By Leigh Alexander
Audiences constantly demand video games fight familiar boundaries. We're sick of the same old, same old. We want creativity, artistic integrity, elegance and depth–or do we? Do players know what they're asking for when they look for "more" from games? And if this is really what we want, then what's with the mixed reception–both cultural and economic–when we get it?
We've seen it happen time and time again. A game can ring all the right bells in response to the clarion call for "art," for "legitimacy," for "more" – and yet fail to penetrate the market in a significant way. Examples? We asked for an adult game on Wii ever since the platform launched, and if you believe the internet, the lack of Wii games for grownup, hardcore gamers is a potentially lethal chink in Nintendo's armor.
Yet March NPD revealed that Sin City-inspired, artfully violent MadWorld, which on paper is exactly what we asked for, performed only modestly at 66,000 units. Similarly, GTA: Chinatown Wars' underwhelming sales performance on DS has been made an avatar for the idea that mature content on popular platforms just doesn't pull audience attention — even with high ratings. Then, of course, there's Capcom's classic Okami example, the last-gen avatar for the baffling case wherein creative success doesn't match up to the commercial.
Here at Kotaku last month, we talked about all the ways in which M-rated content isn't really yet mature. Now, we look at the viability of art games–and as sick of the "games as art" issue as most are, we wouldn't be so tired of hearing it if there weren't something missing, either in the conversation or in the games themselves. What's holding them back?
Designer and academic Ian Bogost recently theorized that what players are really asking for when they kick around the issue is not simply art, but legitimacy– in other words, we know that games are capable of affecting players more deeply than the silly thrill of the headshot, so we want to see them try.
And yet the response to art games is usually mixed. Neither the critical press nor the consumer base seem to be universally decided yet on how to receive the work of developers like Jonathan Blow of time-bending Braid fame; Jason Rohrer, creator of thought-pieces like Passage and Gravitation, or Tale of Tales, who's slowly advanced on the art game scene with both The Graveyard, a brief essay on entropy, and the darkly allegorical The Path.
Off The Beaten Path
Tale of Tales' The Path is the latest game on the scene to confuse traditional "gamers." It's an exploration horror title that relies allegorically on the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood to provoke thoughts about innocence, curiosity, expectations, violation, growing up – or, at least, that's what the response has been from some. Beyond that, it's difficult to describe without spoiling– The Path might provoke you to think about something else entirely, and so the best way to understand it is just to play it.
Notably, it's open-ended; it's not task-driven, and whether or not there are "win" conditions is up for debate. It's a game that asks audiences to reconsider what a game "is," but let's not wander off The Path to tackle that issue today. Steve Gaynor, designer and author of the Fullbright blog, has an excellent door-slammer: "'Is it a game' is almost as useless as ‘is it art,'" he says. "Did you play it? Congrats, it's a game."
Gamers act very fatigued of familiar conventions; there's a jaded, blasé attitude toward re-skinnings of the same old thing. Yet we often see confusion and hostility toward games that experiment with new ways of reaching players–maybe part of that is because both audiences and designers are stuck in old ideas about what games "are."
That's what Tale of Tales believes, so perhaps it's unsurprising that The Path is a non-traditional game–the developer's two-person team, Michaël Samyn and Auriea Harvey, are not traditional developers. In fact, they never set out to make games, and spent most of their careers as storytellers in other media – sculpture, painting, performance, graphic design and music, to name a few. The pair's fascination with fairy tales and old mythology came out of the desire to work with existing story language rather than fight the fact, as they say, "we weren't the greatest fiction writers in the world."
"In 2002, we threw ourselves into the reluctant arms of game development," the pair tells Kotaku. "Because, unlike the web technology we had been working with before, games technology was still continuing to evolve towards ever greater ways of making interactive art. It seemed like game technology would allow us to finally really create what we had only been simulating before."
Stuck In A Rut?
Samyn and Harvey chose to work with video games, then, because they believed in the idea that games are capable of delivering art and story in unprecedented ways. But they admit to being a little disappointed at how rigidly both game developers and players insist so strictly on established conventions.
"We quickly found out that many game developers don't think of their technology as a medium for artistic expression or even for touching people or telling stories about the world," say Tale of Tales. "To our surprise they were really fond of the very traditional game structures that they had inherited from board games and arcade games. And they enjoyed very much re-skinning the same game over and over."
Regardless of how you feel about The Path, there's no universe in which a desire to try new directions for video games is a negative. "We're exploring the enormous potential of this medium for art-making. We're not interested in purity," Tale of Tales explains. "We're not so interested in the history of videogames or the traditions of game design. We're taking the medium at face value and poking at it to see what it can do."
But the team admits they were shooting for "commercial potential" with The Path, moreso than with Tale of Tales' Independent Games Festival award-nominated art game The Graveyard. But speaking on whether audiences are actually willing to pay $10 for The Path– "we tend to be pessimistic," say the pair. "It seems to be very difficult to find an audience large enough to support our production without extensive effort outside of the purely creative activity."
Pushing The Borders
Another inhibitor to greater commercial and cultural viability for art games is the difficulty in reaching mainstream audiences. Tale of Tales actually hopes primarily to reach non-gamers through work like The Path, but explains why that's a complicated proposition: "The main thing that seems to be blocking this progress–if we're allowed to call it that–is the difficulty of approaching markets outside of the market for games," they say.
"The games industry is very well organized and very successful within its own ecosystem. But it has optimized all of its systems and habits for internal use. As a result, only gamers like games. And everybody else doesn't understand them or is even disgusted by them. Which is problematic for us. Essentially, we make games for non-gamers—and, in general, non-gamers hate games."
Designer Jason Rohrer, known for poignant titles like Gravitation, Passage and IGF Innovation Award-winning Between, has bypassed the entire issue of the commercial viability for art games by making all of his titles free to download. "I'd say that Tale of Tales is not making games at
all, but something else entirely," he says. "They call their works ‘games' out of simple marketing convenience."
From that perspective, it makes a little more sense that gamers hesitate to vote with their wallets in favor of games like Tale of Tales' if they're not meant to be "games" as we know them.
"Works like Braid and [Rod Humble's] The Marriage, on the other hand, are undeniably games. You can win both games, and in the case of The Marriage, you can also lose," says Rohrer.
Still, there's no saying that The Path would be a commercial juggernaut even if it adhered to more familiar definitions of "game." Says Rohrer, "It's not clear to me that ‘gaminess' is correlated with commercial success. Braid was a commercial success and was generally embraced by mainstream players, while The Marriage was given away for free, and arguably couldn't have been a commercial success if it was sold."
Rohrer says that game length, replay value or other measures of the amount of time players can spend with a game is a common way by which people determine their financial valuation. "Braid is more valuable to [gamers] because it takes five hours to complete; it contains a few dozen puzzles. The Marriage is like a single puzzle, and if you figure out what the mechanics mean, you are done playing."
It's easy to blame the audience for not receiving progressive games the way they "should." But Rohrer argues that the primary obstacle to growth for art games is actually an absence of depth: "We're trying to push the medium forward into more meaningful territory, but we haven't figured out how to do that while also preserving the features that make games an interesting medium in the first place," he suggests.
And Rohrer says it's worth pointing out that lack of depth isn't just a problem in art games–it's a problem for most games. "Mainstream, commercially-successful games aren't deep–they're just really long," he says. " Long and shallow. Art game makers have rejected the notion of making a game unnecessarily long by repeating the same gameplay filler over and over for 40 hours. But what art game makers are producing instead are short and shallow games, at least in terms of gameplay."
So it's not that gamers don't want art, and it's not necessarily that the audience is unprepared to embrace new definitions of games. The issue may just be that even though they push boundaries, art games suffer from the same problems as all video games do.
Looking Down The Road
It's not all bleak news for art right now. "We do continue to be surprised by the amount of people within the games audience that do appreciate our work," says Tale of Tales. "So some things can change on the inside as well… There are even hardcore gamers to whom The Path is a true revelation."
"The Path seems to be selling to some people, which shows that there are some people who are willing to throw down money on it," agrees UK journalist Kieron Gillen of the Rock Paper Shotgun blog–where staffer John Walker posted complex but ultimately mixed impressions of the game.
"In fact, I suspect at the end of all this, The Path will end up doing financially better than the average indie game which recapitulates what we've seen a thousand times before –because it's exploring a relatively fresh niche," says Gillen.
And Gillen suggests it may not be such a problem if people appreciate art games, but are unwilling to spend money on the experience–the Tate Modern in London, for example, charges ticket fees for special exhibits, but the majority of visitors to the gallery simply visit the free exhibits.
Tale of Tales says it's "quite pleased" overall with The Path's sales, even factoring in the "steep drop" within a week of the game's release. That's a normal sales pattern, but it means the pair has work yet to do in order to help the game reach more people.
"Two years from now, we will draw our conclusions," say Tale of Tales. "So far, it doesn't look like a project like The Path is commercially feasible without arts funding–at least not within the current games community."
"But we don't intend to stop at its borders. Perhaps The Path can find commercial success in a whole new audience. We'll let you know."
"Maybe when we do this a few more times, and when other artists and designers join us, the audience will get more used to these ‘divergent games' and the landscape will change accordingly."
Why "change the landscape"? Plenty of gamers just want to play Halo, and that's fine. But pushing the boundaries of traditional design is the only way video games will gain a greater cultural presence. Without titles like The Path, games risk being relegated to permanent insularity. Audiences and designers who care about games must play– and buy – these kinds of games, and accept their role in the future legitimacy of the medium. Otherwise, "games as art" will remain nothing but a tired talking point.