Whatever you do, don’t click.
That’s the mistake most players make upon first loading up The Marriage, the first widely released artgame by Rod Humble. In Humble’s minimalist, abstract exploration of relationship dynamics, even the seemingly innocuous act of clicking the left mouse button forcibly restarts the game. As is the case with so many aspects of Humble’s games, the “don’t click” rule first causes irritation, then confusion and, finally, acceptance (probably followed by a second, much more subtle confusion).
Humble, who paradoxically served as Head of Sims Studio, the developer of one of the best-selling games in history, has released two incredibly subversive artgames over the last 18 months: The Marriage and Stars Over Half Moon Bay. Even among the rarified collective of artgame designers attempting to convey meaningful ideas through play, Humble’s predilection for portraying incredibly complex ideas solely through game rules stands out.
“Structural expressionism was at the center of Stars Over Half Moon Bay and The Marriage,” Humble says. “The structure and the games’ rules themselves express something. This isn’t a new way of thinking; look at the moves in a game of chess and you can immediately see the game has an opinion on the role of a pawn versus a king. Indeed, a king’s move in chess is familiar to every high level business executive in the world: You have infinite power, you cannot be defeated directly but you are slow, must work through your organization and the only way you are defeated is if your room for maneuver is reduced to nothing.”
Although several other artgame developers have attempted to convey themes and metaphors through game mechanics, Humble is the only such designer to try and put forth these ideas using gameplay alone – his aesthetics are as bare-bones as they can possibly get without being absent or completely incomprehensible. As a result, The Marriage and Stars Over Half Moon Bay lack those moments of instantaneous understanding found in later artgames, like the death of the player’s spouse in Jason Rohrer’s Passage or the final level of Jonathan Blow’s Braid. With those games, the player’s enjoyment and intellectual understanding are derived from a single instant of revelation – Rohrer calls it the “a-ha moment.” By contrast, Humble’s work is far more enigmatic in almost every conceivable way. Both of Humble’s artgames include simplistic, abstract graphics consisting almost solely of geometric shapes, and it was only after a considerable amount of hand-wringing that Humble added musical accompaniment of any sort to Stars Over Half Moon Bay. While Rohrer’s Passage seeks to engage the player’s sense of empathy through simplistic (but immediately recognizable) character designs, Humble is happy to leave the husband and wife of the titular marriage as blue and pink squares; the gameplay itself is meant to convey as much of the metaphor as possible.
While not as mechanically complex as Stars Over Half Moon Bay, The Marriage is perhaps the best distillation of this design philosophy in Humble’s resume – heck, in games as a medium. And yet, less than a paragraph into the creator’s introductory statement to The Marriage, he acknowledges the game as a failure.
At first glance, the underlying metaphor is completely unintelligible. Two squares, pink and blue, bounce off one another and vary in size according to how often they interact with slowly descending colored circles and each other. Despite his attempt to seamlessly infuse control mechanics and game rules with multiple intuitive layers of meaning, the game as a whole, by Humble’s admission, requires explanation.
The Marriage‘s failure in the eyes of its creator didn’t stop the 2007 work from being discussed and dissected across the blogosphere, however. Joystiq felt the game “works extremely well,” whereas Tale of Tales attacked the theme as being a “banal generalization” of real emotion.
Yet, despite varying opinions of the game’s actual quality (and ignoring the “anything that produces a lot of discussion is great art” non-argument), many reactions to The Marriage were unified by variations of a single sentiment: “Humble is trying to do something different and important, and should be applauded for it.”
Regardless of how successful The Marriage is at delivering its message – and given its focus on metaphor and personal interpretation, verbalizing these themes would be pointless at best and game-ruining at worst – it attempted what most art games aspire to with a literalness that has not since been repeated. One can criticize the game’s efficacy, but not its intent: If games are to come into their own as an art form, then the designer’s ability to convey ideas through gameplay alone must be explored. Without music, sound effects, iconic graphics or any method of control other than moving (but not clicking) the mouse, The Marriage is, if nothing else, the perfect initial attempt at using game rules to communicate an artistic vision.
Stars Over Half Moon Bay, Humble’s second and more recent game, is almost definitely an improvement in terms of thematic complexity and player control, but it’s even less approachable as a result. Half Moon Bay introduces a constellation mechanic with no definite meaning until the player persists and considers it profound or stops playing the game altogether. This is, perhaps, because the visual and mechanical output of Stars Over Half Moon Bay is entirely dependent on player input and reflection. “I think the role of the player is underdeveloped,” Humble replied when asked about the untapped potential of modern games. “If you attend a play then the actor makes the art on the spot, even though the content is fixed. Hamlet can be a terrible play with a bad actor or the best play in the world with a great actor. The actor breathes life into the structure and the content of the play; it is a joint process of creation. With games, I would like to see the player/artist emerge in importance.” Stars Over Half Moon Bay was, if somewhat unintentionally, a reaction to this mindset. “Towards the end of Stars Over Half Moon Bay‘s development I realized that how I made my constellation and its elegance of process was a work of art in and of itself, separate from the game and the creative output. In other words, every time I played the game I was creating a work of art as I played it in addition to the constellation. I don’t know how far it can go, and maybe this kind of thing is obvious and trivial to most people, but it excites me.”
It’s difficult to argue with Humble. The game’s works on two separate levels: Intellectually, the mechanics themselves – grab a star, drag it to darkness, manipulate its position – parallel the creative process; but the act of assembling the stars becomes a literal manifestation of that same process once the player is permitted to connect the dots in their constellation and save the result. While not the only artgame to focus on exploring the nature of creativity (see Jason Rohrer’s Gravitation, coincidentally released within a few months of Half Moon Bay), Humble’s most recent work is likely the most interesting, if only for how it simultaneously balances the literal and symbolic in conveying its message.
That cleverness comes at a price, however: if The Marriage was puzzling, Stars Over Half Moon Bay is damn near indecipherable without outside assistance (in the form of, once again, Humble’s creator’s statement). Even Rohrer, in an extremely positive review at Arthouse Games, admits the game outright “requires a bit of explanation,” though it’s forgivable given the infancy of the artgame movement. As abstract as The Marriage was, it still included some immediately recognizable symbolic signposts for the player: The title itself is an indicator of the subject matter, and thus the blue and pink boxes obviously represent a male and a female. No such signposts are present in Half Moon Bay, leading to a game which, despite its incredible thematic dexterity and interesting gameplay (the game was given its own category at the Experimental Gameplay Sessions presentation at the 2008 Game Developers Conference), is nearly impossible to understand without Humble’s statement acting as a road map.
Yet perhaps, in the same way The Marriage should be praised for its intent regardless of the quality of its execution, Half Moon Bay should be lauded for its multilayered execution and forgiven for its ambiguity. Regardless of those flaws which might distance or confuse new players, few indie designers attempt to accomplish what Humble does, and nobody does so with the ambitious, singular focus Humble has brought to both of his games.
Comparing his works to those of his peers, Humble’s may have the most readily identifiable faults, but they’re also the most ambitious: They explore gameplay’s singular ability to elaborate on a variety of very specific themes, and reward the player’s patience and ability to introspect. His games should be mentioned in any informed “games as art” discussion. They’re intelligent, difficult, evocative and clever … just make sure not to click the mouse.
Anthony Burch is a filmmaker and the features editor for Destructoid.com. He is currently at work on his first artgame.