Indie art games are the future… just not the future of games

Yuliya Geikhman March 30, 2012 - 11:00 am

Indie Darlings: Critics like Roger Ebert may maintain that games are not art, but some indie games really push these boundaries. They raise the question: if you only press one button during the entire game, is it really still a game?

Linger In Shadows by Plastic is the first PSN purchase I ever made. Games in the traditional sense are fun, they give you a sense of achievement and satisfaction, and they entertain. Then what compels people to get “art games” like Linger In Shadows? When I first downloaded it, I had no idea what to expect from the little $2.99 game. What I got was different from anything I’d experienced until that point.

Linger In Shadows is not exactly a game. It’s a “demo,” showcasing artistic, visual, and musical abilities. The fact that it’s interactive, though, places it under the label of “art game.” All you get is a movie, a beautiful yet disturbing sequence which you can play, fast forward, slow down, or stop altogether. You can change the camera angle but not drastically. There is no goal except to watch and experience the scene unfolding before you.

You don’t actually do anything: it’s a bit like rewinding and fast-forwarding a movie to see if you missed anything. That’s not something often associated with games or even fun. Then why does it work?

The games industry (producers as well as consumers) is beginning to realise that games don’t need to follow a specific formula to be entertaining. Videogames are a powerful medium because even if you do very little, in the course of your interaction with the game you enter it and become a part of it. Movies are trying to pull the viewer in through 3D, but the mentality is simply not the same. Having a virtual world that reacts to your presence in some way is an unmatched experience.

Somehow this is true even when your interaction is minimal. Dear Esther, developed by thechineseroom and Robert Briscoe, is a perfect example of this idea. The game lacks purpose, quick-time events, platforms to climb or jump over, and generally anything “game-like.” Instead, Dear Esther places you on a strange island where you can wander around and explore the environment, and your past.

There is a semblance of a plot and there is definitely a story to uncover, but Dear Esther is not a game you can “beat.” It’s not even, strictly speaking, a game you can play. Imagine entering a painting where you are free to search for untold stories among the brushstrokes – it’s kind of like that.

Games like Dear Esther are not about the thrill and challenge of playing a game. They’re about the experience of being a part of a narrative, almost like being a director in somebody else’s movie.

Another game that requires very little player input is The Witness. Developed by Jonathan Blow, the mind behind Braid, The Witness is a puzzle game currently in production that only requires observational skills, some critical thinking, and a single line. Every puzzle in The Witness only needs you to draw one line, but figuring out how to draw this line is the real question.

Like Blow’s previous game, The Witness takes an established genre and recreates it from a different perspective. This is a game that’s not about playing but about looking and observing. And who is the Witness, anyway? What’s his story? Maybe he is an allegory for you, the player, witnessing a game or artwork unfolding. (It’s worth noting that Blow is a fan of story-through-gameplay, so there’s a chance The Witness will be more directly interactive than it currently lets on.)

Not all such games take themselves seriously, of course. Just as the previously mentioned games are all about reassessing the boundaries between game and art, the short flash game pOnd by Peanut Gallery is a parody of that. In this game, take an unnamed man on a relaxing walk to explore nature and breathe in the smells, sights, and sounds of the world around you. The only thing you need to press during the entire trip is the space bar, which you use to make your character do that simple everyday function that we all must do: breathe. The game description even suggests a tip: “breathing along with your character for a more relaxing experience.”

The idea is perfectly plausible and equally absurd at the same time. Many of us use games to unwind and relax after a long day, so why not create a game which is meditative and exists for us to just look at the pretty scenery and remember to breathe. But pOnd is also breaking down the idea of a game down to that point at which you’re no longer sure if it’s a game any more. It points out that sometimes experimental art games simply go too far.

Is pOnd an experimental art game or is it poking fun at the direction those kinds of games are going in? To find out, all you have to do is play to the end and reach the pond… but I won’t spoil that.

Make fun of them all you want, but there is definitely an audience for these artsy games: Dear Esther reached profitability in under six hours. But of course, they’re not for everyone. Some find them boring, while others prefer more traditional storytelling methods.

But the “videogame as art” model will only continue to expand, testing the limits and crossing the lines. Personally, I think taking the game out of games has limited long-term appeal within our medium, although some are certainly immersive. As we explore more ways to interact with our games, we’re also finding more ways we can tell stories through game systems, and that can only be a good thing.

But gamers aren’t the only group of people to exist, and virtual worlds you can explore, infused with story and meaning, could still have a very important purpose. Art games are not the future of videogames. But they might just be the future of art.

Indie Darlings is BeefJack’s fortnightly look at the world of indie games. More editions exist beyond this link.

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