Results tagged “art”

Arisia: IF and gaming panels

I spent this past weekend at Arisia, an SF convention. Like many conventions, it's diversified its topics to SF (and fantasy) in comics, TV, movies, and gaming. So I wound up at a whole series of nifty panel discussions that mentioned interactive fiction.

Okay, it was the deadly trifecta of gaming discussions: Are games literature? Are games art? And what the hell are games anyhow? But the moderators all ditched the cliche questions and got on to interesting stuff.

(I was not on the panels -- just sitting in the audience. I got to throw in some comments, though.)

I do not have transcripts of these. I tried to take notes, but at some point in each panel I got caught up in the discussion and spent my time thinking of comments rather than writing down what people were saying. So you get a rather disjointed view of all of this. Sorry! I think it's worth copying my jottings anyhow.

Quotes are guaranteed not accurate. I attempted to get down what I thought people meant; errors are mine. I've also thrown in some of my responses that I wasn't able to get out loud in the panel. Editor's privilege.

Animated Screenshots / If We Don't, Remember Me

I find it tempting to write that Leon Arnott’s Animated Screenshots is the If We Don’t, Remember Me of video games, but I’m not sure if that’s exactly true.

Somehow Gus Mantel’s IWDRM, through its slight and carefully controlled animation of film stills, creates long, silent, haunting moments that feel like an extension of the movies they’re from, without being direct excerpts. Arnott’s work, as far as I can tell, comprises literal moments from the games they quote, and as a result feel less like subtle new interpretations of an existing work and more like — well, animated screenshots, really.

Time in a videogame moves naturally in loops. Sit your character still, and the world does in fact stop moving, the clouds drifting past while the candles flicker their four-frame animations in their sconces — forever, or at least for as long as you care to wait. Play a boss fight passively, and watch as the screen-filling terror reveals itself as a predictable, on-rails process, ultimately powerless.

The two sites do share similarity in their surprising use of the animated GIF as a vehicle for quietly contemplating, and even discovering, works in other media. (Does the animation above make you as curious to play The Extinct Bird as it does me?) Definitely worth a browse, in both cases.

US Postal Service shows some gaming love

Love stampsDelighted to discover this USPS stamp design, depicting a quietly romantic moment between one of western culture’s most cherished (if occasionally cursed) couples, during today’s post office errand. It was designed by Derry Noyes and Jeanne Greco.

Sure, like all their court, they have a reputation for fickleness. But isn’t it always nice to see them together like this anyway?

What game reviews on the web can be

Kill Screen magazine, the praises of which I have sung before, recently started publishing game reviews on the web. Despite my open disgust with mainstream reviews, I’ve been so far reading and enjoying this welcome alternative review source in silence. Today, a review by J. Nicholas Guest of Infinity Blade forces me to shout and point.

I’m not sure I’ve seen a review quite like this before, a piece of animated and (lightly) interactive text-art sharing a thematic groove with the work it addresses. It strikes me as possessing a digital version of what makes Mathew Kumar’s zine exp. worth reading, but I won’t otherwise spoil it for you. Block out 20 minutes and have a look.

(There does lurk an interesting — if surely coincidental — confluence between this review and Zarf’s The Matter of the Monster, eh?)

The question "Are games art?" is thoroughly boring, because the answer is obvious. It's obvious to me; it's obvious to you. I don't know if our obvious answers are the same, but whatever -- either way there's nothing to discuss.

This doesn't mean I'm tired of discussing why videogames are or aren't art. A couple of days ago Tablesaw posted a quick manifesto-ation, which I thought was terrific:

The player of a game is not the audience of a game, just as an actor is not the audience of a playscript, and a musician is not the audience of a score.

Games lack an audience not in the traditionally understood manner (nobody is desires to or is able to observe the art), but in a profound and fundamental way, in that they cannot be understood except through entering collaboration.

(--from Shorter Games and Art, April 5)

Of course it's easy to pick at rough edges here (this is the Internet!) -- a game of Rock Band can have an audience. Adventure games (text and graphical) play very well in groups, with one player "driving" and the rest involved at a lower level, if at all. But these cases only make the question more interesting.

A new face for the PR-IF. Comrade.

zarf on a rinform posterThe People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction, the Boston-based IF collective of which I’m a member, has relaunched its website, thanks to the efforts of fellow members Michael Hilborn and Andrew Plotkin. It’s now a proper blog, with an actual RSS feed you can follow to stay in the know about IF events in the ol’ Bay State.

I checked its own list of recommended games while writing the previous post, and was really struck by the beautiful new design. I especially like the graphical elements referencing Dave Lebling’s The Lurking Horror, a classic title set on (a thinly veiled version of) the very campus our monthly meetings occur in. (And of which we hosted a group playthrough, last Halloween!)

Please note that the group’s moniker is a reference to a local pet name for Cambridge. It has no relationship to our friends in the Russian IF community, though they’re quite welcome to occasionally borrow our members’ likenesses for their own use, as seen in this poster by Anton Zhuchov in support of the Russian Inform project.

Maga's illustrated IF list

GalateaLove these blurbs by Sam Kabo Ashwell of modern IF works he recommends, as much for their icon-sized spot illustrations as their smart and succinct text. (He also wrote blurbs and drawings for a large collection of SpeedIF games).

It’s nice to see someone else mark Emily Short’s Savoir Faire so highly. That game is one of my very favorite 21st century (or 18th century, depending on how you look at it) IF works, and one that I think often does get overlooked on best-of lists. Yes, it is very puzzley, but so deliciously so…

(Thanks to Doug for the pointer!)

The day I skunked MacCribbage

If you’ll permit me a bit of silly personal nostalgia:


I came across this screencap, dating from the summer of 1994, while pawing through some old files. Apparently I managed to skunk my Mac at Cribbage — that is, I crossed the 121-point finish line before it hit 91 points, which my dad taught me counts as a double-win, especially if you’re playing for stakes — and was so thrilled with my achievement (and perhaps chagrined that the final scoreboard didn’t acknowledge the mustelid nature of my victory) that I took a screenshot and filed it away.

Please note that the size of this image was the size of my entire monitor at the time, at least in terms of resolution — when projected upon my screen via jet-age electron-gun technology, it measured 12 inches along the diagonal.

Incredibly, MacCribbage’s homepage still exists. Despite the page’s year-one webdesign (and, indeed, an on-page timestamp reading 3/14/95), you can still download the game there, though it’s been many years since any Macintosh computer has shipped with the means to run it.

Meanwhile, the game’s author, Mike Houser, has carried his work into the future with an iPhone version. My heart aches to see the stylistic differences in those two pages’ screenshots, comparing the pixel-perfect artwork of his 1990s work with the flat, anti-aliased color fills of the 21st century adaptation. Fortunately, he still sells a handful of Mac OS X-friendly solitaire games that make use of his charming original deck art, including those smileymac-visaged court cards.

Speak with Monsters

Screen shot 2010-06-22 at 11.39.46 PM.pngAs a palate cleanser after the previous eye-rolling meta-post, allow me to offer a link to Lore Sjöberg’s Speak with Monsters, a gameish webcomic I admire for its doing a lot with a narrow subject space. Specifically, Sjölberg wanders up and down the pages of 1977’s original Monster Manual from first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, adapting its uneven but unforgettable artwork and Gary Gygax’s far-out descriptive text and and rules into a series of four-panel comic strips.

It starts out on a high note with a cartoon starring that mustachioed dude from the original book’s “Rot Grubs” illustration (who quickly becomes a recurring character), and continues to explore other oddities of the Gygax era like Shambling Mounds, Bulettes, and, er, Herd Animals. If you’re like me (where “like me” might mean that you burned all the original Monster Manual illustrations to memory as a child), you’ll gulp down the whole mad menagerie in a sitting, and then subscribe for more.

Two Braid-related things

Last week, the New York Times Magazine ran an article about indie videogames, featuring Jason Rohrer (Passage), Jenova Chen (Flower), and Jon Blow (Braid). Here are some of my favorite quotes:

  • "Ebert said video games can't be art," Rohrer said. "He issued all of us a direct challenge. And we need to find an answer."
  • "Other media are capable of masterpiece-level works of art," Rohrer said. Behind him, a slide showed Picasso's "Guernica," a poster for the movie "Blue Velvet" and the cover of "Lolita." "The question we have to ask is: How can we follow in their footsteps?"
  • "I like technology," Chen says, "but the blockbuster games use it for the same thing over and over again. What we tried to innovate was the emotional content." Flower has an environmental message, about the fragility of life, but more important is the primal experience of playing. You can experience it like a film, passing through a whole range of emotions from beginning to end. "Flower," Chen says, "is about the sublime." It is a game to be played in one sitting, he said, and preferably "alongside your lover."
  • "People are starting to realize that games can't survive on narrative and character," Rohrer says. "It's not what video games are meant to do. It doesn't explore what makes them unique. If they are going to transcend and have real meaning, it has to emerge from game mechanics. Play is what games offer."
  • "Braid is something you could show to Roger Ebert and say, 'Here is a work of authorial intention,' " Rohrer says. "It captures something about the modern zeitgeist."

Speaking of Braid, Blow pointed out on his blog a video walkthrough of a game suspiciously like Braid, Time Travel Understander. The Game Helpin' Squad also made video tutorials for two other games, the MMORPG World Quester 2 and the sports game Severe Running. All three are very helpful, with excellent attention to detail. You might need to watch them multiple times to get it all!

The Nephilim notebooks

I have been an on-again, off-again role-playing game player since I first discovered the hobby in high school. Since moving back to Boston at the start of this decade, I've had the pleasure of playing with some remarkably creative game masters. The first of these was Joshua Wright, an archaeologist and world traveler who expertly applied his first-hand knowledge and experience of cultures past and present to help guide and shape the stories that our group would tell together.

Josh recently departed for greener scholarly pastures on the left coast. After settling in there, he put back up online some web pages, PDFs, and other digital goodies that he'd made as supplementary material for the many games he's run over the last couple of decades. The campaign I played in is under the red "Nephilim" link; it was an instance of Nephilim, an RPG of supernatural secret histories.

I link to them here with Josh's permission, and present them without further context, both because they are more delightfully mysterious that way, and because I am lazy. I invite players and GMs of all role-playing game types to poke around; among the character sketches, plot outlines and historical-fact (and "historical"-"fact") compilations, you may find some unexpected inspiration.

Paintings from Azeroth

Rob Noyes discovered that WoW screenshots take on a new light if run through various Painter filters. Thus, he presents a gallery of original fine-art works by his Troll dude, including some in-character commentary.


Haystacks in Westfall, Eastern Kingdoms. Oil on whatever the heck that thing was.

Braid, Portal, and selling poetry to gamers

I am pleased to report that I am the 1,492nd person to complete Braid, according to its leaderboard.

I really like Braid, and recommend that anyone with an XBox 360 download it and take its free trial levels for a spin. It's already a darling of the professional reviewers, and deserves all its praise. That said, I do wonder how its sense of reception will fall out after some tens of thousands of people have kicked it around for a week or so. It's an interactive art piece, implemented by mixing dollops of text (which, in style, intentionally evoke Italo Calvino), quietly beautiful graphics, contemplative music... and an action-oriented puzzle game that requires a moderate level of video-game skill to get through. So, as art, it chooses to limit its audience to people who are at least pretty good with video games.

Not that there's any kind of deception afoot, here: Braid bills itself primarily as a puzzle game, and it's a very good one. It also follows in the footsteps of Portal - last year's celebrated action-puzzler - by balancing its brevity with a tight structure and sense of purpose, so that when the game is done you feel more like you've just experienced a fine work of artistic entertainment, and less like you just pushed over an amusing but rather small collection of puzzles.

But Portal was bursting with, begging your pardon, a very nerdy sense of humor, full of dark-jokey irony that echoed the best of Monty Python. It also left players with a basket of souvenirs to take home after the game was over, most notably that catchy Jonathon Coulton end-theme, and some repeatable catchphrases and iconography suitable for wearing as T-shirts or forum avatars. Braid eschews these; after playing, you take home no more than what you would after, say, savoring a short poetry collection, or studying a large oil painting for some time.

The striking difference in attitude makes me very curious to see how well the game is received by the XBox-owning public, for whom - if I may risk stereotyping - Portal's macabre humor seems like a far easier sell than Braid's airy, contemplative sketches on the fragility of human relationships and the tenacity of regret. (Yes, by way of puzzles where you dodge cannon-fire and bounce off monsters' heads, which as far as I'm concerned is part of the joy of it.)

Portal established a precedent for high-concept, low-budget commercial games with small, tight structure and scope, planting its flag in relatively safe territory and reaping tremendous success. Braid starts there too, and ventures a little further out, taking some unusual and interesting risks, given its audience limitations. I want to see and play more games like these, so I really do hope that it enjoys a similar fate as well.

Aside: Braid also, for me, shines light on some of the more interesting challenges that digital games face when they present themselves as art. I carved out these bits and may turn them into another post later.

Aside 2: This is the second XBLA game I've played this summer that prominently features an in-game reference to the iconic phrase but our princess is in another castle, which originates from 1985's medium-defining game Super Mario Bros. Always interesting to witness the construction of a 25-year-wide artistic feedback loop, and be able to say you were there at the start.

Costikyan on the need for game criticism

Indie-game publisher/agitator Greg Costikyan returns from the recent Game Developers Conference all fired up from a session about game journalism he attended, where he feels he witnessed panelists repeatedly conflating art critiques with product reviews. He ends up writing a lengthy impassioned plea for the game-media community to learn the difference.

Have I made it clear now? Reviews are the inevitable epiphenomenon of our consumer society, writing to help consumers navigate the innumerable options available to them. They can be well or poorly done, but they are nothing more than ephemera. I'm sure the newspapers of early 19th century America ran reviews of the novels of James Fenimore Cooper; they are utterly forgotten, and should be, because by nature they were of interest only to the readers of the newspapers of the time. Contrariwise, Mark Twain's Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses is still considered an examplar of literary criticism.


Similarly, there would be no point today in writing a review of Ultima IV, since it is long out of print. A useful work of criticism, however, is entirely conceivable: discussing, perhaps, its role as one of the first games to consider the moral implications of a player's acts, and to use tactical combat as a minigame within the context of a larger, more strategic title. Such an article, well-written, ideally with an understanding of the influence of tabletop roleplaying on the development of the early western CRPG, and of the place of this title in the overall shape of Richard Garriot's ouevre would be of interest to readers today, even if they'd be hard put to find a way to buy the damn game. And it might find a place in anthologies and studies of the 20th century origins of the popular medium of the game, going forward into the indefinite future.

The truth is that, for the most part, we don't have anything like game criticism, and we need it -- to inform gamers, to hold developers to task, and to inform our broader cultural understanding of games and their importance and impact on our culture.

We need our own Pauline Kaels and John Simons -- and we need to ensure that when they appear, no one insists that they attach a damn numerical score to their writing, because that is wholly irrelevant to the undertaking of writing seriously about games.

And even in a more proximate matter, we need those drudges called reviewers, despite the meager pay they receive, to think more seriously about critical issues, too. Why should a review of an RTS which doesn't understand the historical evolution of that genre and the place a particular work holds in the spectrum of previously published RTS be considered of the slightest interest?

Yes. Inspiration to start producing The Gameshelf was born over similar frustrations over the game media I had a few years ago (and, for the most part, continue to have). I can only hope that the show and its blog can at least make reaching motions in the direction that Greg is pointing, here.

By the way, Greg's Play This Thing! is a very smart small-group blog about interesting games and related topics. By which I mean, if you enjoy the Gameshelf Blog, you should probably drop this other one into your RSS reader too.

Iranian propaganda rips Star Control?

Maybe. (As seen on Gridskipper.)

(We reviewed Star Control 2 back in Episode 2.)



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