In previous posts, I’ve talked about art’s connection to our 5 senses. For the past two years, I’ve taught a Fine Arts Survey class. In my research and prep work for the class, I have come up with a workable definition for art. I say workable because in all honesty, there are many ways to define art. We will look at it in a practical sense.
Art is matter formed in a pleasing way that heightens our 5 senses.
There are a few noteworthy art-forms that involve audience participation. For these I would add that art is a balance between the creator and how much he or she will allow their creation to be touched by the audience. For example, in dance, the dancer /consumer is given a set of specific moves that encompass a dance style. In dance competitions, they are judged by how close they follow the style and by how freely they are able to break out of it. Chefs learn by following recipes created from others. Out of this they eventually become creators themselves.
But this post is about another form of art that requires participation. How does my definition work with video games? Or, as I call it: The Art of Touch.
Beauty, Truth, and Good
Ancient philosophers looked at art as something that is beautiful, truthful, and good. Plato believed the world we live in was not a true reality. Truth lies in a higher universe of forms created by God. He explains this in Plato’s Republic with the “Allegory of the Cave”.
In a nutshell: people are trapped in a false world, a cave. They are fixed in place all their lives to see shadows on the wall. These shadows are their reality. If one were to break away from the shadows and escape the cave, he would first be blinded by the true sun, then he would be in awe of the things he sees. The Matrix does a great job of demonstrating this. Neo was trapped in a false reality. It was like the cave but called the matrix. When he escaped he found truth.
This ancient parable also works with creating video games. Designers present a false reality to the player—shadows on the wall. The better the game, the more immersed they are in playing that game; the more they are fixated on the shadows. This is done by presenting imitations of the nature around us. The best imitations of nature are truthful, beautiful, and good.
Touch, See, Hear, Taste, Smell
We trick the player by affecting his or her 5 senses. The more senses affected, the more intimate the art. Food affects all five. Books, in an internal and imaginative way, can also affect all five senses. These are the two major art forms that drive our society forward.
Food is the most practical art of all. It keeps us alive, helps us make business connections, create friendships, move along a romance, or reinforce family ties. Books feed the inner person. It supports our spiritual well-being. This has a profound effect on our culture. Movements that changed the world began with a book.
The Rest of Art and the Senses
Architecture is both seen and felt. It is the second most practical art. We all need a place to rest our heads, read a book, or drink a cup of coffee with friends.
Paintings and sculptures are a visual representation of the internal thoughts of an artist. This is analogous to books in that both are internal.
Photography is a visual representations of the external views of an artist.
Music for the audience is just heard. Concerts and music videos add a visual element. Playing music affects touch and sound. Sight can also be applied when reading sheet music and/or following a conductor.
Dancing is touch, sight, and sound, if you are the one dancing. For an audience, it is just sight and sound.
The most influential art form to date would be the film industry. This art affects what we see and hear.
Video games will soon usurp film because they go a step further. Game designers share their effect on the art with the player. They break the fourth wall by allowing the audience to touch what he or she creates.
Touch is gameplay. Peripherals—like a controller or a mouse and keyboard—allow the player to affect the world with his or her fingers. The press of a button could blow up a city or open a door.
Design Philosophy for Art
If games also affect what we see and hear, why call it only the Art of Touch?
This is because, touch is the most important part.
Touch what is seen
A great video game must have great gameplay. Well-done visuals, wonderful music, and good sound effects without well-balanced gameplay does not a great game make.
Before we continue our journey with games, let’s review a few design philosophies in other art mediums.
Show don’t tell
With movies, you’re fixed in one place, passively watching a linear story. A great movie has great cinematography and visuals displayed in a coherent and meaningful way. With movies, the visuals are king. Everything, from the story to the dialogue, to the music and sound design should support what the audience sees.
In play-writes it’s the opposite, “Tell because you can’t always show.”
There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
(Hamlet, Act IV, scene 7)
Ophelia’s tragic death in Hamlet is described so well that you can imagine it. It is the poetry of words that whisks us away to the weeping brook where she drowns herself. This can’t be shown on stage. But the internal image formed by the words can be even more powerful! A great horror movie or game understands this. They hide the monster letting our imaginations run wild.
Amnesia: the Dark Decent does a great job of blurring the monster. The main character goes crazy when the monster approaches so that you don’t really see it. I have only watched the game played and it was the most terrifying thing I have ever seen… or rather, that I haven’t seen.
Imagine don’t explain
Great writers create images not text. The reader’s imagination is paramount. You shouldn’t be seeing the words on a page, but rather, the images they tell you. Everything from the story, plot, character development, and world building should be used to create powerful visuals in the mind. The Harry Potter books do this very well.
And this brings us back to video games where, gameplay is king. The game designer’s motto is, “touch what is seen.” For the longest time, audiences were trapped in their seats, fixated with shadows on the wall. This separation between artist and audience is known through paintings and sculptures (don’t touch those) and to movies (blink as little as you can).
The video game is a break from this. Developers create half-finished works of art that the player is invited to complete.
They give the audience a sense of touch.
Freedom and Control
Good gameplay is the elegant balance of freedom and control. There are many forms of this, and it really depends on the style of game you wish to create.
Platformers need to have the right feel when you jump.
RPGs need to create well-designed and strategic encounters. They also need a good story.
FPS games are all about how the gun feels when you press the trigger.
Story-centered games need to be sure that the plot is interesting in all the different ways it can branch out.
Game designers must weigh how challenging they create the world to how much power they give the player. Everything must support this. The story, the music, the sound effects, and the visuals.
Without the gameplay in place, nothing else can make it a fantastic experience. At most it will be a glorified movie. This frustrates a player who feels out of touch with what he or she sees.
Nintendo is a genius at creating compelling gameplay. They have an impeccable sense of how much touch should be given to the player! Almost everything seen can be explored or affected. Take the new Mario Game: Odyssey coming out for the Switch.
Notice how much power they give the player. And with this power comes a greater responsibility! There is, no-doubt, a gauntlet of gameplay challenges to overcome.
Modern games are growing more sophisticated with their stories. The new Zelda has a heavier focus on story than its predecessors.
And it is in the story that I believe the future of gaming can be gauged.
In my minecraft adventure map Anomalous Ruins, I have blended story with gameplay. Everything you see in Minecraft can be touched or affected. I frustrate this from the player by forcing him or her to play it in adventure mode. Then I tease them throughout the game by showing the player places in the distance that can later be reached. The greatest tease of all is at the beginning where I show the player the Anomaly.
At the end of the game, I turn it into survival mode. I also leave clues for our plucky hero to go and search for this floating city in the sky.