The Antagonist Is Present?

I’ve been meaning to write up a bit on what I think The Artist Is Present (the game) is “about” for a while now, but didn’t get to it for one reason or another. The interview I did with Hyperallergic definitely catches on some of it (mostly because it’s drawn from me writing a lengthy email to the interviewer!), but I thought I’d try to throw down a few thoughts here as well. In this post I want to try to address some of the “antagonistic” aspect of the game.

As I’ve said in various places, the game started out most basically as an amusement, a “wouldn’t it be funny if?” moment. As soon as you think to yourself “The Artist Is Present as a video game”, it’s pretty clear that that’s something that ought to exist. And I thought it, so I set to work on making it. The timing was good too: having just made Safety Instructions, which I view much more as a pretty fun game, I wanted to make something that ignored fun in favour of something else (as with Let There Be Smite!).

As happens when you make things, though, different meanings and ideas come up as you go along. On researching the show it was pretty obvious that the core mechanic of the game was about waiting – that’s pretty much what everyone focuses on when they think of the show – either waiting to see Abramovic or, in a sense, waiting with her. And that’s immediately titillating because waiting is obviously the height of poor game design according to convention. (Note that there are some great games about waiting, notably Gregory Weir’s Narthex and Increpare’s Queue). Part of my attitude to it, though, was to take it to some kind of “end game” – just waiting, so real other entertainment or chance of interaction, possibly for hours, possibly never even achieving your aim. Brutal waiting.

Hand-in-hand with the waiting came all the other bits and pieces of making the game “authentic”. By “authentic” I don’t mean that it somehow is a tribute to Abramovic’s work or anything, just that I wanted to find elements of the real situation that would contribute to a particular feeling. Mostly that meant the kind of irksome realities that usually aren’t supposed to impinge on games. In the game that meant having the museum have proper opening hours, and enforcing queue etiquette to the degree that people couldn’t “game” the game (wait without waiting, so speak). The point was to make a game where you really have to wait and that’s that. Haven’t heard about anyone managing to circumvent it, so hopefully that worked out.

All this means that the game is pretty plainly antagonistic from a traditional gameplay perspective. Games are, by and large, meant to somehow “inconvenience” players (being shot, falling blocks, full bladders, etc.) without inconveniencing us (as in, actually causing them hardship). Douglas Wilson has written much more eloquently on this topic than I can manage, but I will say that at the very least it’s pretty obvious to ask “why?” in the face of the commandments of “usability” and “fairness”. As in, why shouldn’t you wait for five hours in a game just to look into pixel eyes? Clearly you (and many others) may not want to, but why shouldn’t it be an option? And so on.

I don’t think of this as merely “being difficult” or “misbehaving” within game design, it seems very obviously important to push on these boundaries to find out what happens. After all, it’s not like all the traditional rules of fairness and accessibility and so on have yielded so many amazing games. There have been many, of course, but it’s a bit ridiculous to live within such tight confines, so we might as well do some other stuff as well. Particularly in this age of being able to produce and publish your own games almost trivially (pending being able to program or develop the game in some way obviously), it would be mad not to make a game about queuing for hours.

In closing on this I will say, too, that at least for me (and anecdotally perhaps some others), The Artist Is Present is a really intense game to play. If you commit to the basic idea that you want to get to see Abramovic, then I think the game falls into place in interesting ways. Most of all, my experience was of an almost unbearable anxiety about paying attention to the queue to make sure I didn’t get shoved out and almost having a heart attack each time it moved. As I’ve said elsewhere, I spent about five hours playing the game, during which time I managed to make dinner (omelet), watch TV (The West Wing) and browse the net a bit (vanity), but throughout which I was largely consumed with my obsession with the queue – I’d say I checked it, flicking my eyes and/or switching windows, about every 20 seconds.

For five hours.

Going through something like that is obviously hugely just to do with the attitude I brought, but I think that’s entirely true of so many games. To the extent that games are essentially inconsequential (other than something insane like Lose/Lose or Painstation) then, well, sure – nothing matters. I find that kind of unsatisfying. It’s fairly clear to me that a big part of the play experience is some kind of agreement between yourself and the game to take it seriously, this is what something like PermaDeath can help with. Part of the problem is that we’re so used to the traditional structures of games (run, shoot, live, die) that it’s extremely hard to care.

One thing that a game like The Artist Is Present can do, then, is provide a new structure within which to maybe, just possibly, give a shit.

19 September 2011
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