This week sees the newest release from Nintendo, Art Academy for the DS. The title joins in the ranks of an ever growing generation of games such as Brain Age, America’s Test Kitchen, the My Personal/Coach games and even Wii Fit as the latest in the trend of games that claim to boost your own attributes - not just those of your 72ppi character. The bent of art academy is simple – if you don’t know how to draw, this game will teach you how, if you do have some drawing know-how, then you can use this technology to turn your DS into a portable sketchbook. If we just consider the game within this limited framework, as being for art what Wii Fit is for exercise then the game is quite successful. However, if we consider the larger claim of the game, that this game will make you an artist, well then things start getting complicated.
Before delving much deeper in to the ethos of this game, let’s take a look at the tech. Gameplay for Art Academy is simple, with a basic offering of two distinct play modes, Free Play and Lessons. The first and more content–heavy option is Lessons, where ‘Vince’ (Why do they always chose the most morbid of art heroes to iconize?) will teach the novice how to use the art tools embedded in the game and, more crucially, how to draw. Here we get to one of the biggest gameplay faults of the game, the slowness of the lessons. With the limited sfx capabilities of the DS, these titles rarely have voice acting let alone room for anything more than midi files. This means clicking through box after box of instructional text when you know that all you really have to do is draw a circle
The advice from Vince is often mostly jocular and anecdotal, unfortunately leading to the rapid-pressing of the continue button to get to the point where you can actually interact with the screen. This is sad in a way because not all of Vince’s advice is redundant. By lesson 3 the (presumably) earless chibi is waxing poetic on the topic of how one should think of fireworks going off while drawing trees – which (coming from someone with art training) is not bad advice at all.
Another interesting point on the lessons is that they are truly just instructional. There is no grading or evaluation system built into the game so while it is impossible to get stuck at a certain level, players also are left without any feedback on what they could be doing better, and what they’re getting right.
The diversity of the current art world shows well enough that art is as subjective a field as there ever was or could be (for further reading see Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste by Carl Wilson). Even so, the purpose of art instruction is to help the student of art find within themselves what among the work they are producing is compelling on a more universal level and what work falls short.
The second mode is Free Paint where the entire array of art tools are made available. This is the mode that will appeal to players more advanced in the lessons…or just more advanced artists. As far as sketching goes, Art Academy offers three different pencil strengths, the option to use the tip or the side of the pencil, or the eraser. Moving the stylus across the screen, you hear the satisfying scratching sound of pencil on rough paper, which almost compensates for the fact that the screen provides no traction. The stylus tries to capture user gesture by tapering the ends of strokes based on stylus velocity, resulting in realistic looking marks. The DS’s lack of pressure sensing capabilities however, severely limit the realism and the expressiveness of the tool.
The paints pallet fares better. Paints can be mixed in the pallet realistically, though the interface requires some getting used to. The options for paints are extensive with six different kinds of brushes and finite controls over the amount of paint on the brush as well as how much water to use. All of this however doesn’t make up for the lack of the ability to play with colors together on the page. Once you lay down a color on the drawing screen, it stays there and nothing you do around it will change this.
To sum the tech side of things up, the DS simulates paint and pencil well, but the difficulty in transitioning between marking styles will frustrate most users. In addition the way that Art Academy interprets user input has a way of making everything look sketchy, which can add a bit of polish to everything. For players new to art this effect will bolster self-confidence, for more experienced users it will be another point of frustration.
Using Free Paint, players can whip up some pretty cool drawings; the ones on display when I was first introduced to the game are a great example. However, after a certain point, the limitations of the platform hardware inevitably come into play. The DS is not the art powerhouse of the gaming world; it generally doesn’t try to be. But this also means that players will rarely be able to render something beyond the look of the low-res graphics analogous with art for the system. Perhaps the most crucial way the game is lacking is, if users are super proud of the low-res art they create, their masterpieces are stuck on the console. Though the current and forthcoming generations of the DS all offer internet connectivity in one way or another, Art Academy makes no allowances for exporting user’s creation off the console.
The message all of these design choices send is straightforward and reassuringly humble. You are not going to make art using this game.
Might you learn to draw better? Sure.
In all likelihood, one of the best things this game can do for you is increase your doodling awareness. Doodling is the one way most people practice art on a daily basis, in the margins of meeting notes, and lesson handouts, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who has never practiced this form of distracted self-expression. If after playing Art Academy, you find yourself shading the edge of circle you were drawing, or thinking of fireworks while drawing trees, then the game is working for you. Art instruction like the kind relayed in this game is at its best when directed at expanding the pupils’ visual vocabulary and thus giving them a new and greater capacity for self-expression. Most users will take this knowledge and just, well, make nicer looking doodles. Yet others, a much smaller percentage for sure, will take it a step farther. I can see this game being the turning point for someone, the bolster of confidence that they needed to get a bit more serious about their art.
And it’s at times like these that I can’t help but start talking about Ratatouille.
Yes, the 200X pixar animated film about a rat that cooks. There’s a line from the movie repeated often, the twist on the phrase ”anyone can cook”. What we learn by the end of the film, (spoiler alert!) from the mouth of the somewhat vilified critic, “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”
I can never forget this line, because it is so true to our contemporary understanding of what art is and who artists are. Contemporary art comes in all shapes and sizes and from all sorts of people. Being able to make a semblance of an object in the ‘real world’ on a 2D plane is a very cool skill to have, but real artists know that the real skill is being able to communicate, without words, a slice of our human experience that is too great to be properly be expressed with words. If this means using pen and paper – great, but if it also means using palm trees, wax, refuse, a video game system or anything else – that’s fine too. Whatever it takes, and whatever feels right.
Art Academy is a game sadly, and expectedly saturated with the most generic and antiquated of understanding of what art is. What it begins to do however, is tiptoe upon teaching the premise upon which all great art is founded – really looking, really seeing something, and seeking to understand that something in a new way. Not everyone will get this, as most people will just glaze over little Vince’s erudition, but those who listen and take in to practice his words might actually get somewhere. In short, Art Academy for the DS won’t make everyone a great artist, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be the push that brings us the next great artist.