Are games art? That question is old, tired, washed up and on its last day before retirement. The answer is yes, obviously. Now, can games create art—stuff to hang on a wall—with human hands entirely out of the picture? There's something to think about.
Secret Habitat is a free game that procedurally generates massive acid trip dreamscapes and populates them with... art galleries. Everything about these galleries is also procedurally generated. The name of each piece, the style each "artist" uses, the music you can turn on to accompany your slow strolls through the game's stark, alien halls. Beyond that, there's not much to do except and observe and think. But in this context, those simple, detached interactions are magnificent things indeed.
If you want to see how it all works in action, check out this excellent video by Rock Paper Shotgun's Alice O'Connor:
Each floor of each building, though generated by a computer algorithm, really does have its own consistent visual identity. Paired with bizarre names and music that gracefully pirouettes in one moment only to lurch and howl in the next, these pieces conjure up a sort of deranged meticulousness. It's like their "artists" weren't entirely of sound mind, but they still had something to say—something intrinsic, something resonant. Or maybe they weren't even human. Who knows? In Secret Habitat, it's just you and the art. It's up to you to make heads or tails of what any of this is about. The game says close to nothing to color your judgement.
This really is a game in which the little things matter. The blossoming bouquet of outdoor colors matched against lifeless grays elsewhere. The weird ways paintings manipulate shape and hue every so slightly. Even the way your character walks is surprisingly detailed, with satisfying (and different) clomping sounds accompanying each step on every surface. While outside, you automatically move in a brisk sprint, with the first-person camera swaying convincingly. Inside, however, you slow to a contemplative crawl, and you suddenly notice so much more. This isn't the sort of game that really requires that kind of detail, but it's here, and it adds a lot. It makes you feel present, the sole inhabitant of this desolate space. All that's left of the others is their creations.
Allow me, for a moment, to get incredibly hoity toity: Secret Habitat is a game where there is no "real" artist's intent behind its paintings—no human hand guiding each individual brush stroke—yet they are still art. Art always involves some component of interpretation on the part of whomever's experiencing it, and in this case it's all about your interpretation. How do these names—seemingly random combinations of words—correspond to the piece right above them? What kind of feeling or thought or even commentary does that cause in your mind?
The human brain is built for pattern recognition. It creates patterns even where they don't necessarily exist. We all do it a little differently, but it's still something we all do. So what do you, you personally, see in the things Secret Habitat makes for you? Maybe that's the whole point of the game. Or maybe it's trying to say that a lot of art is bullshit and you can slap literally anything on a wall and get some dumbass critic to wax poetically about it for a thousand words. Maybe my interpretation of Secret Habitat is just me making a pattern where one doesn't exist. Fuck if I know.
But still. Here are some of my favorite pieces:
It should be noted that the music accompanying "space letter" mixed twangy guitar and this creepy computerized effect. To me it really sold some strange fusion of the space cowboy fantasy and the cold, lifeless innards of a machine. A reference back to a simpler time paired with an even more complex, potentially harmful future. OK I PROMISE I WILL LET THE GAME SPEAK FOR ITSELF NOW.
I mean, yeah. We were all thinking it.