If Doom is Rock and Roll, then The Path is…

In the wake of The Art History of Games symposium, Tracy V. Wilson’s question as to whether art games are (still) games made me realize that Frank Lantz’s observation that Doom is like rock and roll may hold even more water than I originally assumed.

Maybe we can think of rock and roll as a kind of “hyper” version of traditional folk music that was made possible through technology (electronically amplified instruments and vinyl records). Much like videogames could be seen as a “hyper” version of traditional games enabled by the technology of computers (both as creative tool and distribution platform). Like videogames, rock and roll added a certain vitality and emotional depth to an ancient tradition that totally absorbed a new generation. *

This analogy gets really interesting for me when we start thinking of more extreme or experimental forms of rock music. In the beginning, rock and roll, like videogames, was relatively straightforward and all about fun. But then some people started experimenting and things like The Doors and Velvet Underground happened, followed soon by Sex Pistols, Crass and Dead Kennedys. **

One could argue that the music of Sonic Youth, Psychic TV or Einstürzende Neubauten is as much removed from the “fun” of rock and roll as the games by Jason Rohrer, Daniel Benmergui and yours truly are from the “fun” of videogames. Interestingly, it seems that it is exactly in the deviation that this type of rock (or videogames) starts claiming artistic value. Not only by virtue of not being fun, but also by introducing “alien” elements to the form like noise, unusual structures or narrative content previously deemed unsuitable.

Pollock, Rohrer, Rotten
The hairline may be only one of many things that Jason Rohrer shares more with Johny Rotten than with Jackson Pollock.

So rather than thinking of people who experiment with videogames as new Jackon Pollocks or Kiki Smiths, maybe we should think of them as new Nick Caves or Siouxsie Siouxs. They are taking a new technological incarnation of an old analog form and are introducing elements to it that seem to contradict the form’s original merits. And by doing so, they get closer to what is commonly perceived of as artistic.

Next to the more rock-oriented deviations, we may soon be seeing the videogames equivalents of Philip Glass and Michael Nyman and perhaps even Stockhausen or Górecki, as some developers may reject not only the “hyper” version of the form (rock and roll/videogame) but also its non-electronic predecessor (folk music/game).

All this time, of course, rock and roll, as videogames, continues to exist. Once in a while it is influenced by the more artistic experiments. But often it is not. And the two co-exist, appealing often to different audiences, but equally often not without significant overlaps. Sometimes we like playing Mario. Sometimes we immerse ourselves in The Void. Much like sometimes we dance to Abba while other times we need a dose of Cocteau Twins.

* Oddly, there’s a similarity between the two on a social level too. Both traditional games and folk music are often group activities that are mostly about interacting with other humans and having a fun time together. Rock and roll and videogames add a much more explicit notion of authorship to the form and introduce a more severe separation between author and audience, up to the point where enjoying the music or the game could become a solitary activity, thanks to reproduction and distribution technologies.

** Punk is an interesting case because it started as anti-rock and roll but was quickly reintroduced into the mainstream via bands like The Ramones and The Clash who made it fun again.

Presenting in Madrid

On Thursday, February 18th, we’ll be presenting our working at the ARCO art fair in Madrid. We were invited by Domenico Quaranta to talk about our work at a symposium entitled EXPANDING THE FIELD. Or, 8 good reasons to talk about new media (in an art fair)”. Other guests are Hans Bernhard and lizvlx of UBERMORGEN.COM, Marius Watz, Trevor Paglen, Oron Catts and Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky).

Something is happening in the field of art. Postmodernism seems to have been replaced, but nobody is really able to say by what. Art critics such as Nicolas Bourriaud and Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev explained this change looking backwards to Modernism, but Modernism itself is many things, and it’s still not clear if this new modern, or Altermodern, is rooted in a new utopianism, as argued by Christov-Bakargiev, or in creolisation, globalisation and travelling, as suggested by Bourriaud.

What is clear to both is that new technologies, in the broader meaning of the term, are having a central role in this change. Starting from here, and appropriating Ippolito and Blais’ idea that the change will come from artists operating “at the edge of art” – Expanding the Field will involve artists and researchers that address, with different approaches, various new technologies – from the Internet to videogames and biotechnology – and issues and practices of the digital culture, from media hacking to data mining and surveillance.

Should be fun! 😉
And we’ll have an entire day to spend at the Prado!

ARCO Art Fair, Forum Auditorium 2, Hall 6.
February 18, 2010, from 12.30 to 2.30 p.m. and from 4 to 8 p.m.
(we’re scheduled at 6)

Art History of Games presentation online

We have posted the text and slides of our presentation at the Art History of Games symposium last Saturday in Atlanta.

Over Games

Videogames are stuck. Despite of the ongoing technical evolution and the continuous calls for a new medium, videogames have stopped evolving. They have found their comfort zone. Videogames are happy. Happy being exactly what they are. Fun activities that nurture our inner child.

While our inner grown-up is starving!

We need a new medium that can help us cope with the complexity of our post-historic universe. The interactive, non-linear and generative capacity of computer technology offers such a medium. There is no need however to limit what we create with this technology to the format of games. The possibilities are endless.

There’s a lot of work to do.

Videogames have taken computer technology hostage. It is time to liberate the medium and start feeding our starving hearts and minds. We need to stop making games and look further, go farther, step into a new world. Create interactive entertainment for all instead of squeezing people into oppressive sets of rules and goals. We have the technology. We have the desire. So let’s get to work!


Vanitas is out!

You can get Vanitas from the App Store now!

Vanitas is a memento mori in your iPhone. A meditative app without rules or rewards with Zoë Keating on solo cello.

“Despite using contemporary technology, we are artistically inspired mostly by pre-modern art,” admit creators Auriea Harvey and Michael Samyn. “In the 16th and 17th centuries, many Dutch and Flemish painters created still lives with symbols that referred to man’s mortality. They were named after a famous quotation from the Bible by Ecclesiastes: “Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas”. Or “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”, implying that everything we do in life is without meaning. Creating a “Vanitas” painting for the iPhone felt like the appropriate response to the commission by Ian Bogost and John Sharp.”

Vanitas was commissioned for the Art History of Games symposium and exhibition by the Savannah College of Art and Design and the Georgia Institute of Technology Program in Digital Media. The symposium opens tonight.

Vanitas trailer

Our first iPhone app Vanitas will be launched on February 4 at the opening of the Art History of Games symposium for which it was commissioned. Vanitas will be exhibited in a special installation (including live ladybugs!), next to games commissioned from Jason Rohrer and Nathalie Pozzi & Eric Zimmerman, at the Kai Lin Art gallery in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, from Thursday, February 4 until Tuesday, March 2. The opening reception will take place Friday, February 5 from 8:00 pm until 10:00 pm. More information here.

There’s still some tickets for the symposium and exhibition.Register here!

And don’t forget to check the App Store as of 4 February!

Fatale reviewed in Spanish

Jaime San Simón describes how he experienced FATALE on the Spanish Eurogamer website.

Tale of Tales ha logrado recrear la figura de la Salomé de Wilde a un nivel de complejidad asombroso, creando a partir de ella una obra con sentido y valor propio. Un trabajo minucioso que da pie a una obra que no será bien recibida por todos los públicos, pero ya se sabe que los grandes artistas siempre vienen acompañados de polémica.

And no, there’s no score. 😉

Frictional: “How gameplay and narrative kill meaning”

We’re not alone! :)

Frictional Games is one of the most ambitious and at the same time under-appreciated independent developers. They are one of very few forward looking companies in the independent scene and don’t nearly get enough credit for it (this year’s IGF proved no exception with its jury ignorantly rejecting Frictional’s new project “Amnesia“).

Anyway, Frictional’s Thomas Grip has written a very clear analysis of how the “focus on narrative and gameplay is holding back interactive media’s potential”. The little essay echoes our own thoughts on the subject but Mr Grip suggests a certain terminology that is very helpful (if not entirely intuitive), opposing meaning to narrative and interaction to gameplay. With us, he is “quite convinced (…) that there is a vast new world to explore if the interaction is in focus, instead of gameplay and narrative”.

While gameplay at the core of game making, it comes with a lot of baggage and makes certain meanings harder to realize in the medium. The most striking issue is the entire failure mechanism that is used in just about any game. You try a certain task, you fail and then have to repeat it. As described in other posts, this can be especially damaging in horror games, where repeating scenes seriously lessens the experience. This mechanism also imposes limits on the player’s rate of progress and effectively tells the player: “Either you complete this or you will not proceed!”. Other baggage include the notion that gameplay must be fun and the need to constantly pose challenges. What I mean with the last point is that players assume that a game will always keep them occupied with some kind of obstacle to overcome. This leads to very little interactive content that is added for its intrinsic sake alone. Instead a game’s interactive content almost always have some connection to the goals of the gameplay.

Read the entire post here.

The Art History of Games

Ian Bogost has commissioned us to make a game to be revealed at the Art History of Games symposium in Atlanta. That game will be Vanitas, reported on earlier. Next to us, two other games have been commissioned. One by Jason Rohrer and one by Eric Zimmerman and Nathalie Pozzi. We applaud the initiative to commission artsists to create new pieces. Wish it would happen more often.

And if that wasn’t enough, the 3 day symposium will have presentations by all sorts of interesting speakers: Ian Bogost himself of course, but also Jay David Bolter, Brenda Brathwaite, Jesper Juul, Christoph Kluetsch, Frank Lantz, Henry Lowood, Michael Nitsche, Christiane Paul, Celia Pearce, John Romero, John Sharp and of course the commissioned artists (expect some provocative statements!).

Hope to see you there!

Register now for The Art History of Games, a symposium and exhibition jointly organized by SCAD-Atlanta and the Georgia Institute of Technology

February 4-6, 2010
Rich Auditorium at the High Museum of Art
1280 Peachtree St N.E., Atlanta GA 30308

Register at: http://arthistoryofgames.com/registration

The Art History of Games is a three-day public symposium in which members of the fields of game studies, art history and related areas of cultural studies gather to investigate games as an art form.

Speakers include:

* John Romero, designer of Doom and co-founder of Gazillion Entertainment
* Christiane Paul, New School professor and Whitney Museum adjunct curator
* Jesper Juul, author of A Casual Revolution
* Brenda Brathwaite, creator of Vanguard Award-winning Train
* Frank Lantz, designer of Drop7 and Parking Wars
* And more…

Attendees are also invited to attend the premiere of three commissioned art games by Jason Rohrer, Tale of Tales, and Nathalie Pozzi and Eric Zimmerman, at Kai Lin Art (800 Peachtree St. N.E.).

Early registration ends Thusday, January 14: $15 for SCAD and Georgia Tech students, $25 for academics and students from other institutions, and $40 for the general public.

Register at: http://www.arthistoryofgames.com/registration

For more information, please visit http://www.arthistoryofgames.com or contact arthistoryofgames@scad.edu.

My New Year’s Resolutions

1. More Independence
2. Less games

The start of a new decade feels like an appropriate time to get ambitious. Out with the old, in with the new! Not that there’s going to be any extreme changes around here. My resolutions mostly concern a change in attitude, in philosophy. But, with any luck, they will take us further. And in the right direction.

While these resolutions have been bubbling up for a while, two things were direct triggers: Auriea’s realisation that her favourite games of the decade are all over 5 years old and our recent visit to the Belgian incarnation of the historical Game On exhibition where it became very clear how much more fun the old arcade games are than the new pseudo-narrative shiny next gen titles upon which I had based a lot of my hopes.


We don’t want to make obscure art. This is a big part of the reason why we choose to work with digital media. We don’t even want to make art per se. We just want to share beautiful moments and elegant thoughts with people who are open to them. And perhaps, in our most audacious daydreams, we’d hope to make a small contribution to a more harmonious world.

Accessibility is one of the reasons why we don’t shy away from commerce. Commerce is an efficient way to distribute things in a capitalist system. And thanks to the abundance of the digital, we can sell our work very cheaply. But commerce also has a way of confusing an artist, of holding you back. Commerce forces you to think about seduction -even when it’s not appropriate- and to favour projects with commercial potential over others that might be more relevant artistically. We like our work to be accessible. But we want that to be an artistic choice and not an economic requirement.

We’re not very good at commerce anyway. We don’t have clever business minds. And our work is just a bit too far away from the ordinary to appeal to people who do. But above all, thinking about commerce -however exciting it may sometimes be- always ends in bogging us down, to slowing us down, to depressing us.

I want us to become less dependent. Less dependent on money, less dependent on success, less dependent on quantity. And focus exclusively on quality. This includes improving the accessibility of our work! While commercial pressure may motivate one to lower the threshold of their productions, it only does so towards a specific target audience, effectively locking everyone else out. It would be possible to optimize our work to be very accessible for hardcore gamers. But at the expensive of other people we might also want to communicate with. We want our work to be more widely accessible. We don’t want to depend on any specific niche.

None of this leads to any radical decisions. This is just a resolution that can guide us when making future decisions. As of now, I want to focus on self-sufficiency. And favour non-profit or break-even operations over commercial ones. Or even figure out ways to make losing money bearable. It’s ok if that means working on smaller projects. As long as they are “big on the inside”.

Games over

This year, I’m going to care less about games. And as a result, I will probably enjoy them more.

I give up.
I give up on my hopes for videogames to become a valid cultural medium.
I’ve been fighting very hard. I’ve been putting my money where my mouth is. For several years already. Almost a decade.

But the games industry is merrily traveling in the opposite direction. Videogames are not changing anymore. They seem to have lost that capacity. Sure, the technology still evolves, so everything gets more shiny. But this is not leading to any sort of evolution, let alone the required revolution. The desire is simply not there.

Because videogames are happy just as they are. The videogame culture is extremely pleased with itself. A few years ago, people were still complaining about “sequelitis”. No everybody merrily plays Hip Shootgame #13 and Cool Jumpgame #26, with no objections. On the contrary! Everybody gets very solemn and deep when yet another war simulator hits the shelves. Only to forget it within the first week of release.

Gamers, publishers, journalists are all very happy! Who am I to spoil their fun? If they feel comfortable in a juvenile ghetto that is irrelevant to culture, good for them. I’m out of here.

Maybe this is another incarnation of my desire for independence: I want to be independent from the games industry. And from the games format.

Games are fun. Let them be fun. And let’s do something else, when we want to be serious. Let’s focus on interactive entertainment that is not games (let’s call them “notgames” for now :) ). With a technology that is so versatile and powerful, why should we limit our productions and enjoyment to the single format of games, a format that has been around for centuries and doesn’t even need computers to exist?

I realize that it has always been our mission at Tale of Tales to explore the potential of the interactive medium. But so far, this has happened in some form of conflict with videogames, based on our misguided belief that videogames had potential to grow, to grow into a medium (which, believe it our not, still seemed possible only 5 years ago). Simply letting go of the connection, will make our job a lot easier as it will help us explore with far less constraints. Leaving behind the idea that we’re making a game, opens up a world of creative possibilities!


But more than that, I want to stimulate research and development of notgames. Instead of continuously having senseless arguments with game fans, developers and theorists, I want to gather together the brightest ideas concerning non-game interactive entertainment. Without the noise and the distractions. Maybe we’ll start a blog about the subject, with news, essays, opinion pieces, debates. A place where ideas can be explored and shared and discussed. I would also like to commission designers and artists to make new non-game interactive projects. Maybe there can be a competition like those ubiquitous game making competitions, but about making interactive entertainment that is not games -far more exciting and certainly a much larger area to explore. And finally, I’m looking into the possibility of starting a sort of label -like a record label- to publish and distribute notgames.

If you would like to contribute to any of this, please post a comment or send email.

Happy New Year! :)