October 22, 2008

Angles of Art

The Games-as-Art question has intrigued me for a while. In fact, the first two posts on this blog deal with the subject. I still think that games can do as much and more than any other medium, but my thoughts on specifically how they can accomplish this has evolved somewhat. While I've always been most enthusiastic about the narrative-driven shared authorship model (see Deus Ex), I think that there are some other, artistically orthogonal ways of getting an artistic impact in games.

The shared authorship model depends on story and player choice. That faced some opposition from Roger Ebert who, among others, claimed that interactivity destroyed authorial control, but as long as the author can control the outcomes of choices, that seems like a weak rebuttal.

But another, wholly different artistic angle is the "model a system" approach. The theory here is that games are great at teaching the intricacies of complex systems, and this can be applied artistically. SimCity imparts understanding about the dynamics of urban development, The Marriage shows the author' conception of how a marriage functions, and Civilization teaches us about abstract things like territory and projection of force and long-term planning.

And games can also take the tack of trying to elicit an emotional state in the player. This is most commonly seen in rhythm games like Rez, DDR, or Everyday Shooter, but also applies to nonmusical games like flOw and Endless Ocean. Each game puts the player in an emotional state of groove, flow, or relaxation. I know that when I get into the Rock Band drums for a while, I tend to zone in and rock out.

Now, whether these last two angles really qualify as art might be a bit harder to defend than the shared authorship approach. When we model other systems, such as modeling the earth's climate for scientific purposes, we never claim that it's art, even though we can fiddle with the variables and see what happens. But as long as the system model is being created with artistic purpose in mind, I think that it wins the definitional battle intuitively. I think it's also fairly clear how something that puts you in an altered emtional state can be art (isn't that what music, graphical art, movies, and all other art at its best attempts to do?), but such an admission also opens the doors to some intriguing arguments that stuff like food or drugs or insults are artistic. After all, they all induce a new emotional state.

Other angles of art could include the interactive storytelling approach championed by Chris Crawford, in which we take the shared authorship model and turn the player control dial up to 11, or the linear storytelling model, in the style of Half Life 2 or Call of Duty 4.

I suspect that most games go for the systems-modeling approach, but they aren't modeling anything that currently exists. A typical RTS, for example, presents a system of rules that can perhaps offer us new experiences and teach us about human behavior, but it isn't attempting to model real things, unless you consider an RTS to be a legitimate simulation of strategic combat. Such a game is about abstract things like resource management and territorial control.

There's no conclusion that I'm working towards here; I'm just trying to clarify the current state of my thoughts on the subject. Hopefully this will inform my next game project after Meridian is finished.

October 16, 2008

Promoting Asp

Due to an unusually high courseload, I've been pretty much unable to play, make, or (as is evident) write about games to any respectable degree. I have, however, had the time to pass around the completed version of Asp.

I thought that Asp was pretty fun, a little bit original, and otherwise unfortunately unremarkable. Still, I figured that submitting the game to reddit had no downside, so I sent it in expecting to get a few pageviews and, if I was lucky, some interesting comments.

To my surprise, they loved Asp. That, or they loved the fact that I was debuting it for free on reddit. Either way, the submission got over 360 votes and, even better, over a hundred comments. Some of these were about stuff unrelated to the game or troubleshooting technical problems, but I also got a lot of good constructive and evaluative commentary. It was a moment of triumph.

I also submitted Asp to playthisthing.com, a review-a-day site that focuses on any and all non-mainstream games. It was an offshoot of Greg Costikyan's Manifesto Games, which I had followed briefly after it opened up. The site has a large backlog of suggestions, and I again didn't expect much.

But then Greg Costikyan himself reviewed the game! His opinion seemed to be very similar to mine: the game is obviously a student project that just tries to do one new thing decently. But he didn't hate it, and he even used the phrase "worth playing"! I have low standards. Triumph!

So my thinking on this subject, as I related to my friends afterwards: If I can get this sort of attention for a pretty small and not especially inspiring game, what might I be able to accomplish if I make something I'm truly proud of?

I have the option now of taking the good suggestions I got and making a major revision of Asp, adding content along the way. Asp 1.1 might be an objectively, unambiguously good game, but I doubt I'll take that path. I'd rather keep moving and picking up skills in more varied projects.