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Petri Purho’s Nordic Game Jam 2009 experiment Four Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness has elicited some interesting and rather strong reactions among gamers who have found themselves mystified by his creation. Some seem compelled to continue “playing” it over and over in a desperate bid to “win,” while others, including The Escapist’s own Julianne Greer, have asserted that it’s not a game at all but merely an application, and a broken one at that. Regardless of what it is, Purho appears to have accomplished what he set out to do: Push boundaries and get people talking about what a game can actually be.

One of the stickiest bits in the debate over whether games are art has always been the requisite need for a hard definition of art, a moving target if ever there was one. But Purho approaches it from the opposite direction, seeking instead “an exploration [of] what actually defines a game.” And as you might expect when the question of videogames as art is turned around on itself, the line between the two becomes even more blurred and the resulting games are far more abstract than conventional releases.

Four Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness is far from the first game to muddy the waters of videogame artistry. Belgium-based developer Tale of Tales creates games specifically to explore that side of the medium, first coming to prominence in 2005 with The Endless Forest, a “social screensaver” in which people become disturbingly anthropomorphic deer roaming around a great, peaceful woodland setting. There is no violence, no goals to accomplish and no scoring, and communication between players takes place not by way of voice or text chat but through body language and animal grunts.

The studio took things even further last year with The Graveyard, a single-player story of an elderly woman’s visit to a cemetery. Although under the player’s control, there’s only one place for the woman to go: A bench in front of a small mausoleum. She’ll take a seat and remain there, contemplating her surroundings and perhaps the nature of existence while an odd little song plays, until the player decides to it’s time to leave. She then walks out the way she came in, through the cemetery gates, and the game ends. The full version of the game throws a curve by introducing the very slim possibility that the woman will die during her visit.

This is a game?

The folks at the Independent Games Festival think so. The Graveyard has been nominated for the Innovation Awards at the upcoming 2009 IGF, taking place in March. “It’s more like an explorable painting than an actual game,” the IGF website says. “An experiment with real-time poetry, with storytelling without words.” Also nominated in the category is a two-player examination of “consciousness and isolation” called Between, created by Jason Rohrer – and if that name is familiar to you, it’s likely as the creator of Passage.

One of the better-known examples of interactive art, Passage is entirely open-ended: Players can wander aimlessly, explore, rack up points, even engage in a romantic sub-plot of sorts, none of which has any meaning because it all leads to the same inevitable conclusion: Your death. It is, when approached with the proper mindset, a remarkably powerful and poignant experience. And unlike Four Minutes, the inclusion of actual game mechanics, primitive though they may be, makes it less deniable as a game. But with a predetermined ending and the apparent irrelevance of your actions, the point is not to entertain but rather to provoke thought.

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Art games typically tend not to attract commercial attention, much less success, but one individual who’s managed to buck that trend is Jenova Chen. He gained attention during his time at the University of Southern California when, along with fellow student Kellee Santiago, he created the games Cloud and Flow. Flow in particular attracted the attention of Sony, eventually leading to the foundation of ThatGameCompany and an enhanced remake of the game for the PlayStation 3. The studio’s newest PS3 title, Flower, which Ben Kuchera of Ars Technica recently described as “another game to talk about, puzzle over, and enjoy” is due out this week.

“In Flower you control the wind, causing a trail of flower petals to fly around each level, gathering more petals to itself by touching flowers, which makes them blossom,” Kuchera wrote. “Touch a group of flowers and a splash of color spreads out across the land. These transformations are oddly satisfying, as if you’re painting the landscape with a heavenly brush.” And as with all art, he noted that different people will react to it in different ways. “There will be some that simply don’t get it, and that’s OK. There will be some that don’t care for it; this is a game that isn’t for everyone,” he added. “There will be others, and I am one of them, that will hear the game whisper to them when they close their eyes.”

Of course, Chen’s creations have a quality lacking in the others: They are games first and foremost, with goal-oriented mechanics that give people a reason to play beyond just a vaguely-defined sense of artistic vision. Even mainstream developers have from time to time released products with an unusual focus on artistic presentation; games like Shadow of the Colossus, Homeworld and Myst have little in common beyond their commitment to a higher aesthetic, but that’s precisely what raises their quality of experience above and beyond other titles. “Pure” art games, on the other hand, eschew entertainment value in order to make a statement about the creator or his worldview, an artistically valid approach that unfortunately also runs the risk of trading vision for poor gameplay.

Do we need to recognize “art game” as a legitimate and separate genre in videogames, or is it enough to simply expand our definition of videogames to include this sort of avant garde experimentation? It’s almost inevitable that as the ubiquity of gaming grows, more and more people will begin to see and take advantage of it as a form of self-expression. A single angry gamer with deeply-held convictions isn’t going to create Halo, but he can create September 12, a “simulation” that you can neither win nor lose, with no beginning, no end and one simple rule: You can shoot. Or not.

You can play it. Or not. Does that make it a game?

Andy Chalk believes that videogames can be art, they just have to work at it a little more.

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