With the recent sorta release of the PlayStation 4, the issue of graphics and gaming seems to have been arrived at once again. Leaving aside the whole are games art ‘debate’ (as I would hope that by this time the discussion was moot. Games are capable of being aesthetic, lets get on with it) the average reaction seems to be this:
As the History and Theory of Digital Art module is about to commence for us MADAHers, I thought this would be the perfect time to bring a strange item to your attention. Never thought that you would be reading, let alone playing, a game based on and built with Microsoft Paint? Well here is your opportunity to rectify that absence in your gaming/ MS paint repertoire. This is the free game/comic known as Homestuck, created by Andrew Hussie.
The most basic of imagery, the most sweeping of stories, and the mightiest of fandoms evident through the Kickstarter which had 24,346 backers, who raised $2,485,506. The original goal to be attained was $700,000. This was raised in 30 days. The size of Homestuck’s fan community was described by Lauren Rae Orsini as in the millions, with around a “million unique visitors” coming to the site daily.
The simple beginnings of the Homestuck phenomenon can be seen in the above image. The basic animation, the minimalist art style. Now play the video beneath, which was the kickstarter promo piece (loud but rockin’ chip-tune/rock-opera sound warning). Big difference, huh? This gives me hope that even the most meagre of projects can escalate into a fully fledged hit with a dedicated fan-base of satisfied player/contributors/backers. According to the wikipedia entry for Homestuck, as distinct from its Wiki:
“The initial style of the webcomic was developed to be advanced by fan contributions, with the fans deciding what actions the characters would take. However, once the fan base had grown significantly by 2010, Hussie moved away from this style because the fan input method had “grew too unwieldy and made it difficult…to tell a coherent story.” Though, while Hussie now controls the main plot of the story and the character’s actions, he still “visits fan blogs and forums” to figure out small things to add into Homestuck.”
This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of Homestuck. It’s success is based entirely on the strength of its fandom. The level of commitment and passion that players of this game exhibit is near unparalleled. I heard of it online through one of my haunts dailyoftheday.com. No advertising campaign, no big marketing budget to try and carve out a section of the market. Pure viral (or meme, depending on your preference), in the sense that this game gained over 2 million dollars through having its existence and quality/querkyness extolled online by fans and those fascinated by its style. This is one of the strongest examples of an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. According to Gordon Graham, writing on the issues of biotechnology: A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures. The concept of the meme was initiated by Richard Dawkins, when he wrote in his work The Selfish Gene.
“We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory’, or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’.”
Don’t believe me that homestuck can be considered a meme? Do a google image search using the terms homestuck cosplay. It will blow your mind how popular just the ritual of dressing up as these characters has become. Sample below, from http://mia-saridzava.deviantart.com. Or alternatively the aptly named http://fuckyeahhomestuckcosplay.tumblr.com.
Some may interpret this as ‘well anything can be successful online’ syndrome, where those items/detritus of humanity can attain a status in the digital world that would be impossible offline/IRL. So why is this distinction still made between the hardcopy disk in a case game and an online download? The same can be said for the field of literature. Why does this distinction between the online and offline versions of a book still matter to some? It seems to me to be the never ending cycle of high art versus low art being played out through the dichotomy of contemporary life; being both offline = high art, and online = low art. Thankfully Calvin and Hobbes are here to help us understand the distinction, courtesy of Bill Watterson.
Funny how ‘commercial’ is considered by Calvin to be ‘hack work’ and ‘low art’, given the current push to commercialise most output, both within art and the humanities, and certainly within the digital realm. Now that distinction is ‘clear’, let’s look at another example from Everything Shii Knows, a candid account of art, creativity, and who also shares my apathy for the Mona Lisa. The High art example is taken from Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, which been made into a film too. It debuted at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Jury Prize, and was nominated for an Academy Award in the same year.
The low art is the manga Emma by Kaoru Mori, set in Victorian London and is the story of a house maid who loves a member of the gentry, and deals with issues of class, and is now an anime (animated film). Again, I think that this distinction has to do with intrinsic value judgements, based on culture and place/time. This must mean then that the online and offline worlds possess different cultures and form judgements in different ways. Any online forum can certainly indicate the distinction, as cyberbullies and trolls alike take note of. So the offline democratic culture allows for anyone with an opinion to voice it, so too does the current online culture (excluding China, as Ai Weiwei attests).
The Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon (I refuse to call it literature) owes the vast majority of its success to eBook sales. The book has attracted criticism due to its origin as a fan fiction based on the Twilight novels. at least initially this was how it built up a solid and very audible fanbase. The anonymity of the eBook and the fact that nobody could tell that that the kindle being read out in public was actually displaying erotica (this is being generous, as it is usually referred to online as ‘mommy porn’) was a level of freedom for readers and was reflected in the book’s rise to prominence through digital devices first and traditional media (the ol pulped, processed and dried tree edition). The lesson I take from such disparate examples of the digital distribution model is this: it could make you millions, but at the very least you may find that select group of people who like the same detritus as you, sharing those things that make you happy (or at the very least occupy/entertain, not everything can be Shakespeare). It should be mentioned that the historical settings of MS Paint Adventures comics Bard Quest and Problem Sleuth goes some way to filling the Shakespeare quota, though then again…
I have been focusing on the features of various that have stuck out for me; those mechanisms or qualities that have remained in my mind long after I have finished/completed/moved on from the game.
The game was built over the course of two years by a team of seven people split between San Jose and New York City. They debuted the game at the September 2010 Penny Arcade Expo, and it went on to be nominated for awards at the 2011 Independent Games Festival and win awards at the Electronic Entertainment Expo prior to release.
I realise this is an enormous image, but to depict the scope and magnificent colour pallet of this game from Supergiant, I feel it necessary . The line-work the luscious landscapes are so well balanced with the narrative tone, making the game feel like a storybook come alive. And most of all, the music! I have never encountered a game which has used music and lyrics to such a powerful extent. The song below, titled Build that Wall (Zia’s Song), is a short hand narrative of the conflict central to the game, and serves as the introduction to the character of Zia, and won the Best Song in a Game award, the Best Original Score Award, and Best Downloadable Game Award at the Spike Video Game Awards in 2011. The tone of melancholy, weariness and the cultural folklore of the game world is depicted so clearly and succinctly through the song. The use of this song, as hummed by another character during the game’s progression is used as a tool to highlight certain narrative themes. Bastion’s soundtrack was produced and composed by Darren Korb, and a soundtrack album was made available for sale in August 2011. he musical style of the soundtrack has been described by Korb as “acoustic frontier trip hop”. It was intended to evoke both the American frontier and an exotic fantasy world.
But the stand out aspect of Bastion is the character and sole voice of the game: the Narrator, voiced by Logan Cunningham. The character that you play as, the kid, never speaks, nor do any other characters, only the Narrator speaks. He is of the same race as the kid, and tells the tale/actions of the player as the game unfolds. The narrative you hear is directly dependant on the actions that you take as the player. This changeable story is not necessarily unique to game-play, but the quality of the voice work of the Narrator is near perfect. The timber, range and soft qualities of the voice work marvellously together. At a particular point of the game, the Kid is attempting to rescue a survivor (Zulf) of the Calamity (the apocalyptic event at the centre of the game). To make progress across the map, the kid has to destroy the petrified bodies of people he knew (play the video at the 3 minute mark). The mental anguish expressed by the narrator in these moments is one of the most memorable game events I have ever played (time mark 5 minutes in). The pathos in this action of ‘spreading the ashes’ of these dead friends and the trauma of the suvivor Zulf make for some pretty emotionally arduous game play.
An excellent article is available at Gamasutra where an interview with the Supergiant Games’ Greg Kasavin and Amir Rao talk with Gamasutra about how Bastion’s unique incorporation of narration emerged, the challenges of forming an indie studio after coming from a major developer are discussed. The later decisions in the game are some of the most challenging morally and pressurise the game in a rare and mindful way for an action RPG. The game was nominated for the 2012 Game Developers Conference awards in the Innovation, Best Audio, and Best Narrative categories, and won the Best Downloadable Game award. Supergiant Games won the Best Debut award. It won the Best Audio in a Casual/Indie/Social Game award from the Game Audio Network Guild at the same conference, and Darren Korb was named the Rookie of the Year.
Based on our class discussion today, I just want to quickly post a few of the ‘games’ (I loosely use this term as these items are not games in the conventional sense) that I have found riveting in their approach and expression of what it means to be ‘entertained’ or to play. These games are influenced by and readily identifiable by their unique ‘interpretative pacing’.
I found this to be chilling, atmospheric and wistful. A romantic game in the sense that Wordsworth, Irving, and certainly the Shellys would find common ground here. As reviewed by bagofgames.com
“Dear Esther is a morose interactive storybook which was originally a Half-Life 2 mod and now returns several years later as a retail release powered by the optimized Source engine used in Portal 2.
Dear Esther is gorgerous. There will no doubt be controversy as to whether it is a good game and the case could even be made that it isn’t even a game at all, but I doubt anyone can objectively look at it and not say it’s beauty is breathtaking. During the course of my complete playthrough, less than one hour , I took nearly a hundred screenshots (the best of which I’ve posted at the end of this article). Not for the emotionally bankrupt.
To appreciate Dear Esther you must be introspective, empathetic and patient. You move along at a snail’s pace and at first I struggled with this. But soon after I realized that the realistic rate at which you walk isn’t there to pad out game length (which is astoundingly short) but to force the player to really absorb their surroundings instead of whizzing by one set-piece on their way to another. Each and every hill you traverse or corner you turn gives way to something gorgeous. Whether that be the water crashing against the rocks of an ancient beach from a cliff side high above, or a subterranean river carrying a birch log down stream towards immeasurable depths.
My favorite part of exploring the island were the random bits of trivia you can find if you look closely enough at your surroundings. Electronic schematics intermingling with chemical diagrams, a nest of broken bird eggs with ultrasound Polaroids littered around it, a candle lit altar found inside a sea side cave with a surgical tray of bloodied instruments and a disused defibrillator placed upon it. These surreal oddments don’t exactly reveal any great truths but instead help to flesh out the mysteries that permeate this adventure. Namely, Who is Esther? and What happened to her?
There are no weapons or enemies, no power ups to collect or areas to unlock. You can’t fall off a cliff to your demise or even drown yourself in the ocean. But as an interactive story it is surprisingly strong. The narrator’s voice acting is top notch and the emotions of loss and regret are realistically conveyed to the player.”
(For those with time issues, skip to the 6:15 time mark)
Perhaps the most unconventional ‘game’ I’ve ever played, here you play as a floating petal on the wind. You being with a shot of a closed flower in bud, in a pot, on a window sill. The flower then seems to create a narrative based upon its ‘origins’. The game does have a loose narrative regarding rural and urban landscapes, environmental issues and renewable energy. The actions you take in the rural landscape affecting the quality of life in the urban, indicating the renewal of the urban and the rural should be synergistic, not exclusive. Each petal you gain emits a note, and so the score is dynamic and set by the pace of play. Skip to 1:45 to 2:25 to see the flower interacting with haystacks, and the relationship this induces with the street lights, as at the start of the chapter, the light on an urban street fails. Towards the end of the level, the harsh and threatening issue of the malignancy of excessive power consumption (the collapsed scaffolding for high tension cables in the rural landscape) indicate the fractious nature of our relationship with energy and our natural world and its limited resources at timemark 6:30.
It is possibly one of the most uplifting play experiences I’ve ever had the pleasure to engage with. You control the flower through tilting the controller, with the occasional button push to speed up. The flower can solve puzzles in the landscape, by flowing on the wind around standing stones (which in later levels are supplemented by wind farms), linking certain types of flowers together to renew the habitat, etc. The score and stunning visuals create a soothing and enveloping environment. Hewing closer to dance than gaming, the lack of any voice, text, or any of the typical features of game-play make flower a unique experience.