The Needles

The Needles
Can Art Be Games?

Andy Chalk | 10 Feb 2009 17:00
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Art games typically tend not to attract commercial attention, much less success, but one individual who's managed to buck that trend is Jenova Chen. He gained attention during his time at the University of Southern California when, along with fellow student Kellee Santiago, he created the games Cloud and Flow. Flow in particular attracted the attention of Sony, eventually leading to the foundation of ThatGameCompany and an enhanced remake of the game for the PlayStation 3. The studio's newest PS3 title, Flower, which Ben Kuchera of Ars Technica recently described as "another game to talk about, puzzle over, and enjoy" is due out this week.

"In Flower you control the wind, causing a trail of flower petals to fly around each level, gathering more petals to itself by touching flowers, which makes them blossom," Kuchera wrote. "Touch a group of flowers and a splash of color spreads out across the land. These transformations are oddly satisfying, as if you're painting the landscape with a heavenly brush." And as with all art, he noted that different people will react to it in different ways. "There will be some that simply don't get it, and that's OK. There will be some that don't care for it; this is a game that isn't for everyone," he added. "There will be others, and I am one of them, that will hear the game whisper to them when they close their eyes."

Of course, Chen's creations have a quality lacking in the others: They are games first and foremost, with goal-oriented mechanics that give people a reason to play beyond just a vaguely-defined sense of artistic vision. Even mainstream developers have from time to time released products with an unusual focus on artistic presentation; games like Shadow of the Colossus, Homeworld and Myst have little in common beyond their commitment to a higher aesthetic, but that's precisely what raises their quality of experience above and beyond other titles. "Pure" art games, on the other hand, eschew entertainment value in order to make a statement about the creator or his worldview, an artistically valid approach that unfortunately also runs the risk of trading vision for poor gameplay.

Do we need to recognize "art game" as a legitimate and separate genre in videogames, or is it enough to simply expand our definition of videogames to include this sort of avant garde experimentation? It's almost inevitable that as the ubiquity of gaming grows, more and more people will begin to see and take advantage of it as a form of self-expression. A single angry gamer with deeply-held convictions isn't going to create Halo, but he can create September 12, a "simulation" that you can neither win nor lose, with no beginning, no end and one simple rule: You can shoot. Or not.

You can play it. Or not. Does that make it a game?

Andy Chalk believes that videogames can be art, they just have to work at it a little more.

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