Essay on The Endless Forest

Dutch Judith Dormans is bachelor student at the faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the Maastricht University, specialising in game studies. She participated in our Drama Princess Symposium and now she’s written quite an impressive in-depth essay about The Endless Forest. She criticizes Salen & Zimmerman‘s rules-based analysis of games as being limited and argues for broadening the horizons of game studies.

A case study of The Endless Forest shows that the theories about formal systems aren’t sufficient anymore. They give no room for the participatory nature of games and they put too much emphasis on the traditional forms of games. It is required to redefine what the formal system of a game is.

Read it here.

Gameworld virtual exhibition

Since Laboral hardly has a website for the current Gameworld exhibition in Gijon, I figured it would be nice for all of us who can’t go to Spain, to at least see some pictures of the games features in the “Current and Experimental” category of the show.
Since we’ve been debating art and games lately, this selection by respected curators Carl Goodman and Daphne Dragona, seems pertinent.

Flow (Jenova Chen, Kellee Santiago – Thatgamecompany)

We Love Katamari (Keita Takahashi – Namco)

Braid (Jonathan Blow et al – Number None)

Domestic (Mary Flanagan)

The Endless Forest
The Endless Forest (Auriea Harvey & Michaël Samyn – Tale of Tales)

Façade (Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern – Procedural Arts)

Super Columbine Massacre RPG!
Super Columbine Massacre RPG! (Danny Ledone)

2nd Person Shooter
2nd Person Shooter (Julian Oliver)

Airport Security
The Arcade Wire (Ian Bogost, Gonzalo Frasca – Persuasive Games)

Border Games
Border Games (El Fiambrera Obrera)

Furminator (Fur)

Darkgame (Eddo Stern)

Emotive Actors
Once More With Feeling (Ken Perlin – NYU MRL)

Invaders (Douglas Edric Stanley)

axbx (Brent Gustafson)

TFT Tennis
TFT Tennis (Dirk Eijbouts)

Pongmechanik (Niklas Roy)

AR Tennis
AR Tennis (Hitlab New Zealand)

Movie Sandbox – Animachine (Friedrich Kirschner)

Some more links via Abstract Machine

Exhibition: Gameworld at Laboral Centro de Arte, Spain

The Endless Forest has been selected as part in the inagural exhibition of Laboral Centro de Arte in Gijon, Spain. The show runs from 30 March 2007 – 30 June 2007. It is curated by Carl Goodman from the Museum of the Moving Image and Daphne Dragona who was a curator for the Mediaterra Festival, that we so enjoyed last summer!

From the Laboral website about Gameworld:

Gameworld explores video games as an art form and presents contemporary art related to video games. Via these dual lines of investigation, the exhibition explores video and computer games as entertainment, art form, agent of innovation, and cultural force.

Johnathan Blow posted a list of participating games over on his Braid blog. I wish cultural institutions would do a better job of documenting the intersections they have with games in specific and new media art in general. I can imagine that most of you cannot make it to Gijon to see the show, so it would be nice to have more of an overview of such an important cultural event online. After all, these places spend quite alot of money just to put the show together, may as well document it, right?

Even we are unable to make it to the opening. We hope there will be a moment for an ABIOGENESIS performance specifically for the show. But we plan to be live online tonight during the opening, making mischief in The Endless Forest gameworld… Maybe we’ll see you there!

The problem of solving problems

There’s two nagging issues in the games industry that keep coming up: the desire to create more artistic games and the desire to access a broader market. Some would say these issues are related. They certainly are when we consider how the industry tries to solve them: by analysing the “problem” and then coming up with logical constructions that will lead to the desired result. In other words: they try to program the solution.

This should come as no surprise given that many leading positions in the games industry are filled by programmers. Programmers are very creative people. They can deal with immense problems, chop them down to little pieces, solve each one seperately and when they’re done a fully working product comes out. It’s almost like magic. I think they like doing this. It must be very satisfying. I think they like it so much that they see problems everywhere: problems they can solve.

But what if something is not a problem?

20th Century artist Marcel Duchamp is famous for saying “Il n’y a pas de solution parce qu’il n’y a pas de problème” (there is no solution because there is no problem). There is a lot of truth to be found in this enigma. For one thing, it tells us that if we can stop seeing an issue as a problem, there is no need to solve it. Programmers don’t like this. Because they love solving problems. Artists, on the other hand, are very good at looking at things from different angles. In other words: things that are a problem to some are an opportunity to others.

In the concrete case of there being too little art in games, the programmer’s solution is to develop constructions with all the ingredients of art put in their proper relationships that if set in motion cannot do anything but produce art. In other words: they attempt to create art-producing machines. Amazing! Except that what these machine bring forth, can only be considered artistically interesting by a very generous audience (preferably consisting of peers).

If we stop looking at this issue as a problem, however, and start seeing it as an opportunity, the “solution” is very simple. We don’t need to create art-producing machines. We already have art-producing humans! All we need to do is to ensure that more artists can make games. The same applies to broadening the market: ensure that more women can make games. Just let them in and give them the proper tools and we don’t need to worry our pretty little oh-so-smart programmers’ heads about it no more.

2 of our projects profiled in “Web Cinema” by Luca Barbeni

Web Cinema: L’immagine Cibernetica by Luca Barbeni From a series of emails in 2005 to a book 2007. In Web Cinema: L’immagine Cibernetica we are interviewed by Luca Barbeni about our design philosophy and the lessons learned from two of our projects: the vintage online performance Wirefire and our current multiplayer game The Endless Forest (which grew out of our experiences with Wirefire, in case you didn’t know.)

Also featured are the always engaging web video projects of Peter Horvath and Peter Greenaway’s Tulsa Luper Journey. Unfortunately, this book is only available in Italian language right now.

some links:
Buy from
Review by Noema

Art, art and games

There’s a strong desire in the games industry to see games as an artistic medium. You often hear questions like “Are games art?” and you get answers that go from a radical “no”, over to “some games are art” and “they might be, some day” to “yes, absolutely, all games are art”. And then, inevitably somebody brings up the notion of bad art

One of the things that confuses me when people in the games industry discuss this issue, is what kind of art they are referring to. It often doesn’t have much to do with what can be seen in museums and galleries nowadays. Perhaps, they are referring to “popular” art forms such as film and comic strips rather than to the highly conceptual constructions that are on display in museums of contemporary art.

Game developers, perhaps as a result of limited art education, seem to think of art as something that expresses an idea or an emotion. This is a concept from the nineteenth century that has long been abandoned by contemporary art. Only the other night, I heard an artist define art as “objects or situations that provoke cultural discussion”. Defined as such, games are most undeniably art! Especially games like Grand Theft Auto, Postal, Bully, Rule of Rose, etc. But that is not the point: the point is that, apparently, contemporary artists can simply make up any definition for the word art that suits them. So the question whether or not something belongs in a category that anybody can redefine whenever they see fit, seems absurd.

In games-related discussions about art, however, people seem to skip over that whole modern art era and stick quite closely to dictionary definitions like

“the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects”

“the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance”

“a visual object or experience consciously created through an expression of skill or imagination”
Encyclopaedia Britannica

“that which is made with the intention of stimulating the human senses as well as the human mind and or spirit”

Don’t get me wrong: I personally am a lot more comfortable with notion of art as an expression of something, art as something that is beautiful and meaningful. I did have an art education. I have even produced art, lots of it, both analog and digital. Contemporary art, no less: ironic, clever, non-emotional, discussion-provoking, and all that. And I have abandoned that practice. One day, I consciously decided that I would just ignore most of the art made in the 20th century and find inspiration in a pre-modern art practice. Game technology seemed like the perfect tool for landscape painting and storytelling. Hence my choice.

But is that art?
In the contemporary sense of the word, it certainly is not. This sort of art practice only exists in popular and amateur arts these days. The “museum-quality art” is very very different. That is not to say that there is no interest: our Endless Forest has been shown many times in contemporary (media) art exhibitions. But it seems to be an exception: art curators and critics tend to prefer art about games over actual games.

This is nothing to be sorry about. The contemporary arts scene is a very marginal one, even if it still seems to act as a validator for culture. With our games, our popular-culture-games, we can reach a much wider audience of people who are actually paying attention to our work.

Interactivity wants to be free!

Point 6 of our Realtime Art Manifesto says Don’t make games and The rule-based structure and competitive elements in traditional game design stand in the way of expressiveness and summarizes with Express yourself through interactivity. While this has always been more of a guideline and a desire than a factual truth, we have recently found proof for this claim from an unexpected place.

Rod Humble, an executive producer at Electronic Arts, has made a game. Or more to the point, he has constructed a work of art with game rules. It’s a very simple game but is has captured the imaginations of at least half a dozen bloggers ( Arthouse Games, Joystiq, Indygamer, TIG Source, Man Bytes Blog, Raph Koster, Jonathan Blow ). Probably precisely because of its explicit purpose of trying to express something -a story, a set of opinions- through game rules only, and its apparent success at doing just that.

I, however, beg to differ.

The first response we had here was to feel pity for Rod’s wife. In his game, she is represented as a pink square that gets bigger when she collides with her husband while the latter gets smaller. This may be a naughty reference to human sexuality but nevertheless, it made us worry about their marriage. Later this was confirmed by Raph Koster saying that “He did report that his wife didn’t like the rules.” I bet she didn’t. He just made her look like a self inflating idiot in front of the whole world!

I’m sure that’s not what he meant. And this is the core of the problem.
Game rules, by their very nature, live on a very abstract plain. They are mathematical expressions of relationships between objects. These relationships are completely and utterly logical. They have to be. Otherwise the game breaks. This severe logic is detrimental when trying to express something about the human condition with its inherent messiness, contradictions and ambiguity. As a result, game rules are only capable of expressing a very specific story, a story without layers of meaning or freedom of interpretation.
And it gets worse. Because of their extreme abstraction, game rules are only capable of telling this very specific story in very general terms. When you do that, all poetry gets lost and with it all depth and aspiration to universality.

That being said, I applaud the attempt. I want to see it as one step in the right direction. The direction of telling stories through interactivity. And I hope that the failure of The Marriage (which is the name of this game) to express anything but a banal generalisation of something that is obviously of very deep concern to the author, stimulates us to take the next step. To abandon this strange obsession with games and their rules.

Interactivity is capable of so much more than games. New media artists like Lia and Dextro have been working with this for years. And while they share a formal language with Rod Humble to some extent, the work of these internationally renowned artists provokes a lot more rich and diverse emotions.

Not that I am advocating any kind of puritanism in art. I don’t think laying bare the very concepts of art and limiting art to its very core is a good idea. The computer gives us a an unprecented array of media that we can all use simultaneously to express things in the most sensuous and spectacular ways ever imagined. Why limit ourselves with this wealth at our disposal?

So as a final example, I want to leave you with the work of Alex Mayhew. Way back in 1997 already, he made a CD Rom in Peter Gabriel’s Realworld Studios called “Ceremony of Innocence“. Like The Marriage, it uses interaction as a form of expression to talk about a relationship. However, it does not limit itself to the mechanics but touches all your senses at once. Ceremony of Innocence does not limit itself to gameplay either. It allows interactivity to be free. Playful interactions that express so much more than strict game rules can. Alex is still very active today. Visit his website for more information and some beautiful little experiments with interactivity.

GDC07: A few things come to mind yet

I’ve put this off for days, guess I’ll never be a real “blogger”, timely updates and all that :p
A few things I remember about GDC before they fade forever…

I’ve been dying to get a Cintiq for years but unfortunately for me the price is out of my range. At the Corel booth they actually had one. I tried it out, but alas found that it would be pretty annoying to use. My hand always seemed to be in my way as i tried to draw or pick things from the menus. Probably one could get used to it. But the person they had demoing the new version of Painter at their booth eschewed the Cintiq for one hell of a large Intuos tablet. He told me his weapons of choice are the hugest wacom in the world and his MacBook Pro (Althea ;)). I approve! And have adjusted my desires accordingly. About then it hit me… I just met Andrew “Andriod” Jones!… and I went slightly fangirl on him (sorry about that -_-) but the guy is a legend on the boards for his 1000 portrait project. It took a good look at him and then at the fantastic things he was drawing on the big LCD screen for me to recognize.

We spent various evenings dining with the lovely Cameo Wood and she introduced us to Adrian Hon who is lead game designer at Mind Candy who run an Alternate Reality Game (ARG for short) called Perplex City. They both proved to be excellent dinner companions. We also met up with Alex Mouton who has helped us out with graphics programming on 8 a few years back but is now working at Doublefine. It’s always a pleasure meeting people face to face for the first time that you’ve known only virtually. But these are fascinating folks that I would love to have around on a daily basis. I hope we all meet up again someday!
Over burritos at the Cancun taqueria together we witnessed a gang war shooting (o.0) San Francisco has got problems.

gdc07_20070308_0054.jpg As for the conference itself. hmm… I missed the Phil Harrison keynote and the awards ceremony but I did make it to the Miyamoto keynote. It was like getting a lecture from your old uncle. I really appreciated hearing his point of view on things but lets face it… getting speeches through a translator would make anyone sound like your old uncle.

gdc07_20070309_0088.jpg I loved our booth. We weren’t there enough… standing around the booth somehow didn’t seem like the best use of our time. So sorry if you came by and we weren’t there. Whoever left the SKOTOS comic book, Please contact us because we’d like to know who you are! thank you.

I saw flOw in its big fat hi-def format PS3 verison and found it, in atmosphere and motion, impressive in the extreme. Kris Force (who is working with us on The Path) came to me similarly breathelss about the sound design in that game.
Little Big Planet – hey, I like it ! Good on them.
Both of these games are made by small teams, look like quality products and they offer open gameplay experiences. I really think that The Endless Forest (no goals other than the ones you make, no game rules as such) is looking less and less like an oddity! The more games like this the better!

And speaking of quality… Aquaria, winner of the Independent Games Festival looks fairly spectacular. I only got to play it for a minute or two but I thought it was very charming. Derek Yu did a fantastic job on the graphics for this one.

But this whole meme Sony (and others) had going about user created content, “a Youtube for games, an iTunes store for games, a myspace for games.” uuugh.

gdc07_ms-2 gdc2007_Page88_darkside I like to draw during speeches, it kind of started years ago as I realized I was good at remembering faces but not names. So now I draw the two together, and it seems Michael doodles like a madman =) I put up our notes in the Gallery section of the site here because there are (still) too many thoughts about the sessions for us to translate them into prose. Much will filter into our practice in the months to come, I’m sure. Particularly memorable was the micropayments round-table hosted by Daniel James of Three Rings makers of Puzzle Pirates. What a guy, he came in costume… I like to imagine he always dresses like that though. rock on!
You wouldn’t believe how sucessful something like Habbo Hotel is financially! And even games with much less of a reputation are incredibly sucessful. These developers running sucessful online micropayment games gave up some numbers and strategies in this discussion. Can’t thank them enough. It was fascinating, inspiring, gave us more than a few ideas… Mwuahahahahahaaaa!

Random people I went up to, spoke with, and gave a card include: Hiroshi Minagawa of Square Enix: after I walked in late to the FFXII postmortem talk (>.<). I told him, through a translator, how much I was awestruck and inspired by his work and tried to convince him to download The Endless Forest, I hope he understood, I hope he did, but yeah. The 1up show presenters Kathleen and Luke… told Luke that I deeply disagreed with his opinions on flOw. Hey, I shook Justin Hall’s hand and heard all about his Passively Multiplayer Online Game, I look forward to further developments there.

gdc2007_Page88darkside.jpg I couldn’t help being slightly disappointed by Suda51’s talk “Punks not dead”. He has an idea of punk that I do not agree with. Seems he’s got down the form but not the content. In my opinion punk is not about pleasing your corporate masters and getting to put in more blood. Punk is about daring to be (very) different from the status quo… now if he would make a game with no guns and no rules maybe i’d have more respect. 😉 I _am looking forward to the remake of The Silver Case on Nintendo DS though.

I swore to myself I’d make it to Cliffy B.’s Gears of War postmortem (I am morbidly fascinated by his game design philosophies.) But it was at 9am… it …didn’t work out. And by the time I got there the hall was full to capacity and couldn’t get in anyway. Guess I will have to pick that one up on GDCRadio.

GDC 2007, Monday & Tuesday

It was the first time that we attended the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. But we had attended the London version before (in 2002, 2003 and 2004). In fact, I had a personal ban on visiting the USA. For obvious reasons. But BGIn offered us an opportunity that we couldn’t pass on. We could have some space in their booth to show our work for almost no money (thanks to governmental subsidies), including access to the conference. It would also be a good opportunity to meet up with some friends.

countrycottage_b&b_sf So I had my privacy violated by the American customs in ways that would be illegal in my own country, while telling myself “this is for business, stay calm, don’t think, it’ll be over in no time”. A good thing we ended up in San Francisco, the most pleasant of American cities I have visited so far. A spring breeze and very un-Belgian sun shine eased the pain together with the marvelous American breakfasts Eva prepared for us every morning at the Country Cottage bed & breakfast -a very inspiring Grandmother’s House.

During the week we stayed, we divided our time between “standing on carpet” in our booth, meeting with friends and attending sessions. The schedule, as we knew from the London conferences (only even more so), was designed in such a way to make sure that session times inevitably conflicted with each other, making the conference feel extra hectic and busy. But in reality, while there were moments when there were at least five simultaneous sessions we wanted to attend, there was also ample time when nothing interesting was going on.

Oh, and we bought a cell phone for the occasion!!! We usually pride ourselves not needing such a thing as we’re always at home and very happy with our Internet communications. But since these days nobody seems to be able to make appointments any more, we decided to be assimilated. We got a cheap Virgin phone that did the trick. Though I never got used to it, really (I apologize to all the people who had awkward phone calls with me).

Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern -notes by Auriea On Monday, 5 March, the conference was trying hard to fill up the oversized Moscone center with huge banners and flags in preparation of the crowds on Wednesday. We attended only one session: Andrew Stern‘s and Michael Mateas‘s talk about conversational characters in serious games. We were familiar with their excellent work on interactive drama, so it was surprising to hear them promote their technology for use in training similations and the like. But Michael made some good points and was very honest about the limitations of the application in casu. It was interesting to hear how modular the Façade concept seems to be. Obviously I was shocked to hear that Andrew had used the system in a serious game for the American military: to teach American soldiers to shoot communicate with Iraqi terrorists militants fundamentalists evil demons citizens. Shame on you!
During Thai lunch the next day, he begged for forgiveness and promised to never do it again.

On Tuesday we saw Jonathan Blow talk about prototyping. We wanted to attend this talk to learn why his almost released game Braid was getting such extremely positive response. (“Braid has the potential to change the way you think about reality.“)
Jonathan’s playful experimentation with prototyping seems like a lot of fun. But his focus is very much on gameplay. And I for one find it hard to get excited about gameplay. Whether a little guy jumps over a platform in one direction or in another direction, doesn’t make much difference to me. Braid looks like an excellent game, very well made, with good artwork. But it’s just a game. And I guess I don’t believe a game can be art. I don’t believe gameplay is sufficiently expressive. Interactivity wants to be free!

Next we heard Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago talk about the making of Cloud. I wish they had expanded a bit more on their pr and marketing than on the game itself, which, while interesting as a student project, I don’t see as such a major break with old play styles. I’m sure their heart is in the right place, though, so if they can focus on the emotional Direction they kept speaking of and not get distracted by game mechanics, I can envision a great future for them.

It’s good to know that people like Jenova and Kellee and Jonathan exist. And that they are getting some recognition. Even if their work hasn’t convinced me yet, I’m very excited about what all of this might lead to.

In general, the GDC seemed like a conference for independent games developers. The big publishers and developers seemed to just hang around a bit, if they were even there, with nothing much to say. But the indies displayed the vitality of their scene throughout the conference. And even though the famous speakers still attracted big crowds, nobody had much to say about their talks afterwards. Aquaria winning the Independent Games Festival was on everybody’s lips. And the interest of distributors in indie games contributed to the general excitement. Now all we need to do is make some games that are truly different…

More about the conference tomorrow…