Archive for July, 2012

Not funny.

Jul 31 2012 Published by under musing

Maybe Bientôt l’été will be the first entirely sincere game that we have made. And perhaps this is why, despite of being highly artistic, personal and experimental, it inspires a new direction towards a more accessible style.

All of our games have had a humorous, ironic aspect. Even The Graveyard with its solemn theme pokes fun at gamers’ expectations and parodies the try-before-you-buy system. But adding such contrary, ironic things ends up confusing many players. And even if it amuses some, it does so on a meta level, outside of the fiction and the simulation.

So what is the point? It’s insincere. To create something and then to mock it. Players can do this on their own if they like.

Mixing humor and sincerity is confusing. I personally enjoy such ambiguity. But it always disappoints me when other people don’t. When they take things seriously that we added in jest. Or when they simply don’t think our jokes are funny. They are beside the point anyway. So I should just leave them out.

I don’t think Bientôt l’été is ambiguous. It was made from a much more confident position than any of our previous work. The notgames community has in no small way contributed to a certain feeling of comfort I now have with the medium of videogames. I no longer feel I should acknowledge the videogame context in some way by adding ironic references to conventional game design. I just use the medium for what I want to make. And I only care about things made previously in this medium that I appreciate.

As a wise man once said: “Irony is for cowards.”

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A universal art?

Jul 30 2012 Published by under musing

If we could figure out what it is that makes pop culture so popular, perhaps we could use its techniques to maximize the emotional effect of sincere works of art. Pop culture seems to always go hand in hand with business. It’s the desire for profit that drives it more than anything.

But despite of that, the public can still be touched by popular movies, books or music. Touched more even, than by works of art that were made solely out of kindness and a desire to bring beauty into this world.

We could look down on those simple souls who cry during a romantic comedy but feel nothing when reading Duras, hearing Wagner or seeing a Bernini bust. But could the themes and techniques that move the masses not be exploited for more elevated purposes? If we could make high art with the same impact as popular art, we would unite people with good taste and people with bad taste. And bring joy and beauty and sense and meaning to everyone.

A popular art that is produced in sincerity, and not for commercial gain, does not seem to exist today. But does that mean it is not possible?

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Contrary or nice?

Jul 29 2012 Published by under musing

There is often an element of deliberate contrariness in our initial ideas for games. We have resolved the conflict of this with our more classicist aspirations as a desire for balance: if we see too much of one thing in the world we will add a little bit of the other.

Even The Endless Forest, undoubtedly our most joyous piece so far, started as an “anti-game”: an mmo in which you play a deer and you can’t talk.

Perhaps it’s not necessarily contrariness that motivates us as curiosity. There’s often a “what if” question at the origin of an idea. What if you play an old woman and you cannot do much but walk and sit down? What if Little Red Ridinghood is actually looking for the wolf, knowing full well it will be her end? What if John the Baptist was given an opportunity to consider Salome outside of his professional duties as a prophet?

Sometimes a perfectly valid artistic choice is not the wisest decision in terms of accessibility. The French language in Bientôt l’été and the inspiration from Marguerite Duras is a recipe for disaster in an Anglo-Saxon dominated context like videogames. I admit there’s a certain f* you sentiment involved in our preference to shoot ourselves in the foot rather than be sensible.

Despite such contrary beginnings, we then always try to make the experience as nice as possible. We take pains to set a mood, to give the player sensations of being somewhere else, feeling something else. When actually making the game, we don’t want to challenge expectations any more. We just want playing to feel good.

So why don’t we just drop our jerky modernist reflex of being contrary? Wouldn’t our life be a lot easier if our games started with an idea that is already nice in concept? And then we simply build further on that. To make something that is simply nice. Maybe that is my new ambition.

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Elemental charm.

Jul 28 2012 Published by under musing

Total immersion in a virtual reality is not the ideal state for appreciating interactive art, like videogames. When the game world starts feeling natural and real, it begins to disappear. And nothing in it stands out any more. Or the simulation overwhelms. With the same result.

We are dealing with synthetic images here. And with multimedia. We don’t need to simulate reality. And we can immerse players in sound too.

We need to create sufficient space around the important elements, so that the player can recognize them and pay attention to them. These elements in turn will respond to the player. And a relationship between the two will grow.

This cannot happen when everything in the game demands equal amounts of attention. The important elements need to be isolated sufficiently so that they can charm the player. And become his partner, or a comfortably recognizable feature, in the exploration of the synthetic environment.

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Non-subversive art.

Jul 27 2012 Published by under musing

Modern art, contemporary art works quite well when it offers an alternative to a conservative mainstream. This is what happened in the early 20th century. Salon figuration and even forms of classicism were still very much alive when cubism and constructivism and dada and De Stijl happened.

But now that modern art has become the mainstream it has lost much of its charm. There is nothing to rebel against anymore. Yet modern art is stuck in some weird state of permanent revolution. Hence to constant “redefining” of art, or the “subversion”, or all the “post” genres. Contemporary art feels like it continuously needs to question itself, to question what art is, and what its place is in society.

But I know what art is. And I just want to make art now. This stuff is difficult enough without questioning it or subverting it. I know what art can mean to people and I just want to make that. Not for any sort of elite that enjoys subversion (of nothing). But for as many people as possible. And I think videogames are the most suitable medium for this. Even if these videogames need to stop being “games” in order to really reach people.

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Jul 26 2012 Published by under musing

Bientôt l’été may be the most explicit art game we have made so far. And yet is also functions as a transition to the games I want to make after this, “beyond” art.

The key to both is focus. By stripping everything away that is non-essential, even at the expense of realism (perhaps especially so), the mind of the player is allowed to appreciate even minute things. Things that may go unnoticed in a richer context (like the footsteps in 8).

A simple context allows the player to enjoy every element in it, and allows the creator to concentrate on these few elements. To make them beautiful and meaningful and charming. This does not only apply to the environment or the graphics in general. But also to the interaction design.

We have known for a long time that conventional rules-driven, goal-oriented play distracts the player from engaging with the actual content of the piece: the virtual world, the characters, the philosophical theme, etc. But simply removing such interactions, or even taking care that the player cannot engage in any remaining activities in a game-like manner, is not enough.

I believe now that the amount of interaction needs to be as minimal as possible. Perhaps even to the point where the game becomes slow. To create the opportunity to enjoy what is really going on in this world. A lot more processing should be devoted to generative systems that make the world feel alive. It’s much better to play a limited creature in a rich world than to be an all powerful hero in an essentially static decor.

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Moving away from extremities.

Jul 25 2012 Published by under musing

Sometimes when I see a bad contemporary art piece, I feel embarrassed about being a contemporary artist. Some contemporary art can seem so absurd, so grotesque, completely incomprehensible, lame and alienating. And I feel embarrassed. Because I know there are people who experience the work that I have helped create in this way. Their responses to my work are exactly the same as my responses to another contemporary art piece that I didn’t get.

I don’t want to be in that position any more. I don’t want to be that artist. I don’t want to make work that confuses people. It seems so unnecessary. And lazy in a way. I need to work harder.

Because I do want make the world a better, more beautiful place.

I have tried to do that by investigating my own preferences and trying to present the most pure version of what I find moving, what I find beautiful. I think that is what drove many decisions in Bientôt l’été.

But the “extreme” work of art that comes out of such a process is bound to alienate most people. To most people Bientôt l’été will be empty and it will not move them. Perhaps it can inspire peers who may include a milder version of some aspects of it in their own work. And this work, unlike my own, can inspire people.

In the future, I want to be like those peers. I want to at least try to make something that is refined, well balanced, accessible, understandable. Rather than presupposing that I’m always going to be too weird to ever get through to anyone outside of a small elite.

I hope that not every artist makes this choice, though. Because I do think extreme works of art can ultimately be beneficial to people, if only to keep the mainstream from becoming all too dull and dulling. Even if I cannot enjoy that extreme contemporary art myself. Some people do, and some of then will be inspired to make something that I do appreciate.

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Pop culture woes.

Jul 24 2012 Published by under musing

I have spent the first half of my life rejecting pop culture. Maybe I can spend the second half embracing it. That way I get the best of both worlds in a single life time.

I definitely feel a lot less hostile towards pop culture now that I have developed an interest in using some of its features in my work. But there’s still plenty wrong with modern life. And in a way this newfound enthusiasm is just another, hopefully more efficient way to achieve the same goals.

I used to be a big Nietzsche fan. But now that the whole Western world had become a Nietzschean paradise of self-indulgence and anti-morality, I’m deeply disgusted. Like the writing of De Sade, it was titillating fun as long as it was fictional. But when that stuff turns real, it’s horrible.

I do realize that a big part of this problem is caused by the current state of capitalism and cannot be fixed through aesthetics alone. But I believe the power of capitalism is waning, so this part of the problem will dissolve.

In the mean time, through my work, I want to reacquaint people with the truly beautiful, perhaps even the spiritual, with the concepts of harmony and kindness and respect. With wonder for the unknown, reverence for what is greater than us, and empathy, maybe even love, for everything else.

Put in these terms, it is clear that the corniness of popular art is highly suitable for my purpose!

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Deeper with the popular.

Jul 23 2012 Published by under musing

It must be possible to make sincere work with elements that are usually reserved for superficial popular amusement. I guess we have done this to some extent with The Path: starting from a folk tale and designing the characters with a goth girl aesthetic in mind. These two factors probably greatly contributed to the game’s success. And they didn’t prevent us from exploring deeply artistically.

So it’s probably a good idea to embrace popular clichés. And then work with them to add more character, more depth. Nobody ever complained about an excess of depth in their entertainment. The only thing that people complain about is the gateway to this depth, which is often difficult and sometimes boring. High art sometimes take a lot of effort to enjoy. I can understand that many people don’t want to do this effort.

And I don’t think it’s necessary. I think the interactive medium offers us a way to get to a rich and deep emotional experience, without great effort. Because we have so much control over the experience. Our art can respond to the viewer and we can make them complicit. The effort, if any, can be shared by player and game.

As an artist, I have a reflex to stay far away from ubiquitous elements in popular entertainment. Zombies, vampires, superheroes, aliens, fairies, kittens, etc tend to only provoke eye rolling in me. But maybe I should not reject such elements, given their obvious appeal to large groups of people. Maybe I can embrace them and use them for my own agenda. These elements are certainly rich enough. There is no explicit requirement to make superficial entertainment with them. And perhaps using them can help avoid the problem of alienation that often occurs when art is too original, too different from the mainstream.

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Jul 22 2012 Published by under musing

There has always been an implicit reductionism —minimalism, perhaps, even— in our approach to making videogames. In the sense that we always wanted to make videogames that are not games. And being a game, in the strict formal sense, was —and probably still is, for many— the core of what makes a videogame. In such a context it always felt like we were removing things, stripping things away that many might have expected.

But what we were really doing, was trying to figure out how to design videogames for a different purpose. Since we had no interest in competition or victory as subject matter, it was only logical that we weren’t going to use game-like structures. We needed to figure out other types of structures and interactions, to serve our own goals, to support and express the subject matter we did want to deal with.

Not that we had a clear message. In fact, the capacity for ambiguity is one of the main features that attracts us to the interactive medium. Interactive works of art are more about exploring possibilities than making statements for us.

We developed a design process that encouraged us to maximize the number of meanings and interpretations a work could generate. We deeply enjoy the confusing flood of ambiguities and uncertainties that comes out of such games. For us, this is a much more honest representation of reality than any sort of wisdom brought down from the mountain. We didn’t mind contradictions and dead ends. It was all part of the joy.

But now I realize that this is difficult for many people. Even enthusiastic players of our games, while knowing better than to suggest a definitive interpretation, often still tend towards making sense of it all. And that is not always a satisfying activity in works that are not designed to make sense.

Bientôt l’été is a lot more specific than our previous games but it still contains an element of open-endedness, of throwing its hands in the air exclaiming “I don’t know! You figure it out!” even if there is nothing to figure out. For all extents and purposes, Bientôt l’été is meaningless.

In my future work, I want to reject this sort of all-embracing maximalism. This inclination towards allowing the game to be anything. Because I think this results in the game being nothing for many players. And it really shouldn’t be.

So rather than adding whichever interactions that contribute to the wealth of possible meanings that the game can generate, I want to think more carefully about the player’s emotional experience. I don’t even want to make assumptions that any interactions are necessary. I want to create a pleasant, satisfying experience. With as little means as possible. Even without interaction, if that makes the experience clearer, the joy deeper.

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