Crispy Gamer

My take on the "Art Game" Debate

I've been reading a lot lately from different blogs on whether "art games" should be evaluated, and are as important as a normal video game. For those unfamiliar an art game is a classification of more independent games that aim more at providing a unique message or perspective that most conventional games do not offer. One of the more popular art games is Jason Rohrer's Passage. I could try to explain it but it would be easier to download it and play it (5 minute game). It turns out to be a game that's terribly simple in mechanics but offers a lot of room for interpretation (I recommend reading Jason's own statement after playing). I was reminded of Passage from another art game that just popped up - Passage in 10 seconds. Though a mockery of Passage or art games in general, Passage in 10 seconds could be looked at as just another art game, with its simple mechanics and open interpretation.

The problem I have with art games is that I have a hard time considering them proper games. I've had many discussions on what a game is (and trust me, I'd rather not have any more of those discussions) but most people can agree that games should have three key elements: meaningful play, quantifiable outcomes and a "fun" factor. Meaningful play simply means that actions players perform in a game have a tangible outcome in the game space; in other words, meaningful play leads to quantifiable outcome. The third element, the element of fun in a game, is a more tricky point and probably where most of this debate originates. Do games need to be fun? Perhaps not, but they should always at least involve some element of competition or exhilaration.

This is the crux of the problem: most art games are neither fun nor exhilaratingNot even a little. Jim Sterling wrote an excellent piece (which may have insinuated much of this debate to begin with) on the problem with art games. His main point was that they try too hard to be innovative or interpretive but end up having bland mechanics and failing in the basic goal of a game: to provide entertainment. I really couldn't agree more, especially after finding a few more art games. Watch the video below of The Graveyard and just try to think of how to justify this as "entertainment":

So if I'm agreeing full-on with what Sterling said, what's my point? I don't hate art games; I think they are interesting attempts at widening the field of what is considered art (another debate I've had enough of). My point is that they just should not be called games; their form is just a bit too far from what a video game is. Games hold the connotation of being fun and competitive; things you want to play when you need to escape from reality for a little while. My idea is to separate art games into a different catagorization: interactive art. This way they can be distinguished and judged on different criteria of a standard video game. A good old fashioned venn diagram (behold my mad paint skills...?) will plot out the distinction:

This separation frees the interactive art from needing to be fun or competitive; the participant goes in not expecting those things now since it no longer holds the connotations of a video game. When I apply some examples to the distinction, though, the lines can blur:

The problem here, of course, is Braid. The game features innovative mechanics that challenge the player and can be very rewarding when a puzzle is solved. On the flip side, the story, though minimalistically told, is very interpretive and open to discussion. It has been described as a story of regret, a story of chasing dreams that will never come true, and most wildly a story about the atomic bomb. Seriously: if you have some time and have beaten Braid, take a read of this amazing interpretation. Braid manages to blur the line of my definition - so where does it belong? Perhaps this is where the true art game is; the game that can provide the challenge and successful mechanics of a video games while upholding a unique narrative experience.