In recent times there has been growing recognition of “games as art”, a term which is necessarily as vague as the wide scope of “games” and “art” allows, but which tends to evoke very specific images. The mainstream games industry tends towards heavily simulation-based 3D games with increased levels of fidelity in terms of rendering, sound, and animation, and ever-increasing amounts of ‘content’ (ie. art, sound, maps, writing, etc.) that the player gets to experience. ‘Art’ games by comparison are inevitably more modest efforts, often rendered with primitive technology (by today’s standards) and have minimal consumable content (where content could mean ). And rather than marching towards increased realism, often the game’s presentation and/or purpose is deliberately abstract, at least in part, and it falls to the player to find the meaning in it. Often there is a creator’s statement, typically designed to be read after the player has played the game and attempted to decipher it for themselves first and to add further elucidation on the developer’s influences and intentions in creating that game.
Probably the most famous examples of this are Rod Humble’s The Marriage and Jason Rohrer’s Passage and Gravitation. These can be enjoyed in as little as 10 minutes each and fully appreciated in a few moments more, after reading the author’s notes on each game.
In a time when games are generally assessed based on their content – eg. how good the story is, how interesting the maps are, how smooth the animations look – it’s good to see games being appreciated in a way that gets right down to the essence of the game rules. The ‘art’ in other games is the content and the game the delivery mechanism for you to enjoy someone else’s world or their story. But the messages these games are carrying are conveyed in the way that the way that the player actually interacts with the game mechanics – gaming in its purest form.
However, these messages are not actually intrinsic to the game mechanics, but come from metaphor, via the references to real life that the mechanics evoke. They’re the gaming equivalent of the abstract painting or formless sculpture that means little until you read the plaque next to it, perhaps transforming your perspective revealing an impressive interpretation of the subject matter. But sometimes, it instead spells out a rather far-fetched justification for what appears to be an aimless or uninspired work. (Does a preserved shark in a tank take on new meaning when labelled as ‘The Physical Impossibility Of Death Tn The Mind Of Someone Living’? Some say yes, some say no.)
It’s great that we have games that can actually mean something and can make you think. But in these examples, the game is more the medium than the message, a way to draw your attention to a subject outside of the game. It’s not so extreme as the case with a story, where the story can be delivered by game, by book, by film, by epic poem, by any number of means, and yet maintain its core features – the game is an integral part of the experience in works like Passage and The Marriage and can’t be easily extracted without removing the message too. But can game mechanics ever be appreciated in their own right, the way readers appreciate The Lord Of The Rings even if they accept Tolkien’s denial that it was a World War allegory? Charles J Pratt over at the Game Design Advance blog posed the key question several months ago: “what if [game] mechanics can’t create meaning or express anything on their own”? Lord of the Rings has intrinsic ‘artistic’ value in the same way that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting does or Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture does. It helps to know something about the Bible or the Napoleonic Wars when studying the cultural aspect of these works, but they’re not required to appreciate the beauty and artisanship involved. Can game mechanics exhibit similar qualities, and be widely appreciated even when they don’t represent a metaphor for something meaningful elsewhere in life, and on the other hand aren’t a vehicle for a traditional story that could have as easily been told in prose or film either?
Maybe one day the game balance of fictional combat units in a real time strategy title will be appreciated by non-gamers. Or perhaps the multi-layered control scheme for a fighting game will command respect, or the complex combat resolution rules and modifiers in a turn-based role-playing game, or the fealty and alliance systems in a massively multiplayer online game. Creating each probably requires a bit of vision, a bit of experimentation, and a bit of plain old effort, the same qualities required when writing a book, directing a film, or painting a landscape. But we seem to be quite some distance from seeing all these things in the same light.