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Revenge in Videogame Stories

Can There Be An Impressionist Game?

Monet - Water Lilies This month’s Round Table sets as its topic “What would one of your favorite pieces of non-interactive art look like if it had been created as a game first?” This has proved to be the most challenging Round Table yet, attracting just two entries all month. I have spent almost the entire month struggling with the concept.

The problems I face are two-fold. Firstly, determining a “favourite piece of (non-interactive) art” is a herculean challenge for me. When I go to a gallery, I am seeking an experience beyond the rational – I do not greatly enjoy art that asks me to decode its puzzle, or otherwise rationally interact with it, to anywhere near the same degree that I enjoy a piece of art that transfixes me in a space beyond thought – an experience of emotion or transcendence that is wholly beyond conscious thought. That for me is the essence of great art.

This brings me to the second problem: can a game actually access the transcendent experience of what great art means to me? And I suspect, perhaps that it cannot. Although I have no favourite artworks, my favourite art movement is impressionism – the nineteenth century exploration of light as a form. Whereas the realism of earlier epochs had produced convincing simulacrums, the impressionists like Claude Monet, Cézanne, and post-impressionists like Vincent van Gogh were trying to access something beyond the real – they gave colour priority to line, they allowed the passage of time a foothold in the image, and they moved art into a new space where capturing the essence of a vista was more important than accurate representation.

Can there be an impressionist game? Certainly, we could make a game with an impressionistic art style. But would it really be an impressionist game? I find myself doubting this. The essence of what we mean by “game” is a formal system, and the formal is precisely what impressionism was rebelling against. Perhaps we could make an interactive impressionist experience, and some might call it a game, but this for me falls short of the challenge of this Round Table.

The two entrants that as of this time have come into the Round Table are interesting to examine in the light of my dilemma.

Jorge Albor looks at the idea of a videogame memorial – an idea I find fascinating. Since the purpose of a memorial is to commemorate, this goal can readily be transferred into the game space. By rendering the lives of those lost as “narrative puzzles”, Jorge suggests something that is clearly a game, but which manages the same artistic goals as a non-interactive memorial. (Whether the game memorial could attain the solemnity of some of the great memorials of the world is something I question – would the player of such a game memorial really experience the sense of loss, or would they simply entertain themselves with the puzzles?)

Gianfranco Berardi takes the Michelangelo painting The Last Judgement, from the Sistene Chapel, and gets at the heart of what the image was conveying, unpacking this in a game which reminds me of the 1980 art-game Deus Ex Machina for the ZX Spectrum, by Andrew Stagg – a life lead in games, from birth to death. Because the original artwork has a tangible goal, it becomes possible to bear upon the concept in the form of a game. I love the idea expressed in this piece that the judgement in question is not imposed from the outside, but one’s own judgement of oneself. The transition to game in this case is possible because the artwork in question is essentially didactic – it opens the door to conversion into game-form.

So following in this line of reasoning, could I get at the goal of impressionism, and render this in the form of a game? After a month of pondering this question, I find I have got nowhere. From the point of view of impressionism as a rebellion against the previously accepted forms, a direction could be found, but any non-game might be claimed to fulfil this goal. Unless I could find a way to capture the essence of the experience of an impressionist painting, I would feel I had failed to successfully make the transition.

Perhaps what this shows for me is that game design as a process is always for me a rational experience, while art for me is at its greatest when it transcends rational experience. And thus, perhaps my problem is not that there cannot be an impressionist game, but rather that an impressionist game is not something that I can personally conceive – it is in some sense beyond me. And that, perhaps, is precisely what I am looking for in art.

The opening image is Claude Monet's Water Lilies (1916).


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A Theory of Fun for Game Design has a section that treats the idea of making an Impressionist game.

"Can you make an Impressionist game? A game where the formal system conveys the following?
- The object you seek to understand is not visible or depicted.
- Negative space is more important than shape.
- Repetition with variation is central to understanding.

The answer is, of course you can. It's called Minesweeper."

There's more detail on how just because games are formal systems, it doesn't prevent them from being seen as art. No one says that dance is solely choreography, even though that is its formal core.

While some might argue against Minesweeper as being Impressionist, it does bring to mind some ideas of a game that uses its formal make-up to focus on how the thing that can't be conveyed impacts its world. Wind, for instance, isn't something you can see except in how its effects can be manifested. Could these ideas help with conceiving an Impressionist game?

GBGames: thanks for commenting! I've read A Theory of Fun but I had forgotten this part. :)

But alas, Minesweeper is a long way clear of what impressionism means to me. The compulsive clicking that it induces is so far removed from the experience of a Van Gogh landscape, or a Monet, I find the attempt to draw the parallel rather strained.

The thing is, I'm not looking to create a formal system with parallels to impressionism (here, Raph's claim just about holds I suppose) but rather a game which conveys the *experience* of an impressionist painting. And minesweeper doesn't get even close to this.

For a start, it's a very ugly game. :)

Best wishes!

In my experience there is a fundamental difference between design and art. They are not incompatible, just different.

The game designer is much like the "music composer" for an opera. The music composer needs to be both a craftsman who understand the rules of composing music as well as an artist who makes the music convey an impression to the audience. These two faces of the music piece are related.

They can however also be separated. The artist may be a pop singer and the composer may be a production team.

The big difference between art and design is that design is a process which iterates anything for reaching more or less well defined goals, while art convey some type of message. I would argue that the art form of game development benefit from both of these perspectives.

A game design without some artistic message will be a bit of a struggle to create, an artistic game which fail to follow the principles of iterating its value will deliver its message less well than if the game has been designed to a flawless state.

oskar: this is an interesting commentary, but I'm not sure how much it bears on this specific issue. There's no doubt that artistic goals are achieved in videogames. My problem here is that the Round Table's focus was on converting from an artwork to a game form, and I found this impossible to do in the context I choose. I just can't make a game design do what impressionist paintings do for me. But I'm open to the idea that someone else could! :)

Thanks for commenting!

Now I know I'll be swimming in deep waters, I might argue that I think that you can.

For the argument to fit I'll have to start with some extremely reductionist definitions of art forms.

The form of music is sound.

The form of painting is image.

The form of game is consequence.

To meet your goal (if I understood it correctly) your game consequence will need to strike hard and fast. This is where design diverges from art. Design may not be the process of creation for this piece. From my perspective the design process is too concious about securing the user experience.

The artist on the other hand...

Oskar: great comment, but I can't map it into my own mental space! :)

My problem is that my experience of impressionism is *non-conscious* - but my experience of games (and for that matter, narrative) is always *conscious*. It is this that I cannot bridge.

Interesting perspective, though!

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