Avant gaming – interactive art

November 22, 2008

The twitter has been a flutter with Esquire‘s recent feature article on Jason Rohrer’s 2007 game The Passage. Straddling between the line of interactive art and video games, Rohrer’s experiment comes from the same intellectual aspirations as games such as The Path and You Have to Burn the Rope. These are extremely short, linear “games” that propose to invoke emotional responses towards the player. I will not claim that repeated playthroughs will inevitably reveal the mystery of the designer’s intentions. One of the greatest debates concerning digital media is the question of ownership and this include both the player’s experience as well as the digital “property.” But I do encourage everyone to play through the game more than once. In the case of The Path you may even achieve different results upon the game’s conclusion.

By now you’re wondering why I haven’t provided a description for each game. The reason is the less you know the better the experience will undoubtedly be. I have talked about transcendental-art games the likes of Pixel Junk Eden, Everyday Shooter, and Rez in a previous post. But these games are much different. In fact, that have more in common with fl0w than the previous games I mentioned. There is no official objective, no pressing danger, or even a challenge per say. It is a the kind of avant-garde gaming that separates it from categorization in the interactive game and the puzzle game.

I have recently become enamored with digital art whether it is pixel art or the various works to come out of the demoscene. But arts from these subcultures lay upon a foundation of our previous understandings of art (i.e. photography, music, painting, etc.) There is a standard where we can refer to our critique of the work. But games like You Have to Burn the Rope are more attune to game culture not only in its dynamic-ism with player interaction but in reference to what we view as a contemporary video game. We can go on about the definition of the video game verses interactive media–which many have done with fl0w–but ultimately I must hark back to the colloquial expression: “I know it when I see it.”

What we have here is a game as well as interactive art. I will not lie, I did not achieve an emotional response playing any of these games. But I did become intellectually stimulated. Art can do either and it can do both. Of course, these are mainstream games in the slightest sense. They have more in common with experimental film. And that is perfectly fine. These are games that reside on the fringes of the Internet allowing players to discover it for themselves. In certain facets these games achieve much more than Jonathan Blow’s Braid in its simplicity of design and its immediacy in creating an affect towards the player. And I hope that these games do create a subculture of experimental gaming. You can already see its influence in recent blockbusters such as Fallout 3 and Alone in the Dark where the player is constrained to merely interact by speaking in simple infant speech or blinking.

On the flip-side of these arguably high brow games we have these pop-art games which I believe are just as compelling. Don’t Shoot the Puppy is a great experiment in player tolerance that I would defend as an a form of interactive art just as much as the game previously stated. It is not surprising the experimentation in interactive art grows out of the same atmosphere of the lowly flash developers. These are starved programmers in the same vein as starved artists. Why should it be of any surprise?

And this is all great because as videogames grow as a medium they become not only defined by its industry but of it’s subcultures. I ave become extremely pleased with this kind of punk-rock approach of the indie developer where a programmer will design the foundational structure of a game and go on a message board calling for artists to help tighten and ad assets. I love that XNA, PSN, and WiiWare are attempting to assist these indie-developers. I love that the Internet has brought a Renascence in independent flash games that eventually make it to these previously stated outlets. I love that the medium has garnered artists to explore and experiment in interactive art without the priorities of monetary reciprocity. As more as these game design assets are released such as Kongregate.com’s flash tutorial, Little Big Planet, and the multitudes of engine mods that continues to release on the PC I hope that the ease and creativity from the independent scene that has now taken to the forefront will continue to excite and inspire the new generation of games that we have yet to see.


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