March 31, 2009

Artsy Fartsy: Mona Lisa, David, and Super Mario Bros 3?

This past week I was fortunate enough to attend my first Game Developers Conference, which took place in San Francisco. The Game Developers Conference, or GDC, is a weeklong event during which thousands of developers attend seminars, tutorials, award shows, and an exposition, with the aim of learning from and networking with fellow professionals in the industry. Much of the week centered on promoting and pitching my own indie game, Reflection DS, which scored an Independent Games Festival award, claiming the title Next Great Mobile Game (shameless plug), but I did find time to sit in on a lecture or two. These were all very useful and covered diverse topics, ranging from finding inspiration when designing to managing conflicts in a small team of creative people. Most speakers projected a casual image common to the industry, but none went as far as my favorite speaker; a man approximately six and a half feet tall and skinny as a rail, wearing clothes tailored for a twelve year old.

I would not be faithful to the topic of non-traditional games if I did not write a post about Jason Rohrer (pictured right), the ultimate independent developer who makes my no-budget student effort look like a multi-million dollar sellout. When not baking the bread his family eats every day for lunch or teaching his infant to urinate on command, he creates small gems of games that begin to shed light on the human experience in a way no other developer’s work does. Rohrer, his wife, and two sons live off a meager ten thousand dollars a year, provided only by donations to his website, as he offers all of his games free of charge. However, he seems more than content with such a modest lifestyle on his Potsdam, New York meadow (which, even when ordered by the city, he refused to mow, landing him in a court case where he represented himself and won, in part on the basis that cutting grass releases toxins in the air harmful to the environment). Rohrer’s games all feature a minimalist, pixelated aesthetic, highlighting the fact that the path to achieving artistic reputability in games lies not in enhancing graphics capabilities until we can realistically represent human heads exploding, but rather in focusing on what makes games unique: their mechanics. And it is through his games’ mechanics, rather than cut scenes or canned, linear storylines, that Rohrer conveys meaning. In Passage, for example, widely touted as the first game to make people cry, the player controls a man seeking treasure. Early in the game, he can choose to join with a woman, and if he does, she will walk along with him wherever he goes. From this, he gets the benefit of constant companionship, but it becomes harder to accumulate treasure. As the five-minute game progresses, the characters’ sprites visibly age, until suddenly and unexpectedly, the woman turns into a gravestone. After twenty more seconds or so, the man also dies and the screen fades to black, leaving the user only with the word "Passage." While this game seems simple, it inspired Ubisoft designer Rod Humble to reprimand other commercial developers at GDC 2008, saying "Why can't we make a game that fucking means something? A game that matters?" Another one of Rohrer’s works, Gravitation, tackles such complex concepts as the relationship between father and son, the balance between work and home, weighing dreams and creative inspirations versus reality, and the loneliness of an empty nest, all in eight minutes of gameplay.

Yet this pioneer maintains that digital games are still not quite art. On the screen in a small but packed room in the Moscone convention center, Rohrer flashed his first slide. A dotted red line ran horizontally through the center, splitting the image in two. Above the line were images of famous works of literature, film, art, and even a Beatles album. Below sat some of the most acclaimed video games in the history of the medium. Rohrer claimed that the line represents the gap to artistic legitimacy that is still yet to be bridged. Some titles, like the Metal Gear Solid series, feature in-depth stories in an attempt to be taken seriously, but with hours (more than six in the most recent installment) of non-interactive sequences, what makes these games different from a mediocre movie? 2K's Bioshock nearly eliminated cut scenes, but it still conformed to a linear progression: a series of interactive moments strung together with bits of film-like narrative. In 2005, Roger Ebert (see left) alleged, "video games [are] inherently inferior to film and literature... [due to their lack of] authorial control." While most gamers lash out at this statement, Rohrer accepts Ebert’s argument as legitimate, though sets out to disprove him. He agrees that mimicking cinema is not the way to legitimize the medium. Just as movies had to break away from the constraints of theatre, games must discover what separates them from film in order to stand on their own. No one has yet produced a Citizen Kane equivalent for video games. However, a board game like Go, which has been around for over four thousand years, could possibly be classified as art because of its infinite depth, complexity, longevity, and replayability (players can come back to it over the span of their life and find new, interesting meaning and fresh insights that they did not see before). German developed board games like Puerto Rico and Settlers of Catan also share this near-infinite complexity. What do these table games have that their digital counterparts lack? Jason Rohrer argues that the missing element is an inherent reliance on multiplayer. Single player games, he says, fall into three categories: puzzles, like Peg Solitaire, chance or luck games, like Roulette, or reflex challenges, like Pac-Man. When combined, these categories produce something like Tetris, which has almost infinite complexity, but still feels a little lacking as art. He believes that truly innovative and defining work will rely heavily on multiplayer interaction.

I do believe that true multiplayer interaction (most current multiplayer experiences, as Rohrer argues, are simply puzzle, chance, or reflex challenges mapped to two players, rather than a thought-provoking, strategic struggle with infinite variation as in classic board games) is something that needs to be better explored in digital gaming, especially in this age of interconnectedness, and perhaps the medium will achieve artistic legitimacy as a result. However, I think that Rohrer sells himself and his fellow art game developers short. Passage and Gravitation may not be the defining works of the genre, but they provide unique moments and insight in a form that film and literature cannot quite express. I agree with Ebert in that the designer loses some control, but, if well executed, games transfer that lost authorship to the player, creating a more personal, tailored experience. When I play Passage, for those five minutes I am the man who searches for wealth, but cannot ever find it all, and it is my wife who passes as I slowly waste away beside her. By playing, I gain a sense of ownership, awareness, and perspective that is inherently absent from film and literature.


  1. Your post presents a very timely and intriguing topic. As someone lacking in any knowledge of video gaming, I was fascinated to see an academic approach applied to the goings on of the industry. While your entry provided a wealth of information, I particularly enjoyed your personalized approach to the topic, focusing on a game developer that speaks to you specifically. It was also interesting to see the way in which you addressed an issue not necessarily commonly associated with video gaming. The question of what constitutes art is not an easy question to answer. A major in art history myself, I frequently write on the matter but have never considered applying it to video games.

    As such, while I appreciate your focus on Rohrer's own views, I would have enjoyed hearing more about your own thoughts. You briefly respond to comments made by Rohrer and Ebert in your conclusion, but I would be interested for you to expand upon these claims. What do you think of Roger Ebert's assessment that video games are "inherently inferior" to other media? What, in your opinion, constitutes a work of art? How do such criteria measure up when applied to video games? In moving your opinions into the body of your post, you would have made for a much stronger argument. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed reading your post. Your writing is clear and accessible and focuses on an extremely interesting industry.

  2. I really enjoyed your post about what level of “art” video games are at. While your argument is cohesive and well-written, you spend most of your time talking about Rohrer’s counter argument to Ebert’s comment. He makes a very good argument, but I would be interested to see your thoughts aligned with his, especially in places where you disagree. Grammatically, the post is very well written. While there are a few places where I would personally insert small pronouns (such as “he”), most are simply stylistic choices. Your opening paragraph is strong, albeit a bit short, and offers an interesting transition into the main focus of the post. However, I feel you spend a bit too much time focused on who Rohrer is before discussing the lecture which inspired you to write on this topic. I do understand that his history and personality is necessary background for a non-gamer to understand why he is so influential in the indie video game world, but your argument on whether they qualify as art seems to come second in importance to his individuality.


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