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Art and Games: Making Niua Simoa - Part One (cross-posted from Facebook)

Date Posted: 19th Mar 2010 at 6:07 AM

I've started a journal on MTS and brought this over from Facebook where I first posted it. Hopefully when I get time between study I can update on projects. You can see that this is aimed at a readership of family and friends, but it can be read by a wider audience, so I've opted to make it my first post in my creator journal.

My artistic urges have found outlet in a very strange - and admittedly trivial venue - lately. I've started reading Ocean Quigley and Shannon Galvin's blogs. Both are skilled practitioners, but both work in video game design as much as in art and sculpture. Both have worked on Maxis Studio games like The Sims and Spore franchises. Sandbox and puzzle gaming are the only genres I really enjoy, first person shooters and the like bore me, so I'm a fan of Maxis work. I've really enjoyed seeing the problem-solving and play that went into making these classics, as well as Quigley and Galvin's non-gaming art. Just look at some of the work that Quigley and others put into making Spore beautiful. Quigley's idea of a tornado on a leash that (according to memory) never made it into the game is very cool. The idea of tactile disasters more generally is cool. I love gameplay that emerges sandbox out of partial control over chaos. Sandbox is exactly the right analogy. I do love sandcastle building for the same reason: The medium forces me to work certain ways, and what emerges cannot ever be quite as I planned, but it can still be just as good. Process art, by other terms, but hopefully not abstracted to be 'about the process'. The most engrossing art is about the world and the mind, it is serious narrative, it is critical. Even tongue-in-cheek, making sandcastles, I made playful criticism. There is reason behind my ploughed fields and peasant shacks below the castle, a justification for using junk in that area.

A Sandcastle I Made In Tonga

I loved Simcity 2000 as a kid, and I do remember my younger brothers hovering over my shoulder saying things like 'You're not even DOING anything'. And there I was thinking that I was building a solar-powered dream world. In an interview with CBS News, game designer Will Wright explains that Simcity came to him when he was making the maps for the game Raid On Bungeling Bay. Quite simply, he found making the maps a lot more fun than playing the game, but just giving the players free reign would have made for a boring game, hence the way Simcity's best titles push back at the player with organic city-like rhythms. Part of the franchise's appeal is that you ARE doing something, you are challenged to maintain growth and keep factors like pollution down. It is, in that sense, a game of quiet creative and intellectual action.

Though it doesn't escape me that my brothers' fundamental complaint remains correct, creating via computer games is a pretty aimless task if your creations serve no critical or educational (ie, artistic) role, especially if they are not to be shared. However, increasingly thanks to studios like Maxis, players' creations ARE shared, and they can play an artistic role in the players' daily lives. It's genuinely amazing to see the cityscapes that people are still building in Simcity 4, just look at the pictures of one player's creation Paleoquest series is artful and understated. Each 'adventure' is a minimalistic recreation of an epoch in Earth's history, with you playing a largely accurate reconstruction of an appropriate prehistoric creature. These adventures use the sensory tools available to create genuine challenge. In one adventure you sit on a vast landscape and you must find a mate within a span of time. There is no intrusive music, just ambient noise, and it can take the player a long time to realise that sound is what will reveal the goal, not vision.

Player creations like these are what sustain the game. Without the players' work Spore really is a triumph of style over substance (and ultimately I don't think the players can save the franchise - gameplay is pretty essential to any game and Spore just doesn't have much of it). The fact that players can share their Spore creations with each other in complete form, that opens up the way for serious artistic ventures. Maxis has led the charge in this regard, allowing players to share their animals and adventures in Spore, their cities in Simcity, and their narratives and architecture in The Sims. Only the continued stigma against gaming prevents this - but gaming is mainstreaming itself like never before, especially through carriers like Facebook. The problem is now that most industry-developed games look underdeveloped, intellectually, compared to work in almost any other artistic mediums, with the exception of player driven creation tools like the Sims franchises where lots of the development is left to the player. Although the film industry's continuing race to the bottom could eventually see film and gaming in similarly dire territory, it's the film industry that the gaming one must feed off for narrative success. This lack of intellectual depth is especially true of Facebook and Myspace games - arguably the future of gaming - where the tools available to developers are limited by other widely varying factors like the average players' bandwidth. Still, these little games are engrossing, people need play and in sufficiently reasonable doses gaming is very good for our mental agility, or perhaps just our peace of mind.

[cont in next post...]
Mood: Luff
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