so rarely the case since he’s very capable of doing that. Still the art style in something like Adnauseam 2 is very intriguing to me (but needs less camera shake). There don’t seem to be many BETTER free indie shooters out there, besides anything Kenta Cho puts out. He’s another guy whose games could be a lot more cohesive in terms of varied level and character design if he wanted do, but he makes a pretty decent game and they mostly all have an interesting gameplay mechanic about them. I’d love to see either of these people just make a full-featured shooter with different levels and such.

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