There are a number of debates in the world of game design and development that remain unsettled. Is there an intrinsic difference between video games and more traditional games? What is the relationship between games and narrative? How do we distinguish between games and other rule-base activities? Finally, how do games create meaning? Each of these questions has intelligent and thoughtful people who spend a great deal of time and energy arguing over the answer. One of the arguments, over the role of narrative in games, took place on such a scale among scholars that it could be partially credited with giving rise to the field of academic game studies. Another, the question of meaningful games, has given birth to a whole genre in game design: ‘art-games’.
The simple conceit of art-games is to use game design to create meaning, to express things, in ways that only games can. Arguments made by the central brain trust of the movement in support of art-games, a trifecta of Rod Humble, Jonathan Blow, and Jason Rohrer, are that too many contemporary games, especially mainstream games, rely too much on their audio/visual assets to create meaning instead of properties that are more intrinsic. Meaning in a game, they say, should be created primarily by the mechanics of the game rather than cut-scenes or other decorations. Jonathan Blow said as much in a recent lecture at the Montreal International Game Summit.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of problems. These problems aren’t being addressed by the members of the movement (at least not publicly) and aren’t being raised in the discussions that surround their work. First, what if mechanics can’t create meaning or express anything on their own, and second, if that’s true, what implications does it have for art-games and games in general?
MEANING IS A MCGUFFIN
I’ve discussed before how it isn’t obvious at all that mechanics have meaning in and of themselves. Meaning isn’t something inherent in a thing, whether that thing is a word or an image or a game mechanic. The word ‘apple’ corresponds to the fruit that we’re all familiar with not because of something about the individual word, but because we (the English speaking world) have all agreed on what the word means. How many game mechanics though, have an agreed upon meaning? Furthermore, would any of the game mechanics that we’re all familiar with, such as ‘jump’, ‘reload’, ‘level up’, have any meaning at all without a visual element to cue to what they signify?
This lack of any sui generis expressive quality in game mechanics doesn’t mean that art-games fail to be expressive. The truth is that art-games lean on their representational layer to create meaning just as much as any other type of game. Take, for instance, The Marriage, which was created by Rod Humble and is perhaps the very first art-game.
The Marriage is a very simple game. It features two squares, one blue and one pink, bouncing around a field of color with a variety of circles, some green/gray and some black. If the green/gray circles collide with either of the squares, the squares will grow. The black circles will make the squares shrink. Both squares will fade over time. However, if the blue square collides with one of the green/gray circles its color will become brighter, while the pink square needs to collide with the blue square in order to thrive. Moving the mouse over either square will make them move towards each other, though it will also make the blue square shrink. The mouse will also make any of the circles disappear, but this causes the pink square shrink. If either square completely fades away or shrinks to the point where they can’t be seen, it’s game over. Keep both squares around long enough and they explode into a bunch of tiny blue and pink squares on a gray background.
There are a number of interpretations of The Marriage that are possible. One interpretation is that the game is about a day in the life of a marriage, with the blue square being the husband and pink square being the wife. The brightness of the squares indicates their happiness while the size indicates their fulfillment. Perhaps the circles represent forces outside the marriage, or maybe they’re standing in for discourse between the couple.
Whatever your final interpretation of The Marriage, whatever meaning you ultimately glean from it, it’s undeniable that it relies on its representational layer as much as it does its pure mechanics. After all, the color of the squares seems just as important as the fact that they grow and shrink. The very reality that the name of the game is The Marriage sets up and shapes any interpretation that a player might have. What would a game called Untitled No. 1 that featured shapes in various shades of gray express? Something different, obviously. At the very least the reasonable interpretations would have a much wider range. However, only the colors and the title would have changed, the mechanics of the game would have remained exactly the same.
A SUITABLE SUBJECT
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with a game’s mechanics and content playing off each other. Jason Rohrer’s Passage is a game that I’ve called “perfect” because of its crafting and the resonance between its gameplay and its thematic elements. While Rohrer’s work since Passage has indicated that perhaps the quality of his break-out game was something of an accident, that shouldn’t detract from its cleverness. That cleverness was precisely because of its ironic and sentimental use of classic gaming tropes, both mechanical and visual, with just a few original bits thrown in to complete the effect.
There’s a very simple defense then, for my critique: so what? Why should it matter that art-games use content just like any other game?
The problem is that if the expressive power of an art-game comes from its mix of gameplay and theme, then what exactly makes them art-games? Gears of War does a great job of keeping its mechanics and content humming along with each other. After all, GoW ‘s story and theme are about a group of badass space marines who like to shoot guns and stomp curbs and its mechanics do a great job invoking the appropriate feelings in its players. So then why isn’t Cliff Blezinski’s action masterpiece considered an art-game? Because it has cut-scenes? Maybe because it’s about making your enemies ‘eat s**t and die’?
Another defense against my criticism of art-games is that what makes art-games special is really their subject matter rather than the purity of their mechanics. Art-games choose to take as their material topics that might be a little unusual for other, more mainstream, games. Issues like marriage (The Marriage), immortality (Immortality), civic disobedience (Police Brutality), the inevitability of death (Passage), the creative process (Stars over Half Moon Bay), and the effect of time travel on interpersonal relationships (Braid). It’s easy to be sympathetic with this argument. You’d think that there were only so many games that could be made about space marines, army privates, fabled warriors, and the battle between good and evil. There’s more to life than violent conflict.
However, if the thing that defines art-games, and puts them in contrast with other games, is their subject matter, then what should we make of other games that have non-traditional themes, or games that have no theme at all? What about Peacemaker, a game that lets players explore different political scenarios between the many factions vying for control of modern day Israel, or the ‘news-games’ of Ian Bogost and Gonzalo Frasca? What about Tetris, a game that has no subject matter but has clearly touched the lives of millions? More to the point, what about more traditional games like Go, or Mancala, or Wrestling, or Football?
I have avoided using the word ‘art’ in order to talk about art-games simply on the terms by which the creators themselves have defined them, but it’s difficult to avoid the subject when it figures so prominently in the name of the genre. It seems preposterous though that Blow, Rohrer, and Humble are arguing that games were never ‘art’ until art-games. What that suggests is that games never had a chance to be ‘art’ until video games came along, and video games are only ‘art’ if they’re about something that isn’t what most other games are about, but also isn’t something quite so pedestrian as current events.
A GAME BY ANY OTHER NAME
So art-games aren’t defined by their purity, by their reliance on mechanics to create meaning rather than content, and it isn’t their subject matter than separates them from other games. Then what, exactly, qualifies something as an art-game?
The most straightforward answer is that there’s no such thing as art-games. Yes, there’s a group of people that make games and they choose to call them ‘art-games’, but that phrase has no meaning. Rather, it simply means “a game created by one of the members of this small group.” Really, art-games are just games, made by people who care enough to devote themselves to an art form that gets a lot of flak and that most people don’t understand. To that point the harshest criticism that might be leveled at art-games was written by our friend Iroquois Pliskin about the games of Jason Rohrer:
It’s not that Rohrer’s work isn’t fascinating and thought-provoking; it’s just that as an exercise, it stays far from the core pleasures of mastering rules. By the time you learn the rules there’s nothing left to do with them. (Games are about doing things with rules.)
The case that’s been presented here isn’t a case against the games that have been called art-games, but against the genre as it’s defined. It’s a case for art-games being treated as games, first and foremost. Of course, if art-games are just games, then they run the risk of being interesting art, but not very good games.
The prevailing wisdom may be that games have not achieved the vaunted status of ‘art’, but perhaps the problem isn’t with games. Perhaps the problem is with our own ability to recognize their artistic merits. Instead of drawing an artificial line between current efforts and the long history of games, which is much longer than the histories of anything we actually recognize as ‘art’, it might be more constructive to find and point out the beauty and inspiration in what has come before. The game development community could still learn a lot from Blow, Humble, Rohrer and their art-games, but if we really want to make art then the secret might be to learn a little more about games.