Tuesday, September 13, 2011

In Defense of "Artistic Indie Games"

I recently stumbled upon two Destructiod articles in which Jim Sterling criticizes a number of "artsy fartsy" games. In summary, he says they're pretentious, self-righteous, and lack any redeeming quality in their gameplay. Ordinarily I would've disregarded this rant as a pretentious, self-righteous farce, just because it's Jim Sterling, but in the hundreds of comments that followed, a lot of people shared Jim's sentiments. I even found a few other articles and forum discussions with people up in arms over these games.

I don't understand why people are so intolerant. Is art not a free expression unchained by conventions and restrictions? Is beauty no longer in the eye of the beholder? Who says that games have to be necessarily "fun" to be enjoyable? Can we not appreciate something just for its aesthetic expression? If you're one of those who disdainfully looks down on games like The Path, then I think you've missed the point.

The problem, near as I can speculate, is that people insist on perceiving these "art games" as conventional video games, when they aren't really video games at all. They're interactive experiences. When we play a "video game," we expect to be entertained by certain conventions. We want clear and concise gameplay mechanics with goals, objectives, and rewards, pulled together with some kind of narrative structure. When we play these "art games" with these typical expectations, we inevitably set ourselves up for disappointment.

But when we perceive them merely as an interactive expression of art---as if we're inside of a painting, exploring its aesthetic themes---then it becomes an entirely different experience. Expectations shape perception.

And so it seems to me that a lot of people's criticisms are missing the point. As if people are demanding that these games be something they're not supposed to be. As if they bought a cone of vanilla ice cream and then complained that it's not chocolate. In the first of Jim's articles, he writes that:
"[The Path] was so busy trying to be an art game that it forgot to be a fun one, or at least an interesting one."
It's so obviously prejudiced. Yes, video games are supposed to be fun---ideally a game can be fun and artistic---but when something isn't exactly a video game it must be judged under somewhat different standards. I don't think a game like The Path has to be fun. Secondly, "interesting" is subjective. Everyone has different tastes and interests. I like things that are weird and unusual, and The Path satisfied my interests. Different strokes for different folks.

These games are meant to satisfy a particular audience that's under-served in the gaming community. If you want a conventional game, you can get those everywhere; what good does it do you to ridicule a game that's just not in your interests? Some people like the aesthetic effect of games like The Path. People find it pleasing and interesting just to see the sights, to listen to the music, and to witness and feel a part of the atmosphere. Is that not enough for the game to stand on its own merits without being pretentious?

If it wasn't clear that Jim's own prejudices and expectations were influencing his perceptions of The Path, then this quote from the same article demonstrates it:
"[The Path] gives you one rule to follow and then tells you that you have failed when you obey it, all the while going 'Aaah, aaah, look how clever we've just been. We've just blown your mind, haven't we? Now go on the Internet and tell everyone how beautiful this fucking brilliant game is!'"
He's effectively putting his own words into the game's mouth. He is projecting and imposing his own perceptions into the game, inflating the game's simple premise into something more sinister and elaborate than it really is. I think this actually makes Jim more pretentious than the game he's accusing of being pretentious. As Kieron Gillen wrote for Rock, Paper, Shotgun:
"Secondly, [Jim's] only example of why the Path is so pretentious is that if you follow the instruction to stay on the path, you “lose” the game. “Stay on the path” is one of the most famously disobeyed commands in all literature. And it’s dropped in a game that’s clearly about Little Red Riding Hood. If we want to have games be smarter, we have to accept we may have to be smarter players. And if the level of cultural literacy games demand is actually less than “May have read a fairy tale once”, we’re totally fucked."
When it comes to The Path, Jim is certainly right that the gameplay is dreary. I don't think anyone disagrees. But I really enjoyed the aesthetic concept of the game. I liked the idea of literally being lost in the forest, unable to get back to the path without resigning myself to the help of a stranger. I liked the metaphoric use of the wolf, that everyone suffers their own unique demons. I liked that different characters interpret things differently. I liked the visual style of everything. I liked the music. I liked going through the house at the end, seeing different areas depending on what you found in the woods. I liked that following the path is dull and uneventful, kind of like in reality.

So, sure, The Path has terrible gameplay mechanics. But if you're so hung up on the gameplay that you absolutely cannot appreciate any of these things, then I think you're clearly missing the point of what the game was trying to accomplish. For example, watch these two videos and tell me if you find a certain beauty or artistic expression that makes them appealing, interesting, or otherwise worth watching (the first video doesn't allow embedding so it'll open in a new tab):

I don't know about you, but even though there's literally nothing happening in either of these two videos, with no characters or any kind of plot, they do an excellent job of conveying a sense of doom and destruction, of hopeless futility. It's hard to describe precisely why, but these videos are simply poignant. And playing The Path is very similar to walking around in these videos, witnessing things first-hand. There's no point to any of it, except to feel the atmosphere. If you want more than that, take your business elsewhere.

But this is Jim Sterling we're talking about. The man is a troll who likes to take mundane topics and make them sound profound by being loud and obnoxious. So who really cares what he says, except for people who already agree with him? (He says with a hint of sarcasm.)

The point is simply that these games are sort of unique in the medium, and we should try to approach them in ways that reflect that uniqueness. These games don't need to change to match our expectations, we need to adjust to at least meet them in the middle. I'm glad these kinds of games are around, because they give us different ways to appreciate the medium; the more variety we have, the more cultured we become. Frankly, I appreciate these "artsy fartsy" games more than the uninspired formulaic re-hashes that the AAA market constantly shovels out the door. 

If we're going to ridicule games for being "too artistic," then why delude ourselves into thinking that video games are art? Some of these games might not be great video games, in the conventional sense, but if we want the medium to be a little more than just pithy entertainment, then I think it's worth exploring these kinds of avenues, even if they are considered failures or if everyone doesn't appreciate their effect. Applaud them for trying, don't just ridicule them. 

PS: I find it ironic that people are complaining about these indie games for having artistic emphasis with weak gameplay, when people also praise mainstream AAA games for having great graphics and bland gameplay. 


  1. I think it's the definition of video game that the people have problem with. Is an interactive piece of art can really be considered a game? Or is it just art?

  2. The Path good game?, poor bitch that are you "Nocturnal Asshole" XD