Electron Dance
19Jul/1726

Gaze of the Abyss

Manifold Garden

Earlier this year I wrote an essay called Art of the Impossible about Fragments of Euclid (Antoine Zanuttini, 2017) and William Chyr’s as-yet unreleased Manifold Garden. In classic Electron Dance fashion, I ended on a throwaway thought that bore closer inspection. I moaned about the tendency for beautiful art games to rely on what you might call “tried and tested” mechanics to drive them. I don’t think of them as tried and tested, more like “unambitious and disappointing”.

Find a key, unlock a door. Touch the hotspot. Memorise a sequence.

Does this sound familiar?

Outside of small, free stuff, the first game I can remember that triggered this type of stomach-lurching disappointment was Sword & Sworcery (Capybara Games & Superbrothers, 2011). Sure, it had Twin Peaks references and occasionally you got to manipulate the environment in interesting ways but then there was a bit where you had to find invisible hotspots floating in the air and hit them in the right order. This was the great Sword & Sworcery? A few memory games? I even felt a twinge of dissatisfaction in my beloved Kairo (Locked Door Puzzle, 2013) which had a sequence puzzle among its earliest challenges.

I tried playing Tengami (Nyamyam, 2014) with the children a few months ago which we eventually abandoned out of boredom. While it is dressed up in a beautiful papercraft look and some of the pop-up book interactions are fun, it suffers from an aggressive case of banality. Not only were there sequence puzzles but the player spends most of the time walking, very slowly, from one point to another. There is no justification to any of this, no value-add to be found in this meditative-going-on-coma pace. You cannot help but see the sequence puzzles and speed as padding to make up for limitations of the pop-up theme.

Tengami

Tengami

The idea of using mechanics invented in 1917 to flesh out a game is not unique to arthouse indie fare. It’s rife in AAA titles, but less noticeable as they cram in a lot more 1917 mechanics to provide the illusion of modernity. Open-world titles are full of collectible hunts and simple fetch quests.

A particular hate of mine is the quick time event (QTE), where you jab the right key or button when you’re told to otherwise your character faces the vicious consequences of your tardy button-pressing. The first time I encountered them was in Dead Space (Visceral Games, 2008). Oops you didn’t press F quickly enough, so the creature stabbed you in the brain! A lot! I suppose there’s a purity to the quick-time event as what is an action game other than an exercise in pressing buttons at the right time?

I condemned myself to work through the tedious Minecraft: Story Mode (Telltale Games, 2015) for the love of my children, a point-and-click adventure riddled with QTE rot. My son enjoyed Costume Quest (Double Fine, 2010) despite the combat being sculpted from QTE. I don’t really want to be that guy who whines “but he doesn’t know any better” but he doesn’t know any better.

Costume Quest

Costume Quest

Time to complain about something else. Suppose you’re only allowed access to the first paragraph when you click on this page. After you read it, the second paragraph unlocks. Now you must read the second paragraph twice to unlock the third. And it takes a bit of re-reading of both the second and third paragraphs to unlock the fourth paragraph. And then to proceed--

God I hate upgrade ladders. Far too often they feel like synthetic design grafted on to eke out the good stuff. I remember playing a recommendation from Free Indie Games many years ago which initially seemed fun, but then I wasn’t allowed to progress in the game until I had cleared out the previous levels. But to defeat those levels was impossible with the poor arsenal I had been kitted out with so was forced to grind through failures to get enough cash to upgrade. Imagine if Stephen’s Sausage Roll (Increpare, 2016) had made the sausages heavier as the game progressed and forced the player into sausage-pushing workouts before they could take on later levels.

This design bleeds out into respected titles. Whether No Man’s Sky (Hello Games, 2016) is respected or not depends on your point of view, but in its classic formulation you must continually collect resources to maintain forward momentum. I was also upset that the fun, loveable Alphabear (Spry Fox, 2015) was much more about an upgrade ladder than being clever with words.

Panda Poet

Panda Poet

Nonetheless, it would be unfair to omit that upgrade ladders continue to make addicts of players thus commercially-minded developers have little motivation to drop them. The template for Alphabear was the clever multiplayer game Panda Poet (Spry Fox, 2011) which is essentially the same game sans upgrade ladder. Panda Poet did not share the success of Alphabear. Spry Fox Chief Creative Officer and all-round nice guy Dan Cook wrote in the Electron Dance comments:

Panda Poet is an interesting counter example. It is quite pure with minimal grinding and highly skilled positional play. There’s an extremely tiny group of highly educated players that really enjoy it. Everyone else bounces off it like it is the [most] vile poison ever created.

I’m really here to raise an eyebrow about the arthouse titles, though, which hope to be appraised as something unique and special - but then bolt on “a vector of gameplay” like a few puzzles with some locked doors. This is a broader version of the Chekhov Collectible paradox where meaningless collectibles are distributed to provide exploration with meaning. Developers attempt to justify player participation through the addition of effectively meaningless mechanics which are incongruous with a game’s core design philosophy.

Here’s a game for you, reader. Go find me an essay that contends that art needs to be justified with dull mechanics. Attempting to jazz things up with some well-weathered gameyness risks the relationship flipping around, with the game presenting as boring busywork justified by art. My pessimistic summary of Fragments of Euclid was “just another game about pressing buttons and unlocking doors”. We may have clutched pearls over Brian Moriarty’s accusation that games had not yet delivered sublime art, and I definitely include myself in this “we”, but who can blame him when art games themselves contributed to this impression. Mind you, Moriarty has been softening of late.

I’ve heard all the complaints about how the master race of alt-ludology extremists are coming to formalise game design and tear down art. But take a quick dip into some of our arthouse titles and you’re sure to come up against the crudest game design patterns you’ve ever seen in your life. The memory games, the locked doors, the collectibles. TIMEframe (Random Seed Games, 2015) metamorphosed from a curious exploration-against-the-clock prototype into a timed collectible hunt in the commercial version. Thank you, mechanics, for providing a sense of steely “closure”. There’s no ludologist here defacing these works.

It is possible to succeed without bolt-on gameplay. Gone Home (The Fullbright Company, 2013) and Verde Station (Dualboot, 2014) are games that largely take place inside your head. Bernband (Tom van den Boogaart, 2014) asks nothing of you except to witness the world. Matt W suggested in the comments that Fragments of Euclid could actually work without goals because navigation is difficult in itself, which then recalls Miasmata (IonFX, 2012) a landmark title about the player as cartographer. I haven’t even started on purely experiential works like Proteus (Key & Kanaga, 2013), Metamorphabet (Vectorpark, 2015) or Panoramical (Ramallo & Kanaga, 2015).

Mechanics are not bad, but need to gel with what the game is attempting to project. Cart Life (Richard Hofmeier, 2011) and Papers Please (Lucas Pope, 2013) are full of tedious little chores that absolutely nail those games’ themes.  When I dabbled with the prototype of If Found, Please Return (Llaura Dreamfeel) at EGX Rezzed, I was aware this was just a branching story game, but the method of navigating the story - erasing the displayed imagery - made it so much more.

If Found, Please Return

If Found, Please Return

In an article called No Alternative, I asked several developers if they wanted a different term to use instead of “game” but no one was seeking new labels or categories. Three years later, I can finally articulate what was bothering me at the time.

While a new breed of developers had plotted to create art that changed what “game” meant, I suspected the influence might have gone the other way. An art game sometimes felt like art infected with the word game. If you gaze into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.

There is another way to view this without getting mired in negativity and dissatisfaction. We have been progressing through a period of gentle change, during which artists were nudging back the boundaries of “game” until our Dear Esthers and Verde Stations and Cart Lifes could flourish. I might have disliked Tengami, but it was helping to clear the path for others. There are still lingering influences as you can see with a work like Fragments of Euclid and practically any game wearing the badge of “walking simulator” - but we are not where we were a decade ago. We are more like where we were 35 years ago, when there were no established game design patterns to constrain the creative output of developers.

Verde Station

Verde Station

Arthouse developers are becoming increasingly honest with their work; if they cannot find some interesting mechanic to play with, they won’t offer one. But I’m realistic - I understand the financial stakes for some. Minus game-like affordances means it might be minus game-like revenue; I refer you back to Panda Poet vs Alphabear. However, decent developers are wary of becoming an art game hustler, wasting people’s time and money with the equivalent of glorified collectible hunts.

I can’t tell you what I want. And even if I did, I wouldn’t tell you, because if you dig into these arguments too deeply, you will unearth true madness. You will find yourself carving an unholy pentagram in the ground which circumscribes what is game and what is not-game, what is art and what is not-art.

Give me lines and I promise to ignore them. And that’s what I expect of you, too.

Alternative Viewpoints

  • After I posted this, Sean Barrett reminded me of Darius Kazemi's Fuck Videogames which suggests that if you have a cool idea you want to make there are plenty of good reasons not to turn it into a game.
  • I also remembered Paolo Pedercini's The Great Art Upgrade, which suggests we shouldn't seek external validation as Art and considers what we might be missing if we just focus on Tetris = Art.
  • And to be clear, Gaze of the Abyss isn't about keeping "art" and "gameyness" separate but how artistic ambitions can be undermined by squeezing them into a set of cheap, one-size-fits-all game clothes.
  • I was a Sword & Sworcery fan! The disappointment described above was part of the thought process I had as I was progressing through it.
  • I updated the article on 26 July 2017 to reflect that Brian Moriarty did not imply videogames could never be sublime art - just that it had not happened yet and context was providing resistance.

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Comments (26) Trackbacks (1)
  1. Wow that “you have two minutes left” popup obscuring the text is annoying. I won’t try reading this site on mobile again.

  2. Urthman, once you go premium it’s ok, I hardly have to buy any extra Electron Packs to get through a post like this.

  3. Urthman – for you, does it really obscure a lot? I’ve been reviewing articles on my S5 for ages, and I found it’s tucked away down the bottom and doesn’t really get in the way. Do you have a higher magnification on the text?

    Kfix – Now that’s the kind of response I should have come up with :)

  4. On topic – maybe a factor also pushing some developers to include some “game” in their game is the torrent of abuse that might come their way if their game isn’t sufficiently a “game” for the gatekeepers (thank you for your service, brave volunteer heroes)?

    I’m not really exercised by the demarcation problem as such, but I do want to understand my own attitude to walky/looky games. I have no idea what to do with/in Proteus, but I’ll happily spend all day wandering around in Skyrim not doing anything much more than I could do in Proteus. The only difference appears to be that I need to start a fire every now and then to avoid freezing (Frostfall is the best), and the knowledge that I *could* be going down that cave or fighting that bear, even though what I’m *actually* doing is just wandering around looking at the scenery.

  5. Off topic – does anyone want to talk about Dishonored 2? I’m on my third play-through in a bit over a week, and I’m just loving it to death. Stabby stabby death.

  6. Re my remark about Skyrim, John Walker makes this game sound like exactly what I need when in those moods – all the wandering and scenery with simple mechanics but without combat or drama.

  7. “While a new breed of developers had plotted to create art that changed what “game” meant, I suspected the influence might have gone the other way. An art game sometimes felt like art infected with the word game. If you gaze into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”

    This is my favourite paragraph. :)

    Much food for thought here as usual. I do wonder to what extent overexposure overstates how much a problem this is to many players of games, but you can say the same about any form of cultural criticism, so it’s not a particularly helpful remark.

    Although I led with my favourite paragraph, I think for me this is the most significant sentence: “Mechanics are not bad, but need to gel with what the game is attempting to project.” Familiar mechanics are an inevitability, an absolute: novelty and innovation are wonderful but will always lie toward horizons. What designers ought to do is work out “what the game is attempting to project”, what their narrative or themes are, the mood or emotions they want to establish or connect with – and then work out what forms of play, exploration and gaming might dovetail with that.

    To put it another way: in many respects what we understand as videogames today are a fusion of prior mediums with new possibilities, and fusion works best when the properties of what it is fusing are understood at a non-superficial level.

  8. kfix

    I think this used to be the case but the ground has changed. Yes, I’m pretty sure there are a bunch of people whining that Dear Esther isn’t “interactive enough” but there is more awareness now, although I imagine new devs may be more reticent on their first title to make a change. But I wonder how much gain is made by appealing to people who really aren’t your core audience? “Now that I can hit hotspots, I feel justified in giving this arthouse developer $10 – just after I’ve finished the new Wolfenstein!” I know it’s all a lot more complicated than this, but there seems so much… compromise going on, which is holding progress back. Sword & Sworcery gets away the simple mechanics a lot more because, as I’ve said before, it’s a bit like a musical instrument that plays Jim Guthrie’s music – it does hang together as an artistic work.

    I’m playing the amazing Abzu at the moment and I’m still… tasked to *do* things. I don’t mind swimming with shoals of fish or meditating but when I go to a shrine and the world changes, while it is very beautiful, it is utterly unsurprising for this type of game. Arthouse games are big into magic because can leverage small, inexpensive mechanics into messages about the world. At the back of my head, I’m thinking Monument Valley or Proteus and I’m sure I could come up with others. I’m not trying to be mean about any of these titles, but I can’t help feeling that this area has been well-trodden. Then again people still like playing point-and-click first-person shooters twenty years after DOOM. Maybe there will be no such point where the arthouse audience has had enough?

    I’m afraid I’m not playing any Dishonored 2 but we’ll have to see if anyone else is. You can tell me if I was way off target with the Dishonorable Discharge newsletter.

    ShaunCG

    I guess my fundamental issue is just that – developers seek understandable/packaged interactivity to widen audience and exposure, as opposed to something which is more sensible for whatever they’re making – perhaps nothing at all. That last one sometimes leads to “Emperor’s New Clothes” moments such as Mountain where some go – well, gee, there’s nothing there at all. (Fun fact: the very first title of this post was Emperor’s New Clothes but was dropped as it wasn’t representative of the core of the essay).

    But that will keep happening until the public comes to the conclusion that (a) it is vapid nonsense or (b) it is clever and avant-garde. Do you remember One and One Story? There was a particular line of very explicit “mechanics are the message” games like that and they were very dull. “I jumped the pit, just like when I made a leap of faith for my new career.” And they’ve disappeared now. It just wasn’t particularly fruitful.

    I feel you about the “overexposure” issue. Is it just because I play a LOT of these titles? Is this not true of the arthouse audience? Will someone buy Dear Esther and then never touch another ANOMALY? Many of these titles are free and I worry these simple mechanics are getting burned up fast. Perhaps they won’t be exhausted. While some of the magical metaphors we see today are less explicit, there’s a sense that the meaning floats pretty close to the surface. (I can’t think of a great example at this moment, because I was never quite sure what Monument Valley meant. We’ll have to leave it here and perhaps we’ll all call me on my bullshit later.)

    (p.s. that is also my favourite paragraph and went through around 2 billion iterations before that point.)

  9. While I remember, Robert Yang’s latest is pretty clever in this regard. It has a set of mechanics which all contribute towards its overall, er, thrust.

  10. Joel – okay, so I’m speaking here about AAA type stuff, whereas my last comment was more general. And obviously indie stuff is a lot less constrained by risk aversion than corporate stuff, for better or worse. But anyway, you have me thinking about something.

    What’s striking to me about shortform videogame marketing, aside from its dreary and plodding qualities, is that it does not focus on mechanics and familiar interactivity so much as it does themes, ideas, dreams, aspirations (vom), impressions etcetera. Okay, that’s marketing for ya, but perhaps it suggests that when it comes to capturing consumer interest, Joe Bloggs cares about about Watch Dogs letting you play as a dude with an iconic hat who can hack the planet than Watch Dogs having mechanics familiar to him from Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry and all the other members of the Ubigame family. Maybe there’ll be some frustration when Joe sits down and discovers he doesn’t know how to play this game, but if the desire to don that iconic hat is strong enough Joe will power through.

    Obvious response is obvious: marketing is not development. But we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t think that marketing activities, consultations and tightly managed user tests don’t produce a lot of feedback which is fed back into game development.

    Damn, I’ve entirely lost where I was going with that. The thread has vanished into a technicolor murder coat. When I look back over what I just typed, all I can see if the line of reasoning that produces the same pre-chewed homogeneity, but with wrapped up in a superficial Exciting New Spin. Damn it, there was something more.

    Oh well. I think you’re mostly right that eventually “the public” tires of overused sets of mechanics – though we’re obviously massively generalising when we say that as this hits different groups of people, different demographics at different points, and “the industry” only tends to respond when sales trends really begin to dip and they don’t have a huge amount invested in X or Y project from that mould. It would be interesting to see data on this sort of stuff. Are there any videogame statisticians crunching sales figures and number of games in certain genres or groupings released over time? Fucking hard work to make anything coherent but damn would it be interesting. At a guess I’d say this stuff might move in 5-15 year cycles but that’s a really wide range and purely based on the anecdotal.

  11. It reminded me of Tale of Tales’ Realtime Art Manifesto. http://tale-of-tales.com/tales/RAM.html

    If you don’t mind me copy-pasting the most relevant part:

    “Step one: drop the requirement of making a game.
    The game structure of rules and competition stands in the way of expressiveness.
    Interactivity wants to be free.
    Gaming stands in the way of playing.
    There are so many other ways of interacting in virtual environments.
    We have only just begun to discover the possibilities.
    Games are games.
    They are ancient forms of play that have their place in our societies.
    But they are by far not the only things one can do with realtime technologies.
    Stop making games.
    Be an author.”

  12. Shaun

    What I like about what you’ve picked out here – if I can be allowed to build on your incomplete thought – is this weird paradox that comes up from time to time. The stereotypical gamer hates the notgames and is reviled by Dear Esther, probably also Gone Home. They want Interactivity with a total capital I.

    And then you consider that many of these Interactive games are Interchangeable, differing just in theme. What’s more important is that thematic layer rather than the mechanics upon which it rests.

    It’s so close, isn’t it? You can almost taste it. If theme and experience are still king even to the mechanics-hungry gamer, then why the hell do they care about the mechanics? Not quite the paradox it seems. Mechanics do things to games, give them a roughness that is sometimes missing without them. It’s easy to feel they are a fundamental facet of game design. But it’s fascinating that the same truth, that theme often trumps everything, plays out completely differently for those in the arthouse camp to the AAA followers.

    I promise to reply to your Prey thoughts soon. Only so much time…

    Yhancik

    Tale of Tales were on my mind when I was writing this and perhaps I should have recalled the manifesto immediately; I was actually wondering about Sunset and how I’ve heard (as I have not yet experienced it) it uses some “artificial mechanics” to make it’s story a bit gamer-friendly. When I started Electron Dance in 2010, I would admit I was more of the mechanics-are-vital side of the fence; without them, you don’t have a game. These days, I’m more permissive. Because of the word “games” we have, I won’t argue about nomenclature any more.

    I’ve been on my own little journey and now I support that the intentions of that manifesto, to make something different.

    Thanks for the reminder!

  13. reading into Moriarty, it seems his base argument was (at one point) “sublime art leads to contemplation, goals distract from contemplation” and your problem with many art games is that they provide goals.

    both he and you lead to the inevitable conclusion, that perhaps there is a digital work without goals that is outside the traditional definition of game, while it also cannot not be defined as game for practical purposes.

    however you poke at a few interesting examples: Cart Life, Papers Please, If Found, Please Return

    the core difference between games and other media is agency (as Moriarty posits and steals from Shopenhauer “will”), his initial misstep, and the point you don’t quite get to, is that agency can lead to contemplation, the exact purpose of sublime art.

    all sublime art causes contemplation, do all things that cause contemplation make sublime art? if so, there are most definitely man-made products that derive, through agency, contemplation.

    Cart Life, Papers Please, If Found, Please Return, Journey (mentioned in Moriarty’s softening article) and my favorite Kentucky Route Zero all use mechanics not as a way to purely ultimately attain a useless goal of satisfaction, but instead primarily to elicit contemplation.

    they are picking at the human condition, they lead to play of the soul. They are sublime art.

  14. I’ve just recently played What Remains of Edith Finch. Despite taking issue with a few bits that didn’t quite hang right and that I would change, I really enjoyed it overall.

    The outer layer of it is a Gone Home type of affair: exploring the empty house and looking at the things prompts a story to unfold itself bit by bit. This is punctuated by little vignettes explaining the final moments of the protagonist’s relatives. Each vignette is different in terms of how you interactive with it. Some of them are basically just hand-cranked cut-scenes, but others have meaningful mechanics that enrich your understanding of, and involvement in, the story. Much has been made of the “cannery” scene, but there are other good ones too.

    If you can dig the quirky-morbid magical realism vibe then its worth a look, and is interesting and relevant because offers a buffet of working exemplars for both sides of the debate at hand.

  15. Hello again John

    I have a slight problem when I write here that I feel I shouldn’t rehash too much what I’ve previously written. I avoided the conclusion of no agency leads to art because I don’t believe it. I think a piece of work which is entirely self consistent is the only way that’s going to happen and all I really wanted to drag out here is how some works are doing themselves a disservice by appealing to rather dumb mechanics that show them up.

    But interesting point re sublime art, I didn’t make a point to reread reading Moriarty’s essay in close detail. Funny that a lot of talk of “meaning” in games is directed at making a story, broadcasting a message, rather than developing a backdrop on which you are directed to reflect.

    But could we argue repetitive actions encourage contemplation? Disengage you from reality and nudge you into a place more Zen?

    Welcome Mr. Behemoth

    Edith Finch is most definitely on my list of games I really want to do “sooner rather than later”! It has always sounded like my kind of thing. Thanks for voting it up!

  16. How about INSIDE? If it’s not great art then at least it’s a big step towards that.

  17. Dorobo, I haven’t played INSIDE as I had a feeling I would hate the act of play (I stayed away from Limbo for the same reason, thinking I probably find it too frustrating). So I can’t answer your question directly.

    And at the end of the day, art is probably in the eye of the beholder rather than needing acceptance of an Art Authority. If you think it’s art, it probably is. Game as art is already with is.

    And I see your name “dorobo”. Are you a thief?

  18. (I do feel welcome, HM, thanks! You’re a good host, and I have been lurking for a few years.)

  19. Mr. B, always nice to hear from long-time lurkers, lured out of the dark for one fleeting comment!

  20. Joel, That’s a shame. It really has sublime moments or maybe im just not as cultured as i might think :) wich im not. As for the act of play it’s interesting how most puzzles had much simpler solutions than i was expecting (played Limbo) so for the most part it felt very elegant. The art/story/atmosphere/ending that’s what took it to another level for me. Yes i guess personal sensibilities play a role in this too.

    Im not a thief well at least not currently. Just a fancy nickname.

    I’m the process of making an art game. Sort of a point and click anti-adventure walking simulator. And so there’s certainly doubts and hesitations in the way of should i really go on and produce these ungodly ammounts of drawings for this mechanically rather simple artsy game wich might turnout rubish. These types of articles if not necessary help but inspire and make brains do some work. Thanks for that.

  21. I mourn the fact that the worlds of “videogames” and “digital art” seem to live in almost complete isolation from each other. In these discussions about the potential and limits of “gaming”, it could be very interesting to look at digital artworks, with their different constraints and liberties.

    “Digital art” means a lot of things, but here I’m talking about the field that appeared somewhere in the 60s, with people like the Experiments in Art and Technology group, Frieder Nake or Vera Molnar, and went on later with interactive installations, net.art (where Tale of Tales originally formed), and even, briefly, artists’ CD-roms. It has a very different cultural background (visual art & conceptual art), it’s usually consumed in a very different context (exhibitions), but as far as I’m concerned both “digital art” and video games come from a larger family of “audiovisual works that react in real time to a player/visitor and try to tell something”. Instead of trying to stretch the limits of what is acceptable within the rather restrictive notion of gaming, I wish that more creators (and “players”) explored the vast territories that exist between these two isolated islands.

    Some things games can learn from digital art:
    – you can make a beautiful experiences that lasts just 3 minutes
    – you don’t need to tell a story to “say something”
    – there are more ways to keep your audience’s attention than challenges
    – heck, you don’t even need to make it “playable” at all (thinking of Ian Cheng here http://iancheng.com/)

    I’m sure there are many beautiful projects that either never come to life because they’re “not game enough” or are ruined for the same reason. I hope it will change some day, but it might take some time.

    (and I join Joel Goodwin as a “long-time lurker” who finally decided to take part in the discussion!)

  22. Hey dorobo there are plenty of games I ruled out of playing only to find myself playing them for research purposes. Right now, for example, I’m playing Stephen’s Sausage Roll which I totally ruled out after seeing what kind of game it was. So you never know, Limbo and INSIDE might happen one day. (Unfortunately I’ve been spoiled to Kingdom Come because I never thought I’d play it.)

    “Dorobo” is thief in Japanese so I just assumed… that you stole in from JAPAN!!!! :)

    Good luck on your anti-adventure, there’s always a need for stuff which tries to work outside established conventions. All I’m looking for more faith in a developer’s design vs a fear of acceptance thus seek acceptability. If the mechanics shoe doesn’t fit, don’t slip it on.

    Yhancik

    I’ve seen you around the RPS comments (where I usually lurk and only occasionally get involved) but I don’t think I knew you haunted these parts. Nice to know!

    I agree and I get worried around taxonomy. I think I’ve worried a long time now about “games” being a rigid commodity built around rules and the impact of trying to herd all that digital art under the word, as if that will have no impact. I don’t really care about gamers who reject redefinitions of the term, but I can’t shake the notion that the word will do harm to otherwise peaceful works of art.

    We’ve definitely seen some change, partially due to alternative tools like Twine which allowed people to make things extremely un-gamelike, and partially due to champions who are going their own way and showing us that there are things out there. But it is still quite siloed and I definitely feel like I need more education every time I hear about non-gamey digital art. Pedercini’s “The Great Art Upgrade” contains so much material that I’d never heard of.

    The world is much bigger than we can comprehend.

  23. I probably found your blog through RPS, follow your feed, occasionally forget about it until RPS reminds me again, and it’s always a pleasure ;)

    Talking about forgetting, I also had totally forgotten The Great Art Upgrade! Nice to see it again!

    I think having a more diverse community of creators (indeed thanks to tools like Twine, but also Unity) is crucial in widening this-thing-we-call-gaming’s horizons. And it’s happening! Itch.io is full of pretty curious things to experience. So it’s far from perfect and there’s still a lot of work to do, but to end on a more positive note that my previous comment, we’re also living exciting times!

  24. John G.–interesting you mention Kentucky Route Zero because it seems like a nice case of Refusal of the Mechanic. Early previews of KRZ, back at the funding stage, had it as–wait a minute, looking at the last thirty seconds of it it’s a flipping platformer. (Also, there’s a pretty big spoiler in there.)

    Well, anyway, some earlier Cardboard Computer games were pretty clearly adventure games. A House In California is art-damaged as heck (this is a compliment) but it’s decidedly a point-and-click, with hotspots you have to find and puzzles about how to work your way through all the available verbs to progress. Balloon Diaspora cuts down on the hotspot hunting a lot but still decidedly has a lot of standard adventure game mechanics, with a few decided puzzles and a collect-a-bunch-of-these-things structure… and it also introduces their reflective choice trademark, where the main point of the game is dialogue choices that have no in-game effects (I don’t think?) but give you a chance to think about what you might feel about the game. As someone said about KRZ, it’s like you’re not defining the character, you’re defining yourself. And then Ruins has a little bit of explore-and-catch mechanics in between the reflective choice segments, but this is pretty clearly a pacing mechanism. Then Kentucky Route Zero seems like it’s past the point-and-click mechanics. I guess there’s some explorey stuff, and there are definitely secrets (definitely definitely since everyone says oh the best part of chapter three is that thing and I’m like what thing I never found that thing), and at least one game within a game–but if you go back to the older games with the puzzles it’s apparent how much of that KRZ has abandoned. And I think this was a choice that was made during development.

    I dearly love all these games, btw. Ruins is very short and intensely sad.

    Joel: “many of these Interactive games are Interchangeable, differing just in theme.” In this way I’m not even sure Tengami falls on the art-game side of the ledger here–it’s just a point-and-click that tries to get by on its visual style, and fails, because the point-and-clicking is so empty and so time-consuming. But there are a lot of games whose distinctiveness comes from their visual style that aren’t art-games at all. Tengami’s style reminds me of Bastion, the way its levels assemble themselves as you walk around–and Bastion wasn’t very distinctive in its gameplay or story, was it? (I don’t know. I just watch my son play it. I know its narration was distinctive.) But the same-old same-old mechanics are enough to hang the aesthetic on, because they’re not actively boring. Similarly with LEGO games, where the point is that the levels and everything are made of LEGO, and that actually is lots of fun! Though I guess they also have a distinctive mechanic/genre.

  25. For more about Kentucky Route Zero and mechanics, see this profile of the Cardboard Computer folk (from around when Chapter Two came out), which touches on A House In California as a surreal point-and-click and KRZ’s past as a non-violent Metroidvania. At the end Elliott makes a complaint about the calcification and genrefication of game mechanics that is not unlike what Joel says here, maybe.

  26. > But I wonder how much gain is made by appealing to people who really aren’t your core audience?

    Not a lot! And that goes both ways, of course. You should ignore people who refuse to play Arthouse Walking Simulator because it’s “not a game,” and folks who like Shooty-Mans VI: The Shooting of Mans should ignore people who heap abuse on more traditional gameplay paradigms and those who enjoy them. There’s room for everyone, if we’d just all stop being upset over people Having Fun Wrong.


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