Editor's Choice

Editor's Choice
The Game Design of Art

Jason Rohrer | 24 Jun 2008 12:12
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How far away are we from expressing a meaningful, Ebert-worthy artistic vision directly through gameplay? There are a handful of game designers - and I mean a literal handful - that have started to do this already. The list is so short that I will present it here in its entirety.

Rod Humble used game mechanics to express the fragility and impermanence of relationships in The Marriage and the complexity of the creative process in Stars over Half Moon Bay. Jonathan Blow has used time-manipulation mechanics as a metaphor about mistakes, loss, pursuit, realization and resignation in Braid. Danny Ledonne has tweaked standard RPG mechanics to load his game's turning point with complex meaning in Super Columbine Massacre RPG!.To say nothing of my own design efforts, these four games are the only works I know of that use their gameplay directly to make us more cultured, civilized, empathetic, complex, thoughtful, insightful, witty, intelligent, philosophical ... and so on.

That brings us back to the Ebert challenge. Will any of the games on my list make him eat his hat? Sadly, no. My list calls out valiant attempts, not necessarily resounding successes. We're still learning how to express through gameplay, and we're not quite there yet.

For me, as a game designer and an experienced player, Braid stands among our culture's highest artistic achievements, but I still couldn't show it to Ebert without wincing. He would probably fumble with the controls, stumble through the simplest puzzles and abandon the game in frustration long before he put in the seven or more hours necessary to unveil the Braid's deeper artistic payload.

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Here, it's tempting to call "foul." As a non-gamer with no game literacy, Ebert would trip over the basics - so how could he possibly judge a game's artistic merit? However, Ebert's gaming handicap is one of the factors that makes this challenge worthwhile. After all, what are "the basics" that might hinder him? Difficult controls? Mind-bending puzzles? A time investment measured in hours rather than minutes? What other medium places such high hurdles in the way of simple start-to-finish consumption?

Yes, we've already produced games that strike the high-art chord with game-savvy folks, but that's not enough. In order to make games that everyone might appreciate as high art, we first need to figure out how to make games that are playable - start-to-finish - by everyone.

Only with such a game in hand would I approach Ebert without fear of embarrassment and watch over his shoulder as he played. I would listen quietly for that single word issued almost inaudibly under his breath: "Wow." And then I would know that we won.

Jason Rohrer is an independent game artist, programmer, and critic. He lives with his spouse and two children in the rural town of Potsdam, New York, where they pursue a simple, frugal lifestyle.

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