Saturday, November 22, 2008

Art-Games, Twitterlurking, and Poetry

A confession. I am an inveterate twitterlurker. My personal life is banal too document, (“There's loose weed on top of the hand dryer in the Peet's bathroom. Ah, Berkeley!”), but I enjoy eavesdropping on other peoples' twitter feeds, largely because I am hungry for more internet when my google reader runs dry, and I like feeling privy to the happenings of certain games-writing paragons. It's sad, I know. But every so often you run across something great, like the Esquire feature on games designer Jason Rohrer I found on Shawn Elliott's twitter feed.

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.


Matthew Gallant said...

C'mon Iroquois, come join the 140 character conversations with @brainygamer, @leighalexander, @fullbright, @savetherobot et al. I doubt your life is more banal than anyone else's!

Anonymous said...

yeah c'mon, join the twitter fun. your "banal" comment was already more fun that half the stuff in my feed!

And as to this:

"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?"

my response would be: what if it's simply both? I don't see at all why this needs to be an either/or/neither situation. Is the artistic value of film best exemplified by abstract tone poems from the likes of Jordan Belson, Michael Snow, Stan Brakhage and Norman McLaren or the long form narratives of Alfred Hitchcock, Yasujiro Ozu, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Fritz Lang? To my mind, there's really no good reason that "artistic" achievements in games can't be both narrative and anti-narrative, poetic and scientific, fabulist and realist. It'll be a measure of the real success of videogames as art when triumph comes from both sides of this spectrum and the form stands as a real medium point exemplifying not one or the other nor neither, but both.

Unknown said...

Your post is so much more rewarding and insightful than the Rohrer piece that it creates cognitive dissonance, Iroquois.

My new formulation to deal with the main issue you raise: is there any reason why something I say about Halo has to apply to Pong? If I say something about Heroes, need it apply to CSpan? If I say something about the Iliad, even, need it apply to the Odyssey?

An idle thought that just bubbled up about you and rules: are you conscious of the rules of, e.g., Wordsworth, as you read e.g. the "Prelude"?

Dave said...

Ah, I love me some quinoa! It's a recently discovered favorite of mine. (My wife got it for a recipe, now it's become a staple.)

Which got me thinking: How is a new grain supposed to muscle its way into the public consciousness, anyway? What must quinoa do to be recognized by the mainstream grainia? And who'da thunk the grain market would have such a steep barrier to entry?

Anonymous said...

"Alfred Hitchcock, Yasujiro Ozu, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Fritz Lang?"

One of these things is not like the other.
However, even a step towards Hitchcock would be better than what we have now.

The Esquire article was far too over-indulgent to stomach. Clearly written by an outsider looking in through misted up windows.

On the other hand we have something that surprised me about Pliskin's take on the article:
"(Games are about doing things with rules.)"

This is true. This is also the reason that when we speak of interactive art, the works in question no longer fall under the "game" label. Rules, limitations etc. have nothing at all to do with expression and art.

It is also why Braid may be a failure. I believe Mr. Blow has said something along these lines: that "artistic" games must also be fun to play, or rather, must not be lacking in game mechanics.

We try so desperately to evade cinema as a template, but Mr. Blow has unwittingly fallen into the trap. The reason why something like Pulp Fiction or a Hitchcock film isn't art is because it focuses on entertainment. Some films focus on profit. Art is meant to challenge. We put a piece of ourselves into the art that we create; as long as it's honest, it's the most wonderful thing that we can do with our lives. Diluting it by offering something the choice to stomp around through this art, or making it "fun" to experience is antithetical.

I haven't played Rohrer's games, but I've actively tried to. When they choose to load and run on my computer is when I'll be able to better weigh in on this.

And let me raise another glass for SotC. I actively champion that, Ico and Ueda at every opportunity because it is the most deserving.
In some ways, it surpasses Hitchcock, but doesn't lick the knees of an artist working in any of the older artforms. SotC is our template. Ueda is our auteur. Let's put a little more focus in that direction, shall we?

Anonymous said...

A brief update, having just 'experienced' "The Marriage"
Are his others this abstract?
I understand the supposed symbolism and metaphors but that is an incredibly weak approach to art.

The Esquire article assures me that he will laugh heartily at this detraction, so it doesn't give me any hope that he will realise anything worthwhile. He doesn't give me much hope either, from his webpage describing the meaning behind "The Marriage":

"The game mechanics are designed such that the game is fragile. Its easy to break. This is deliberate as marriages are fragile and they feel fragile, I wanted to get this across."

He struggles to articulate even this gradeschool interpretation. I'll play his other games regardless. It's not like there's anything else to experience with interactive art.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

Hey all,

if you read this make sure to check out a lengthy post on the "art game" idea by charles joseph, over on, it's quite good.

@matt: Ha! no way jose. Believe me, I'm no stranger to those feeds. Maybe I'm just a born flaneur, myself.

@chrishyde: Basically, I'm with you on this one. The reason for posing the choice between the two (and also the third option-- the making-a-better-meatgrinder approach exemplified by Gears 2) I just to put some pressure on the two research projects, bring out the different things they shoot for. If anything, though, I would say that long-form narrative games should take some cues from Art games in terms of using game mechanics in service of expression.

@roger: Hey thanks, if only 'twas true. I can't write a spicy lede to save my life.

Excellent questions
1) No, I don't think there is necessarily one standard of excellence that applies to pong and halo. There are different genres of gameas and they have different standards of excellence, much like the examples you adduce. As I said before, though, it seems to me that using mechanics in service of expression makes is-- I don't know how else to put it-- a *good* use of the medium.

2)You know, I think I overstated the formalism point I was making w/r/t poetry, I think especially in certain types of poetry you're not immediately struck by the rules of construction, and I think in many cases you appreciate these poems without consciously reflecting on the formal elements I highlighted here. Nevertheless, I do think that form has a lot to do with the emotional impact that poetic language has on us, even if we don't have more than a reflective grasp on it.

@dave: I loves quinoa myself too. It's some good stuff.

@grey: First off, yes to SotC. If I had to choose one game as the exemplar of art in games, that'd be it. (After than, what.... Half-Life 2, maybe?) By all means, I can't praise it enough.

As to the point about games needing to be fun, I'm of two minds. I think it could be possible to make games that are morally penetrating, artistic in the good sense. I don't think you need to sacrifice "fun" in order to do this, because if the mechanics tell the story and you spend the game using those mechanics, you will have a good time.

Finally, have you seen Vertigo? I think you have the wrong idea about hitchcock, that man was a genius, not just a shallow entertainer.

Anonymous said...

I've seen most of Hitchcock. Vertigo would probably be the best (only) case for him as an artist, but an ever better case for him as a technical genius, which is what he was. He certainly doesn't belong in rank with Ozu, Fassbinder and Lang.

After SotC, mine is Ico. After that, maybe pieces of either Half-Life 2, Oddworld, Another World, Portal, Braid, Planescape or Bioshock. I'm unsure. It's not a big list.

I don't think art can't be inadvertantly entertaining or fun (that would be based on personal preference). I guess that's the appeal of SotC to many. I know I enjoy watching Stalker as much as I am challenged by it. But keeping it in game form, where we've got the (right) idea that everything should/must be fun, won't help. The game label needs to go for the works we describe.

Erik said...

All the cool kids are Tweeting!

I'm a fan of these smaller, "art games," but perhaps that's because I have different expectations of them (as, perhaps, a genre) than of "AAA" titles. In poetry, there are epic poems, there are haiku, and there are a number of other forms, each with its own "baggage." I approach small "art games" more like I would approach a vignette or a haiku than a fuller-bodied sonnet. Perhaps the best comparison would be Dickinson.

And put me down as in favor of games that aren't necessarily "fun," as well. I've experienced numerous works of art in other media that have hurt me emotionally (or even morally), but which I still am glad to have experienced. While I'm no fan of snubbing games as a medium, I think there's truth in Ebert's assertion, in that oftentimes games seem unwilling step away from the party line of "fun." I liked Wall-E, but I also liked Babel, and I am glad we live in a world that has both.

Anonymous said...

I don't want to hijack this thread with a lengthy film based comment defending the fat man, but all I can say is if we live in a world where "Rear Window" isn't art then I think I would prefer not to live in that world, thank you very much.

chade fallstar said...

ooh, eavesdrop on my twitter feed! Such riveting topics as "the dog is cute" and "would you rather do riker or picard" are discussed!


Anonymous said...

Don't hate the world just because Rear Window isn't art, Chris.
It takes a lot to get past the Hitchcock hurdle. You have to get really deep into films.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@grey: I haven't read Rod Humble's website, but I have to say I've heard him on a few podcasts and I've found that he is pretty articulate and insightful about the artistic potential of the medium. Not many people are even *trying* to do art with the medium in the way he is, I can understand your impatience with the abstraction but I think the marriage is a good game.

also, I'm with Chris on the issue of Hitchcock. Maybe i'm not deep enough into films to understand why the fat man isn't an artist, but the prospect of not liking wellneigh perfectly-constructed films like Rear Window or North by Northwest does not make being deeper seem desirable.

@wordsmythe: You make a good point that different types of games might be like different forms of poetry: it's not like every poem needs to be a sonnet. There's room for different forms.

As I mentioned above, I'm of two minds on the importance of fun to the medium; as out point out, there's different kinds of responses that we have to art and "entertainment" is not some baseline that all these responses must satisfy.

@laz: done! I've been avidly following the run-up to Thxgiving on yer blog, too.

Anonymous said...

I'm genuinely interested to hear the podcasts. Perhaps a link if you can remember where you heard it?
I admire that he's trying. I share the same frustration - that so few people even care. But the direction he's headed in fails to impress. It's not, to be vague, the "right" direction.

Remember that scene in the Dark Knight with the sonar and the scanners? That allusion to post 9/11 surveillance is of the same quality as clicking on the background in The Marriage to end the game, because it's "fragile." You know, like a marriage?

Let me relate perfect construction in film to games, then. Nintendo. Super Mario Galaxy is a brilliantly crafted game, and on a purely aesthetic or technical level, it can be considered art. The way we speak of art here, however, relates to its insight. And Nintendo have never been artists.

The idea that it presents complex life and the human condition instead of symbolic ideas, tension or manipulative emotion is the idea that I subscribe to.
My 'deep into films' comment was in no way a slight against anyone's intelligence or understanding, please forgive.

Hitchcock is a great entertainer and I enjoy his films. That's not a qualifier that allows me to speak against him, just a statement. Nothing about the 'deeper' films I've approached has stopped me from liking Rear Window or North by Northwest. Not being art doesn't disqualify it from this, right? How long have we enjoyed games?

Anonymous said...

@Gray, I've seen thousands and thousands of films in my 45 years, dude. So I'm plenty "deep" into it, thanks. And I like Hitchcock just fine.

Anonymous said...

I never said anything about someone's personal response to Hitchcock. I also don't think simply seeing a quantity of films over a period of years qualifies anyone. For an example on the opposite end of the spectrum to you (presumably), I have a friend who has seen thousands over the past 5, but they're pretty much all garbage. Things like Jumper and Deep Blue. You can only learn so much from that type of film.

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

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