How Abstract Is An Abstract Game?

Sometimes while I’m working on The Biggest Opa (my Greek dancing game – coming along fairly well) I daydream about other games I could make which would be far easier to implement and get out the door.

One idea I’ve been interested in is the notion of a “totally” abstract game. At present I guess that one of the best (and certainly most well-known) abstract games in The Marriage by Ron Humble. In it, coloured shapes move around on the screen and react to your mouse, all combined to present Humbles understanding of marriage in a “procedural” manner. I don’t personally get a lot out of the game, but I’m drawn to this idea of stripping away representation and doing things with rules.

Of course, I’m also drawn to tomfoolery, so here’s my thought. The Marriage is not as abstract a game as one could make, obviously. For one thing, the title and intent drives toward representation – it’s about marriage. Marriage is, I suppose, kind of abstract itself, but also… not. For another thing, the game relies on at least a few metaphorical/symbolic connections to the world – particularly the use of pink and blue to (presumably) represent the male and female agents, the use of “fading out” to represent some kind of negative result (again, presumably), and so on. These are fairly familiar metaphors that the game, I think, encourages and wants us to reach for.

So what if you wanted to make a really abstract game, divorced (ha ha) from worldly representation as much as possible – what would it look like? No, seriously, I’m asking you…

My original thought was to make a game like The Marriage – shapes moving around, changing colour, speed, reacting to the mouse, etc. – but then I started to wonder about that. After all, the general gist of shapes moving around seems to imply a world at the very least, right? And how would you determine what colour they’d be? Or whether and when they should change colour? And why should the background colour of the world stay the same? And why should there be shapes, visible or not, at all?

One answer is to appeal to the random() function – everything in the game should be randomised. But when? Every frame of the animation of the game? So that it’s a berserk and flashing mess that is unintelligible? Is that utterly abstract? It seems a shame because I’d like the game to be somehow interpretable by a player – just without any pre-existing meaning. Could I “get away with” a The Marriage-like world, but randomise everything within it? Just accept that games, at base, must have worlds and take that as the only given?

Should I read more about abstract art in general and actually do some research? (Nah…)

17 October 2011
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