Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Game Of Art: Have Video Games Caught Up With The World Of Fine Art? by Clive Thompson

Are games a form of art?
This question always provokes bloated arguments. Fans insist that their games are just as culturally important and nuanced as anything in a museum or a bookstore. Detractors snipe that video games are too twitchy, too violent and too profoundly a waste of time to qualify. It's a debate that never goes anywhere because the participants are talking about two completely different things.
So it was with glee that I cracked open Okami, a game that neatly dodges around this morass with a brilliant gameplay concept: You have to actually perform art to play the game. With Okami, the division between games and art collapses, as Douglas Adams might have it, "in a puff of logic."
It works like this: In Okami, you play as a wolf that is the incarnation of an ancient Japanese god -- and that has the power to literally draw things into existence. At any point in the game, you can hit a button and the scene freezes, transforming into a piece of parchment. You wield a traditional Japanese brush and ink objects on the parchment. When you unfreeze the scene, presto: Whatever you've painted transforms into the real, solid thing.
As a play mechanic, it's delightfully new -- and turns puzzle-solving and combat into a weirdly aesthetic experience. Even as I was frantically dodging a giant shark, for example, I was coolly assessing the scene with the remove of Leonardo, looking for a place to sketch a useful object. (I drew a series of lily pads into existence, and hopped over them to evade my enemy.)
In other situations, I'd perform even more godlike stunts of creation. I drew gusts of wind to knock over a foe, a sun in the sky to transform night into day, and a heart in the air to make friends. I drew in the missing spokes on an old broken waterwheel -- and in a burst of color and flower petals, it sprang back to life.
This is giddy, dreamlike stuff, and the experience never got old. Indeed, every time somethingpoofed into reality, I felt anew the raw thrill of a toddler admiring his finger-painting. Okami neatly leverages the existential strangeness that underpins all art: You're creating something from nothing. No wonder they have you play as a god!
Mind you, a play mechanic based on art-creation will only be as good as its graphics engine. And here again Okami is basically mind-blowing. The game is rendered entirely in cell-shaded, broad-stroked imagery, so it looks precisely like ancient Japanese art set in motion.
Each animation is perfectly tuned to the magic-realism vibe of the world. As the wolf picks up speed and begins to run, the earth erupts in flowers behind him. That's just lovely; if all game designers paid this sort of attention to detail, even the Louvre would install TV sets to put the stuff on display.
But as I continued to paint my way out of tight corners (sorry, I couldn't resist), I began to realize tha tOkami's central conceit cuts both ways. Sure, it's a good game to play with Hillary Clinton, if you want to prove that games can be artistic. But more importantly, it reminded me that the reverse is also true: Art is often game-like.
After all, what is a game? It's a system in which you agree to obey a bunch of rules -- to limit your behavior -- and then you release your creativity, finding inventive ways to achieve your goals. If you're a good gamer, you uncover new complexities in how the rules interact, new techniques even the game designer couldn't have predicted: A new feint in basketball, a cunning new way to powe rslide through a corner in Midnight Club.
Art works precisely the same way: The creativity comes struggling within the limits. Baroque artists strived mightily to find something new to do with the fusty, centuries-old medium of oil painting, and presto: They invented chiaroscuro.
Gerard Manley Hopkins wanted to write sonnets, but strained at their conventions until bam -- he re-engineered the form by using long, trippy lines. As they ply their trade, artists always embrace a fundamentally game like mode of thinking.
As I painted away at Okami, I quickly spied the limits of the game system. I'd try and draw something really fancy in the air -- a flying crane, at one point -- and the game engine wouldn't let me. (It couldn't quite figure out what it was.) At first, these limits frustrated me; hey, if I'm an artist in this game, shouldn't I be able to do anything? Why was I limited to only a couple dozen different possible objects?
But as I played on, I realized the fun came from using those few brush strokes in new, cunning ways. I learned how to draw a little cherry bomb to materialize over my enemies. Then I realized I could also use it to pump through walls or solve puzzles.
So which is Okami? An art simulator that feels like a game? Or a game that feels like art? With a game that riffs so brilliantly on the conventions of both, there's no need to choose. As a famous poet once said, it's large: It contains multitudes. Let the Okami games begin! And remember young and old gamers, it is art that it all begins with, support your local artist and if you are an aspiring game designer, you begin by trusting your own creative process and by holding nothing back! 

When I Play Okami I listen to this! 

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