The article is an exemplary piece of games writing. It is economically written. It talks about rules. It explains the artistic dimensions of game design in a clear and straightforward manner. And it talks about games-as-art without any of the exoticism that plagues most treatments of the idea in the mainstream press. (“Game are art? Well, whodathunkit! Here I wuz, thinkin' it was all about shootin' aliens!”) The article also links to Rorher's new game Between, which was commissioned by Esquire for its feature on the Best + Brightest 2008.
Rohrer himself turns out to be an interesting case. He's off living a Thoreauvian existence in a scarcely electrified shack in upstate New York, eating nonstandard cereals and designing art games. (Favorite detail: Rohrer has a renaissance-style patron, a silicon valley captain of industry who's helping keep him in quinoa between paid speaking engagements.) There is a certain earnestness and ungainly romanticism in his portrayal which bespeaks genuine artistic purpose-- like he is making games as part of a larger attempt to come to terms with the world. It's a marked contrast with the recent New Yorker profile of Cliff Blezinski, which implied that his inner life consists of driving cars very fast on the freeway.
Rohrer's games are repeatedly likened to poetry-- “a superb and tightly crafted sonnet,” for example. The choice of poetry trades on the idea that video games will constitute art when they evoke deep emotional reactions. (viz. Wordsworth's definition of poetry: “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings... recollected in tranquility”) I've never bought this “games will be art when they make you cry” argument. (It's taken to an extreme: Rohrer is the first to cry over his game Passage because he sobs while programming it.) Maybe this is one of my idiosyncrasies, but I don't cry during movies that often. The last movie I wept over, I think, was Princess Mononoke on DVD. (I cry during the same scene every time I see that movie, it's just one of those things.) Part of me just distrusts sentiment as a criterion of artistic value. After all, people have been weeping over shabby melodramatic novels and Final Fantasy VII for some time now.
However, the poetry metaphor is sound. The reason is that poetry, for all its emotional directness, is also a relatively abstract form of representation in comparison to prose. Because the use of meter overlays an added degree of form on the syntactical relations of the grammatical phrase, poetry possesses a heightened compression in virtue of its formal complexity. In order to understand a poem you have to take it a part and get a grasp on how it's constructed, how the arrangement of words in metrical form works to evoke a particular feeling or idea.
The same goes for Rohrer's games: their meaning only becomes legible when you reflect on how the various elements of the game relate to each other. (Like, when I played Gravitation, I said to myself, “Why is it that sometimes I could jump really high, and other times I couldn't? And why is it that i could jump higher after playing ball with that other person-shaped block of pixels? Furthermore, what does that mean?” These are the sort of questions you need to ask if you want to get the message.) The visuals are intentionally sparse, just barely representational, and their underlying meaning only begins to take shape when you grasp the deep grammar of the game and think about how the pixelated figures work in concert with the underlying rules of the game.
One theme of the piece is that we lack any models of real artistic success in interactive art. This is only mostly true, but it raises a good question: Is the artistic potential of games best exemplified by abstract tone-poems like Rohrer's work, or by long-form narrative games like LMNO, the EA-backed Spielberg project he's working on? And what if it's neither? What if the pinnacle of game design doesn't consist of using interaction to grapple with life, death, love, hate, poverty, and racism? What if it's all about creating a perfectly tuned death machine?
Despite my resistence to the latter scenario, I've never been as compelled by the five-minute art game as I have been by Shadow of the Colossus, or Bioshock. 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.) This is why Braid was such a success, to my mind-- it spun a satisfyingly ambiguous narrative around the core experience of rule-mastery.
So check out the article and patronize your art-game developer of choice. As always, the main obstacle to art is the profit motive, and these men will only make games if we support them.