«Someone who thinks games are not culturally interesting is illiterate. It’s 2014. Be a snob, not an apologist.» – Eric Zimmerman
When I talk about Art movements, I imply that games are Art. This first article is not mandatory in the series but, I will lay down foundations and will be going through the different tools I use every day talking about games to a general audience (which is my job) often ignorant (and sometimes very dismissive) of video games. You might therefore find in this section a good selection of vulgarised ideas to use on your uncle who only sort of gets technology and literally plays zero video games in order for you to gain his approval on your way of life.
A foreword of advice
When I introduce video games as an artform, I answer the question straight away: they are.
If global warming has taught us anything it’s that close minded people are not accustomed to the precaution of vocabulary any scientific method commends. You need to express the consensus in simple and direct terms, with certainty if needed. If you are proved to be wrong in the future, do correct yourself but if at a given time, global warming strongly seems at 97% to be human caused say it is. Don’t lose yourself in jargon defending “a very likely theory”. Say “the science is certain and irrevocable, it is”. You are the knowledgeable person on the matter, act like it and make your point before presenting yourself as just another member of an ongoing conversation where everyone has their equal say even.
«Are games Art?»
«Well, the consensus is that it’s likely even though in the industry many people still think that…» no, skip this part and go straight to this one:
Music is aesthetic meaning from sound, Pictural Art is beauty born of visual representations through paint or drawing, architecture is giving meaning to a traverssable sculpture and games are the art of giving humans something to do. Their meaning is coded in rules and abstract propositions and is expressed, made apparent and senseful through active participation in an experience.
Monopoly, Pong, Rugby, all give you something to do and you derive meaning and aesthetic through acting out their rules.
What the game of Go says about the human condition is in its ruleset and remains consistent while played with beer caps or on an ivory board just as Mona Lisa would be the same painting while shown at Le Louvre or in the Amazonian jungle. Context is context, not the piece itself. Even though Go’s meaning is, as all Art’s is, open to interpretation.
Disclaimer and retenue
Take heed though: saying games are an art-form does not mean every game is Art: much like not every movie is Art, nor is every book or dance move, theatre piece or music track… The vast majority of games played in the world is likely to be non-formalised: you play with water under the shower, run your fingers on the edge of a bench, try to avoid walking on certain-coloured pavements…
And even in the products that come to market, the vast majority of them are kitsch: a dumbed down expression of the art-form, reduced to it’s barely-meaningful parts.
The kitsch paintings of yore were the reduction of the Art of painting to a mass-produced, landscape-adorned, decoration object. When they originated in industrialising Europe around the 1860s to cater to the demands an ever-rising middle-class of bourgeoning bourgeoisie trying to mimic the richer aristocrats, kitch painting became that decorative less-than-Art, non-meaningful or talk-worthy, utterly conventional class of objects that resemble great museum pieces in many ways but carry as little meaning as possible. Kitsch exists everywhere, in every media and art-form and is made to be absolutely and unreservedly non-thought-provoking. Most games are Kitsch but not all of them are.
Transformers is kitsch
Twilight is kitsch
Pop culture is built on kitsch.
And if you (or your uncle) can’t point to a piece of Art in the field of video games, think of it like this: when the Lascaux paintings were made, could anyone point to a masterpiece of a painting? Likely not at the time but it did not mean that painting could not be an art-form, just that in this precise context, no œuvre was known to the early wielders of pigments that could be pointed to as an illustration of a realised potential. It likely took literature, dance, sculpture or music millennia to mature, don’t expect video games to do so in 40 years.
Video games have not been here for long and not being able to point to a chef-d’œuvre of the field does not mean there can be none.
The gamey-game part
While talking about Art movements in games, we will examine the game-part of the pieces evoked. If you’d allow me, I will illustrate this with a game most everyone has played or seen enough of: the first Mario Bros.
The game-art underlying the piece, is making you jump and avoid obstacles, it is making you reflect on a projection of yourself moving through perilous environments and the emotions born of it. That is what I will be talking about and analysing.
Now “Platformers” are a genre, they are not really an Art movement: they have many of the qualities movements have had in the past: they adhere to a ruleset of stylistic and thematic approaches, have an underlying theme of peril generally running through them and express it mostly through a set of tools and techniques (pixel art, fixed cut 2D perspectives) that say something about what it means to be human and how games should treat them according to the genre, but their expression comes from somewhere deeper.
Mario is the piece
Platformer is the genre it inhabits like still-life or thrillers.
Pixel art, chip tune, 2D are the techniques, like paintbrush or charcoal drawing, like handwritten or printed, like what instrument is playing the music you’re hearing.
What Art movement does Mario belong to? I don’t really think it belongs anywhere… It’s a piece that stands as an exploration of possibilities in a barely born medium and is therefore quoted to illustrate what I mean by “game part” rather than to tease a first movement.
We might note here that some Art movements, techniques, and historical moments are linked (like impressionism and oil painting around a certain period or baroque music and clavecin, gothic architecture and stone) but the are not necessities of one another. One could make a impressionist drawing, a 3D platformer or a plastic church in the purest flamboyant-gothic style.
In this exploration of the young art-form of video games, we will try to pinpoint these early Art movements, some of the ones I find interesting or worth talking about for what they have achieved or what they say about us, humans playing with them.
The first upcoming article in this series will be about the first one we identified at a café in the middle of the summer of 2012 with Heather Kelley, Brandon Boyer, Alex Fleetwood, David Calvo and my humble self from a pun I had made earlier coining Journey, Dear Esther and Gone Home as “Justwalkingism”.
I will, as I have done in this too-lengthy-of-an-introduction use many hazardous metaphors and comparisons to help me make my point, they are not to be taken at face value but rather understood as a way to help us all think of games in another light and try to formalise the premises of a grammar of video games that I have been willing to start writing about for too fucking long.
We put inSynch on Greenlight and hope that you’ll take a second to go there and vote for us so we can get into the biggest store in the world!
If you’re like-minded, we would love it if you could share it with your friends
Our game, inSynch, our first commercial release is finally out. inSynch started as a group of 3 guys who wanted to make some things together and then did on a fun occasion. When that was done, we said “let’s make a video game company” and on the 11th of October 2011 we did.
Now, 927 days, a PhD for Charles, moving in together, working hard and a lot more later we are proud to present inSynch to you who are reading these words.
We hope you find this humble assemblage of code, music and photographs to your liking, you can find more information and a purchase link on the game’s dedicated page:
If you are so inclined, you will find in the coming days some links to thoughts and reviews that the press might have published about our game on this very page.
Hello everyone, here’s the new version of our trailer annoucing the release date for Linux, Mac & Windows of our first game ever!
We’re very excited to tell you all that inSynch will be purchasable on this very website on the 24th of April 2014!
Si vous le désirez, vous pouvez activer les sous-titre en français sur la vidéo Youtube !
Enjoy the first serious thing to come out of Oscar’s mouth in… ever.
“What I say through games, I couldn’t otherwise. I’ve written novels and directed shorts, I’ve acted and written for plays; danced, drawn and painted, but of all these tools, for all their beauty and power, I wouldn’t know what to make.
It had to be a game, to let people do what they will in order to hear what I couldn’t say. Acting to understand, making sense of new worlds themselves, as a child would.
Certain ideas or feelings are like quantum phenomena, they exist in impossible superpositions of meanings but when told, become certainties and disappear. I wanted to tell stories using endless streams of question marks, never pointing my finger at the meaning for fear of it flying away.
There are things so fragile, so delicate that pointing them out crushes them. Games and video games have this particular subtlety that can bring participants to move, at their own pace and in their own words and mindset, towards the intellectual space a designer would want them to inhabit, as if showing an art exhibit in your own house.
Video games are humble in their patience for the player to act upon them, they do not wake nor move without the players’ intent and only make sense to them through their own means.”
We are glad to announce that our first game’s development is progressing very quickly, and inSynch has been submitted as an entry to IGF, the independant games festival.
So we’re working on a musical game, that’s no secret, and I wanted to share with you some of the thinking that goes on behind the scene and into designing the experience.
Now to be absolutely blunt: it mostly came from a good intuition. This was no grand scheme that we or I had envisioned for month: we stumbled upon the idea and refined it again and again by listening to what our system had to say about itself. But I’m getting ahead of myself here, let me preface what I’m about to say with long exposition and game design principles and theories… ’cause that never gets boring. GAME DISSECTION AHEAD !
So as video games took a seat closer and closer to the front -partly due to their moneymaking capabilities- it enabled enough smart minds to picture a carrier in the field, and to question what games have to them in general. While ‘games’ outside the field of numeric or digital or video games existed for a long while, they have never been under as much analytic scrutiny in the history of mankind than in the last 10 years.
One of the first things that came to light early in this ‘ludology’ or ‘game studies’ endeavor is a concept that we called ‘ludonarrative dissonance’. It was made to talk about a friction in-between play (ludo) and storytelling (narration) that was undermining the message games could have. It was coined by Clint Hocking, and was widely adopted, partly because frankly, it’s a fancy name and people (me included) that started to study games in depth wanted to be taken seriously. Nowadays, Clint himself pokes fun at the term itself, while games are becoming a widespread academic curriculum and every student goes about vanquishing ludonarrative dissonance in their term paper. Not that it does not exist, mind you, I would just argue (and we have a forum for that if you’re so-willing) that it’s not the only scope we have to look at the difficulties of carrying meaning through dynamics (and worry not, I’m not alone in that).
So ludonarrative dissonance is about many things, but amongst them is the authorial balance between the designer and the player. Games are an incomplete media and need the player to be manifested. Not to exist, mind you, but while a book is a book whether or not it’s unfolded, a game exists in systems and possibilities that need to be awoken and made experience to ‘exist’ as an instance of a game. The book is the same, its interpretations vary. No two games are the exact same. Why was I talking about all that again?
Because when Them Games started thinking about inSynch, the only thing we knew was we had to make a music game; and in a music game, the question of authorship has, more often than not been very restrictive on the player side. See, when playing Guitar Hero, for all it’s awesomeness and social value, you are not making music, nor are you playing music, you are letting music happen or failing to do so. Press the right key and the music unfolds, press the wrong one and it does not. But who are you again in this system? You are the person pressing play on the remote or turning the pages to push things forward. The game encourages you to do it, it does so in a very convincing and entertaining way, but it does not do any more that this. You, as a person, are way less interesting and the intent that you express is so little of you so to be non-personal.
You are an intelligent being, yet Guitar Hero sees you only as an agent of it’s own design, pressing buttons along so well that in the end, we prefer to talk about “rythm” games than music games. What the system is telling you is that you have no part in it, it’s a game about conformity and fantasizing about being a rock star, but never about becoming one. The more you play, the harder the game is, the more of your brain goes into full on automated mode and the less of an intent you express. You could say it’s a very good game about being in the show business.
On the other hand, wouldn’t I be a lazy game designer to give you a cello and pass it as a game? Yes, this is the other end of the spectrum, total freedom, an instrument, a toy if you will, made with the rules of acoustics, with its own internal consistency, but with no goal. If you have a specific goal that awakens agency on the part of the player, you make a game, the wider and more distant the goal, the more of a toy your game becomes. And don’t get me wrong, Minecraft is barely a game, yet it’s toylike nature is a thing of beauty, and on the other hand, Heavy Rain is barely a game because it asks for almost no agency from the player and it is still a very nice experience even if more akin to interactive films.
Willing to strike a balance in between those two extremes, we tried to make a system that communicates intent “please react to that” and accepts as valid a lot of what players give us back. This means that while there is an absolute and straightforward algorithm to optimise your scoring in score mode, there is also a lot of room in the system to go your own way and try to build the music and the score according to your taste. We are not and will probably never be claiming that this is the best or only answer to the question of authorial control in music games, since we don’t really believe that there is such a thing, it’s just what we wanted to make: a game in which you the player are playing with the music rather than simply playing along. We will give more details on scoring systems and game designs later.
Now onto the question of meaning. There is a question that has been asked by a lot of people, of which Clint Hocking which gave a very interesting talk at GDC in 2011 on that very question. What do the rules of inSynch express, what do they mean? What do you actually art taping on your screen or keyboard and why would that meaning be relevant to you?
Well… Hard question… You know, babies have this thing: playing around with the world, fiddling with stuff around them to understand how they work… Our adult brains still have that: you get into a game and the minute you are in, you start to test things and make sense of the outcome. See, that’s what will save you when aliens have abducted you and you’re on a distant planet with weird gravity and air displacement: your brain will fall back to child mode and you will start to play with things. And all those alien adults will go “Why is he putting things into his mouth? No! Don’t drop that on the floor that’s my vase!”… In inSynch, you start a game and try to make sense of the system: you do things and look at outcomes and results to see how to progress but whether you know what you are doing or not, you express intentionality that is fed back to you.
It starts as a conversation with someone, with a system you don’t know, and as you play, as you get better, you start to actually express yourself and listen to that expression. As you get better, the system fades away as an intermediary would and you start talking more and more to yourself, as if seeing yourself in a mirror for the first time. Making music, listening to it, adapting or trying to adapt parts of it under the rush of an ever-changing environment. InSynch is about fragility, it’s about how you balance the way you want to express yourself and the stresses and mishaps that happen along the way. It’s a game about finding what you think is true in music, what you feel is most reflective of a level’s texture and geometry. How does wood sound as a tune to you? What is the melody of concrete? What does plaster or resin sing?
We hope you’ll want to find out come this fall.
All illustrations by Oscar Barda for Them Games. You can use them at will, simply credit us please. And drop us a line via the contact section if you’d like them in higher resolution.
Hi, I’m Oscar, lazy game designer of the three-man team we call Them Games.
When it came time for us to go about making our early game (called the InFine Game) into a fully fleshed out thing that spoke to who we are and what touches us, a hard call had to be made : what is it going to look like ?
I have basic drawing skills and sometimes the styles and expressions that are dear to me lend themselves very well to the project’s vibe (that was the case for Poiesis for instance) but sometimes they don’t. For inSynch, it was particularly clear to me that no matter how dear the mechanics were to what we wanted to share, there had to be something else: a feeling, a… direction, a new one, because the reason the current style existed in the first place was to illustrate a musical vibe we were leaving behind with this early version.
You know, no matter how many times I tell students and people coming up to me for advice to be aware in their head of their intentionality, how they have to flesh it out, write it down and let it drive them, it always seem to take me forever to apply it to myself… There I was, thinking of what it was going to look like and what look it was going to have and what the looks of it were going to be and circling around and around in my head… I took a pen and wrote down what we had to say: you, as a player, must express yourself within the game, you must feel your agency with a very strict and natural sense of your involvement… 3 lines was all it took. It could not be 3D, it could not be 2D, it could not be drawn, it had to exist, to be a real thing. If we wanted you to believe us, ‘all’ we had to do was to make it real… Literally 5 minutes is all there was between my pen and my phone because I knew who was the perfect team for that job.
Le Creative Sweatshop is a team based in Paris, they design contemporary art and architecture, dabble in fashion, excel in all maners of creativity and madness, they are great human beings to work with and they can’t keep a deadline also.
If you clicked on half the links above, you’ll easily understand why I have so much love and admiration for them and why it seemed so evidently striking to be working with them on inSynch: there is such a texture, a feeling of authenticity to every single piece they do that it had to be them… And so it was.
They started working on resin and plastic prototypes and that was… pretty but a bit too poor in terms of animation potential and we all agreed that it lacked a bit of depth and grain even though the shapes were beautiful things to look at:
So we agreed to try another route: materials with more soul, more weight so as to communicate their realness, but keeping in mind that we wanted a wide breadth of animation possibilities which turned into this gorgeous thing:
But there were two faults with this iteration, the main one was that it was going to be very, very difficult to build many different shapes (and expensive because to have richness in the texture, concrete has to be scaled way up) and our tests seemed to be lacking in color variations. Building each shape out of concrete and polishing them all would take month…
So we went for paper shapes: light, cheap, beautiful and textured, filled with crannies and misfolds that made them feel real, fragile. With the addition of the amazingly talented Sylvain Derosne to the team, we had shapes and someone to make them come alive. In the background, there would be levels of different materials, contrasting against the paper and feeding our musician’s imagination.
It took month upon month to make every paper shape that Sylvain had envisioned, the Creative Sweatshop cut and folded every single one of those by hand and when we had them all, we went to a studio to shoot them.
And then we waited. Because while we dived into our codes and talked about the music, Sylvain was making something really really cool happen… And it took some time but one day, something came to our mailboxes:
We were so excited to see Sylvain’s work come to life, it felt like recieving a letter from a dear friend because those shapes in all their faults and mishaps were really close to what we had to say… And like that, little by little, shapes evolved into more complicated lifeforms:
There was so much life in what had been shot and animated, but a lot, and by that I mean a LOT of work in cutting and trimming images to fit the technical constraints of the game still had to be made. Yet, with every passing week, we could just find motivation in the hypnotic beauty of these moving things that we are going to be making a game out of.
With so many photos of the creative sweatshop and Sylvain at work, we decided not to go for credits as a list of name; instead, the final game will likely include a photo gallery (you have no idea how many gorgeous shots we have) with comments galore and details of how things were made.
inSynch is due some time after this summer, we wanted to finish it before but sadly that won’t be possible. An official and fixed release date is yet to be announced, we just don’t want to set a random one right now. In the meantime, stay tuned for more content to come in the form of articles, photos and who knows… Maybe soon an actual screenshot of the game
Thank you very much for reading and to show our appreciation, here is one more of those little things, one of my favorites out of the dozens and dozens we have: