So today I actually spoke with Marina Abramovic (and Siena Oristaglio) on Skype. This after Marina had emailed me about having played my game version of The Artist is Present. For the record, she tells me that she was queuing and making progress but then went to get some lunch and was pushed out of the queue! How perfect is that?! Imagine Marina Abramovic at a computer with her little avatar in a queue waiting to sit in a chair opposite… herself! It really blows my mind. (Yet another kind of awesome thing is that Marina happened to be wearing red and had her hair over one shoulder, just like in the iconic images of the performance!)
So anyway, this led to us chatting for a bit on Skype this morning. Marina is super nice, very friendly, was sautéing onions at the start of our conversation! Sautéing onions! (The meal she was making sounded pretty delicious actually.) The upshot of the conversation is that we’ll be collaborating in some way in connection with her new and huge project, the Marina Abramovic Institute. Here I pause to point out the institute’s Facebook presence and its Twitter account, they’re kind of ramping all that stuff up at the moment.
I need to remain a bit mysterious about the nature of the collaboration, because mystery is exciting and fun, but the institute itself is super interesting. It was something I’d had an awareness of prior to all this, but hadn’t necessarily delved into all that deeply. But it’s basically this project to bring the experience of performance art and its general weirdness, amazingness, awkwardness, changefulness, uncomfortableness, etc., to… well everyone in theory. The plans they have for it all really sound pretty crazy and ambitious and great. Importantly, they involve getting to wear a white lab coat and getting involved in all this performance stuff yourself.
So I don’t know where it’ll all go, but it’s pretty exciting you guys! More as it happens!
Last Friday I went to the opening of the show Space Invaders at Nikolaj Kunsthal in the city. I must confess that part of my attendance was related to the fact that my game The Artist Is Present is part of the exhibition. And then, of course, there’s the matter of the curator being a friend. And then, of course, there’s the matter of it being a contemporary art gallery devoting a show to video games. All different kinds of awesome.
The show itself has an excellent variety of pieces, many of them playable – you’d have to go and see it to get the effect, really, I’m not going to try to catalog it all. Well okay, maybe one or two…
There’s an interesting video work of cosplayers in China by, I believe, Cao Fei and titled Cosplayers. In essence it shows us a series of mostly urban tableaux with cosplayers either posing or moving through. It’s interesting because of the ambiguous (to me) attitude the film takes to the cosplayers themselves. My first take was that it depicted a kind of narrative of these (faux) superheros as they came from a rural area (briefly featured at the beginning) into the city, and then had this kind of disaffected and less-than-heroic existence there. But then also also wondered how “seriously” the film took the cosplayers. There was a particular shot where you see a line of golden-armoured dudes standing there, and then a herd of cattle just walks past. There’s no denying it’s a pretty amusing framing and so on – but what’s the relationship between the film and the cosplayers, then?
There’s a bunch of other stuff, but one I was particularly keen on seeing was The Night Journey by Bill Viola in collaboration with the USC EA Game Innovation Lab. I’ve only had a bit of time with it, but certainly am interested in getting more. It’s a black and white affair with a soundscape, and you navigate around on a standard controller controlling movement and camera location in standard console-FPS fashion. It has an odd effect where moving the camera at all causes everything to blur massively and it’s only when you sit still that you can see anything – oddly pleasing sensation.
Finally, of course, I did have a chance to see The Artist is Present installed in a gallery which was pretty fun. It’s pretty hilarious and wonderful that the gallery closes (usually) at 5pm, and MoMA opens at 4:30pm Copenhagen time. So there’s generally only 30 minutes that the galleries are open simultaneously, and in that time you need to get through the queue in the game, rendering it basically impossible. The notion of a gallery locked inside another gallery and both in different timezones is pretty great, right?
Since I’ve spent today evaluating students’ design pitches for experimental games and also awkwardly trying out some initial words about why Trolley Problem is the way it is for the (very few) people who have tried it out, I’ve been thinking about this whole thing of explaining elements of games. In particular, because I teach this course of “experimental interaction” and consider myself engaged in the process of creating “curious games”, I find myself constantly asking why about each element of a design or game.
This is a good thing because it’s really kind of hard to answer the question when the raison d’etre of your game is not “fun” but rather some other purpose or meaning or experience. In particular, in that case you really should be able to talk about why it is the way it is, I think. And it’s only in practising answering the question that you a) get any better at answering it and using half-way decent combinations of words to express what you think you’re doing and b) often, have any chance of understand what you were doing in the first place (since it doesn’t all come out fully baked, or whatever).
The point being that while I got to a place where I felt like I could explain certain aspects of The Artist Is Present intelligently (waiting as antithetical to games, pushing against overblown notions of “fairness” in contemporary games, etc.), I’m finding it really hard to talk/write about why Trolley Problem is the lo-fi, unhelpful little thing that it is. Yet I know I made it that way on purpose and for various reasons.
So more on that later.
After hearing various people talk about how they’d quite like to be able to break into the virtual MoMA of The Artist Is Present after hours, I was thinking about that particular aspect of games. That is, in games there are presumably things happening that we can’t see – well, at the very least this is true of The Artist Is Present. In that case, for instance, before you go into the museum (when it’s open) a bunch of dudes materialise in the main hallway and stride off toward the front of the line. The screenshot here is me teleporting to the scene of that particular crime.
I don’t know if there’s much to say about this except that it’s plainly awesome and it’s a great shame we don’t get to see more of these behind the scenes scenarios in our play. The notion of the program “getting ready” in some other local is a very charming one to me. I guess there are some similarities with, for instance, using ‘noclip’ and so on to walk to the locations of cut-scenes and so on in games – I seem to remember doing this in Half-Life 2 for instance.
To some extent it might seem to melt into thinking about how interesting glitches are. All of this feels like it takes place in some theatre or film metaphor, of course – imagining the actors preparing or hanging around just outside the range of the camera (behind the scenes), out-takes where something goes amusingly wrong (glitches). In all cases it’s about the attraction of getting that extra step closer to the game as a game, rather than as a world. And yet, because you perceive these elements through the game world, it’s like the personification or anthropomorphising of lower level code and structure. Which seems great and interesting.
Anyway, that’s what I got. Are there any classic situations like this in games I’m just completely blanking on? Particularly of the “behind the scenes” kind, rather than glitches? I guess in some GTA games you can use ‘Blue Hell’ to get to cut-scene locations, that seems like a bit of a classic…
One way to characterise what I’ve been interested in so far with making games is that it’s at least partly about asking questions, mostly about games themselves, though sometimes something else as well. It wouldn’t surprise me if I went that way in large part because of my background in writing about games – to some extent it’s easier to think about games when they’re a bit out of the ordinary.
Rilla came up with a nice name for my (and presumably others’) approach to games, or rather for the “genre” you could put them in: curious games.
I rather like that as a name for something, I think the connotations are pretty good. It’s lighthearted enough, particularly in comparison to “serious games”, to feel like it’s not going to be a great big drag or a downer. Rather, it suggests that the game is going to be at least someone amusing, unserious. But at the same time it also does imply the inquisitiveness that’s at the heart of, well, science and stuff – and not so much on the part of the player (after all, we can be curious players no matter what the game), but on the part of the maker. Ultimately, I like the idea of curiosity driving (some) game making.
Games seen in this light might be thought of as asking some kind of question or poking around a subject, rather than “solving a problem” as some recent discussion described game design as. Game making as problem solving is kind of depressing to me personally – game making as question asking sounds fun! Nor does this question have to be asked of the player – as if the game is some kind of test – but rather it could be more like the game helps the player to ask the question themselves, and poke around it to see what they think.
I’m certainly not issuing this as some kind of manifesto or personal crusade, though. I don’t necessarily think Safety Instructions was asking any big questions. Though perhaps it could be seen as a chance to think “beyond” the final frames of the traditional instructions we get on planes, which of course ignore the potential consequences. The Artist Is Present was certainly “curious” about the concept of waiting and rewards in games, along with the place of “realism” of different forms than physics and graphical fidelity. Let There Be Smite! asked in its small way whether it might be a big pain in the ass to be god, and whether the difference between punishment and forgiveness might get lost in the whirl. And of course GuruQuest was, in some ways, nothing but questions and curiosity personified (and slightly aggravating).
So, curious games. What do you think?