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Art Games: Making Pretentiousness Fun

Contributor:
Adrian Hatwell
Adrian Hatwell

While stodgy critics were busy arguing verbosely as to whether video games can be considered art or not, a school of game development has slowly emerged to put the argument to rest, commentators be damned. The art game has become a sort of analogue to cinema’s art house, projects that resist mainstream formula and strive to provoke something more than just entertainment.  

The following list of select art games is essentially just that, a list. Discussion of any one of these titles deserves a lot more space. This is simply meant as a concise roadmap for those looking to try something a little different, a door into the heady art game world. After all, the very definition of an art game is open to conjecture (as is the definition or art itself) the only real way to get a feel for what unifies these very different games is to play them. And play them I hope you shall.

Braid

The hallmark of certain art house games is a penchant for taking existing video game formats and examining them with fresh eyes. Jonathan Blow’s beautiful, time-skewing Braid might just be the most well known example in recent times. Downloadable through Xbox Live Arcade, Braid couples time manipulating puzzle elements with an ambiguous story of error and loss to examine the problematic relationship of story and gameplay in video games.

flOw

As the pathway to a career in gaming becomes increasingly academic we have begun to see great games coming out of universities as thesis projects. Jenova Chen’s flOw is one such instance, an elegant flash game in which the player guides a microorganism through a hypnotic sea environment. The game went on to be reinvented both on the PSP and PS3. You can experience this simplistic experiment in dynamic gaming difficulty here.

Flower

Chen went on from the success of flOw to found his own development company ThatGameCompany, and produce Flower for the PS3. Taking the idea of abstract environment exploration a step further, the team created a game in which players delve into the dreams of a bored flower who imagines freely navigating the wind currents in order to explore nature’s full beauty.  

The Passage

Developer Jason Rohrer is what the film industry would call an auteur, a creator with a singular vision and inimitable style. He is also a fascinating individual and the complete opposite of what one imagines a game developer to be, I suggest you read his article about him by Esquire. While Rohrer has an astounding level of output his best-known game is The Passage, a digital poem of morality and the dynamics of human companionship. Download it for free here (and donate, it’s how Rohrer makes his living).

The Marriage

Rod Humble was for years a driving force behind The Sims games, a series that itself embodies traits of the art game, but it was when he struck out with his own independent title The Marriage that he truly struck art game gold. The project contains no sound or music, and just the very simplest of visuals. By stripping away the aspects that make meaning so obvious the game forces players to construe their own meaning out of what little is left. This baffling dissection of relationships can be played here.

You Have to Burn the Rope

Many art games exist on a much smaller scale than traditional video games, often focusing intensely on a single aspect of experience in order to provoke a reaction. Kian Bashiri is a Swedish developer who has produced a series of such games, with You have to Burn the Rope garnering the most attention. The brief, wonderfully simplistic platform game that has both delighted and infuriated critics can be played here, along with the rest of Bashiri’s games (I recommend Metro Rules of Conduct also). Make sure you stick around for the fantastic end credits song that is longer than the game itself.

I Made This. You Play This. We Are Enemies.

      
When you push the envelope there is always a chance that some of your audience will not understand what you are doing. When you push too many envelopes there is always a change that you go batshit insane and create things that are detrimental to the mental health of all those who play them. I don’t know if I Made This. You Play This. We Are Enemies. fits into either of those categories, but it is certainly an experience you wont soon forget; do so here.

The above games are just a tiny sample of the vast work being done by independent developers across the globe, I suggest you dive head first into the thriving creative scene, as you’re certain to find some artefact of profound weirdness that tickles your fancy. Whether or not they all qualify as art games is another matter entirely, but if there is one thing that unites these strange and very different games it is their diligent insistence on being different from everything else. If that’s not art then its still virtue enough for me.

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