A plea for openness

Now that there’s so much willingness, technology and skill to create beautiful virtual worlds, it’s disappointing how many videogames cling to obstacle-based designs. As if players have to earn the privilege to explore by passing an irrelevant test. Now is the time to open up this medium, to let go of our affections and addictions, of our loyalty to childhood memories, to open up the beauty of videogames for the world to see.

Everybody wants to visit our worlds, to interact with our characters, to play a role in our stories. Don’t let them down! Give them access. Let design mean the building of bridges and the opening of doors, not the hiding of keys and the cowardly sniper shot. Welcome the player with open arms, be an entertaining host. Don’t pull the rug from under them or harass them just because you enjoy that sort of thing.

I admit I’m being selfish. I see so many alluring worlds in videogames. I really want to visit them but virtually without fail, it takes less than five minutes to run into an obstacle that I don’t have the heart to overcome. An enemy, a platform, a puzzle or a simple pit. The game promises hours of exploration but forces me to quit at the very start. These days I spend more time buying and downloading games than playing them. I want to play. Please help!

People —like me— want to see your creation, we are interested in what you have invented. Don’t shut us out. Don’t turn your new friends away. Be nice.

Notgames Fest 2013: Call

Notgames Fest 2013

Submission deadline Monday July 8, 12 a.m. GMT

If games form the top of an iceberg, notgames provide the remainder. Videogames are an incredibly versatile creative medium. Beyond the confines of competitive play, a wealth of experiences awaits us. From deep psychological probing to whimsical lighthearted joy, this year´s Notgames Fest intends to illustrate the breadth of human existence captured in interactive art. No more hiding behind the young age of the medium or despairing about humanity’s addiction to empty fun. It is time to wield this formidable tool for the pursuit of beauty in its myriad forms.

— Michael Samyn, Tale of Tales

NOTGAMES FEST 2013


August 19-23 at the Cologne Game Lab

After the great success in 2011 and right in time for the big games events in the city, the Notgames Fest returns to Cologne with a five days exhibition curated by Tale of Tales and the Cologne Game Lab.

In addition to the main exhibition and social events, this year´s Notgames Fest will feature an expo-playground for advanced prototypes where game designers can show their work-in-progress to a broader public.

SUBMIT YOUR WORK HERE

A new future for videogame consoles?

Is it too late? Are videogame consoles dead? They certainly have lost much of their impact. And they are no longer the key to wide success or profitability.

What happened? Many things I’m sure. But one thing, in my opinion, especially. Game consoles refused to make a medium out of videogames.

They had everything going for them. Reasonably priced hardware, accessible interfaces, and most important of all, a place in the living room, where the games could be displayed on the large screen of a television set, the audio amplified through a decent stereo, and the player could be seated in a comfortable chair, far away from work.

All the makings of a new medium, indeed! So what went wrong? And can it still be repaired?

Despite of a few noble exceptions, console games have stayed loyal to the traditional game format for far too long. For too long consoles were presented as home arcade machines. And when they finally decided to enter the world of the grown-ups, they added movies.

If consoles had allowed -or indeed, if they would start allowing now- videogames to grow into its own form of entertainment for many different tastes, they would not find themselves in the current pitiful situation where games on phones or web sites are stealing away their audience.

Consoles are not casual play devices, they are media centers. Videogames on consoles don’t need to be shallow, throwaway fun. When I’m sitting down in my comfortable chair, I am relaxed and I have a few hours to dedicate to entertainment, hit me with all you’ve got! I want spectacle, I want emotions, I want to be immersed, absorbed. I want to care, I want to be involved. And I don’t want to collect spinning coins, match colored blocks, or shoot hordes of zombies. I want substance!

I’m not talking about 50 hour games that nobody ever finishes. The production cost of such extravaganzas has been the mill stone around the neck of this medium for far too long. And we need breathing space to experiment. Especially now. Because there’s a lot of work to be done. A lot of damage to repair.

There is no reason why playing a videogame should take longer than watching an average movie. There is also no reason why such a game should cost the consumer more than an average movie. And it is perfectly possible to create condensed impactful videogames for a fraction of the cost of equivalent films. I also believe that a shorter length in itself will make videogames more accessible to a wider audience. Current games are simply too long. It’s intimidating and discouraging for many potential players.

Game consoles do not need to play movies to draw in an adult audience. We can make games that do this! We can save the videogame medium! And consoles would be smart to open up their doors to artists who want to do something more with the technology than make another Mario clone or sports simulation. We can take this much further. There is no reason why videogames could not offer the same breadth and depth of experiences as any other medium. Videogames can be as versatile, desirable and respected as literature, music, theater and cinema. Consoles can choose to act now with courage and confidence or wait until desperation forces them.

In a way, the success of mobile games and web games is a godsend. Because it’s a clear demonstration of how games should be made. Angry Birds and Farmville are the ultimate games. It makes no sense whatsoever to even try to imitate that pattern on a console. We play videogames on consoles for entirely different reasons. We want the story, the immersion, the emotions. And formal gameplay simply acts as a way to prevent us from accessing these.

There’s a lot to say for formal games. But smartphones, or indeed cardboard or just our bodies and a list of rules, suffice to play them. Such games do not require the kind of technology, or even setting, that a game console offers. The game console offers a media experience. This has nothing to do with a formal game experience. If consoles have a future, it will consist of interactive media experiences that are not games.

The evolution of blockbusters games clearly shows a direction towards a more pure interactive entertainment without the complications offered by formal games. But this evolution is happening too slowly. A radical step needs to be taken now. It’s perfectly possible, perfectly feasible, and it makes perfect sense, both economically and culturally.

The task of videogames criticism

This is an elaboration of statements made in a Twitter exchange with Lana Polansky, following up on her splendid article In Defence of Criticism: The Close Reading.

The task of videogame critics is to recognize and elevate culturally important games. They need to point out to the audience that Dear Esther is more important artistically than Bioshock, and motivate the argument. This does not need to lead to the public playing or even liking Dear Esther more than Bioshock. They don’t even need to understand its critical elevation -though that is of course preferable. They just need to respect the game as superior. It is important to make these distinctions for a medium to move forward. To make progress, we need to identify and honor a small selection of the medium’s output as artistically superior, disregarding its popular or commercial success.

This is not an easy task. The critic will need to take unpopular positions. This is difficult in a context of Liking and Following and PlusOne-ing. And it may require elevating only certain parts of certain games. It will take courage to say that the city simulations in Assassin’s Creed are more important than its combat or its plot. And lastly, but almost impossible given the current scarcity and thus fragility of culturally relevant videogames, the critic will need to be harsh on exemplary works and point out their artistic shortcomings, for instance in comparison with art in other media.

Videogame critics should not be videogame fans. They are not part of the public. They are not looking to be popular. Their responsibility is to the medium and its place in culture first, ergo to humanity as a whole. The benefits of their work on a larger social level happen over the long haul. There are no easy quick victories.

Critical elevation of culturally important works does not imply rejection of culturally inferior works. The latter have a function (fun, entertainment, social opportunities, etc). However, confusing this function with artistic merit is the surest strategy to prevent the medium from reaching the status of other media, or achieving comparable quality and diversity.

For any of this to have any sort of impact, the critic will need to establish him- or herself as an authority. And this could prove difficult today given the unpopularity implicit in the task, as mentioned above, and the widespread cynicism versus the very notion of authority. One possible strategy could be to appeal to the above average intelligence of many game developers and players. If the critic can make a superbly reasoned argument, he or she may not succeed in convincing the public, but he or she may gain their respect. And respect is all we need.

If game reviews try to answer the question “Is this videogame a good game?” then game criticism should attempt to answer “Is this videogame a beautiful work of art?” And the terms “beauty” and “art” should be used with all the weight attributed to them through history. Where videogame reviewing happens within a context of consumers and fans, videogame criticism happens in service of the entire human population. The task is not to encourage gamers to appreciate artistic videogames. It is to demonstrate to the world which videogames are worthy of cultural esteem and why.

Ghostwheel Games : Alien Worlds Explorer: Shadowcast 07

AS SLOW AS POSSIBLE – A videogame

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As Slow As Possible (ASLAP) was inspired by a composition (“ASLSP”) of the famous and notorious American composer John Cage. The original tempo instruction for the performing musician was: as slow as possible. This resulted in performances typically lasting between 20 to 70 minutes. Is this slow enough? How slow is “as slow as possible?”

The city of Halberstadt, Germany, is currently conducting an organ performance that will last 639 years. The last sound change occurred August 5, 2011, and the next sound change will be July 5, 2012. Is this as slow as possible? Is this the final word on the slowness of musical performances?

A performance of 639 years spans the lifetime of many human generations. This performance is certainly using a time scale uncommon to the human experience.

One aspect of ASLAP (the videogame) and of ASLSP (the composition) is the perception of time and of the human time scale (that goes from birth to death).

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What does an instruction like “as slow as possible” mean for a videogame? How slow can a game be? ASLAP presents this question to the player. At what point does the player become a viewer? Which strategies are required to play a game, which is breaking the standard time length for videogames? How do you organize your life around playing a game in “realtime” which could take 20 years? Or 200 years?

ASLAP starts slow, you need to “phase yourself in.” It starts slow and gets slower and slower. And slower. Ad infinitum(*). Each player should decide for her/himself, how slow “as slow as possible” is.

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What kind of game then is it? ASLAP can be described as a game in search of a puzzle game, though there should be enough time left to find the game in the game. The musical structure of ASLAP (the videogame) is very primitive. Two notes switch endlessly back and forth and each note plays longer and longer. It is a found footage game from the 70s, from the lost works of Ewon Gral. It is a living painting and a still life (nature morte). It has its own consciousness (*).

(*) still needs to be proven.

The Love Letter

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On Valentine’s Day, indie game developers axcho and knivel released a little game called The Love Letter. It’s a free, five-minute experience, a slice of life as the most popular boy in school. But things aren’t so easy at the top, especially when you find a mysterious love letter in your locker and you have to read the whole thing during passing period without any of your so-called friends catching you.

“It’s hard for me to say where The Love Letter fits in the spectrum of game to notgame. The purpose is to get across a particular five-minute experience, not to make it about a challenging game with a lot of replay value,” says axcho, who wrote the code for the game.

While there are no points, achievements or levels to be found in The Love Letter, it is possible to win or lose. Getting caught by another student while reading your love letter results in a cute but painful shaming in front of your peers, and a quick trip back to the title screen to try again. If you do get to the end of the letter without anyone seeing you, you are rewarded with an awkward but adorable encounter with your secret admirer, and a satisfying “the end” that makes it clear you’ve met the game’s expectations.

Still, there is a balance to be struck. You could call it a casual stealth game with only one level, but that would be missing the point.

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The Love Letter was originally a 72-hour creation for the Ludum Dare 22 game jam, where hundreds of participants all over the world spent a weekend making games inspired by the theme of “alone”. The game’s author knivel says that the brief development time encouraged him to try making a short, scripted experience that really explores the competition theme rather than simply trying to make a fun game that people would want to play over and over again. It lasts for five minutes because that’s as long as it needs to be. It’s not particularly deep or profound, but it stands on its own for five minutes, without all the gameplay fluff that would be needed to sustain a longer playing time.

As one player mentioned on the notgames forum,

“What made this for me was the fact that the game didn’t try to ‘challenge’ me with levels, achievements, or points. It could have been more ‘fun’ and earn more flash portal money if you went that route. I can imagine myself adding more challenging level design and mechanics to this until the game ends up as this soulless fun machine.

But you sir, made this with the notgames mindset and left me with something pure and sincere. Thanks for that.”

We’ve all seen shallow themes stretched out to hours of gameplay, whether in killing monsters or clicking cows. But while some developers choose to reach for lofty heights with themes that deserve such extended introspection, others like axcho and knivel simply take something sweet and fresh and give it all the time it deserves. Five minutes.

This quote says it best:

“If Dear Esther is the main course, The Love Letter is my dessert.”

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You can read more about The Love Letter’s development on axcho’s blog.

Flight of the Fireflies

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Swedish indie game studio Woolly Robot has just released its poetic title Flight of the Fireflies for iPad. Flight of the Fireflies is an atmospheric and experimental game where you guide a swarm of musical fireflies with your finger. The game is available through the App Store for $3.99.

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“I want to create games that are more about having an experience than about being challenged. Flight of the Fireflies is an experiment to see how much you can take the game out of a game, but still have an immersive experience,” says the game’s designer Jonathan Hise Kaldma.

The game design isn’t the only way that the game pushes boundaries. Unlike in most games, the music isn’t pre-recorded, but is generated dynamically while you play the game. Each firefly is a separate tone, and as you collect more fireflies, the music builds up and becomes more complex. Also, the environments in the game aren’t painted or rendered, but made from photographs taken in and around Stockholm, Sweden.

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“One of the inspirations for the game was an exhibition by photographer Gregory Crewdson. I always felt like games could use photography more, so I went out with a camera around Stockholm to try to capture the feelings that I wanted to convey in the game,” says Hise Kaldma.

One of the problems the studio has faced with the game is how to best describe it.

“I call it a game, since it comes from that tradition. But I know some people wont think it’s a game since you can’t really win or lose,” says Hise Kaldma. “I don’t really care if people call it ‘interactive art’ or something else instead. As long as they don’t think it’s inaccessible or hard to understand, because it’s not. Anyone with an open mind can enjoy it.”

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Woolly Robot is the indie game studio of designer Jonathan Hise Kaldma from Stockholm, Sweden. He is an active participant in the Notgames Initiative, the collective of game designers that explores the potential of video games as a new medium. Flight of the Fireflies was exhibited at last year’s Notgames Fest in Cologne.

Flight of the Fireflies – Trailer from Woolly Robot on Vimeo.

Notgames releases in 2012

2012 Promises to be a fruitful year for the notgames community, with 10 new releases planned by 7 of its members. One of these titles, Dear Esther, has already stirred up quite a bit of attention recently with its quadruple nomination in the Independent Games Festival. But there’s more where that came from.

NOTGAMES RELEASES IN 2012

The first release, on January 31st, is “Flight of The Fireflies” by Jonathan Hise Kaldma at Woolly Robot: an iPad application featured in last August’s Notgames Fest in the Cologne Game Lab during the Game Developers Conference. On February 14, then, The Chinese Room will release the new version of “Dear Esther”, also featured in the Notgames Fest. And finally in the first quarter, György Dudas will release “As Slow As Possible”.

In the second quarter of 2012, Shane Edward Semler of Ghostwheel Games is set to release “Alien Worlds Explorer” for iPad.

The third quarter of 2012 will be the busiest of all. Dan Pinchbeck of The Chinese Room will release his mysterious “gameB”. Jeroen D. Stout of Stout Games, creator of IGF 2011 Nuovo nominee “Dinner Date”, will release “Cheongsam”. Plural Games‘ Nicolai Troshinsky, also nominated for the IGF Nuovo award in 2011 with “Loop Raccord”, will release his new “Landscape”. Woolly Robot is set to release their “Unannounced notpuzzle game”. And last but not least, Tale of Tales, creators of “The Path” and “The Graveyard”, both IGF finalists as well, will release “Bientôt l’été”.

To end the year in beauty, The Chinese Room will release their “Everybody’s gone to the Rapture” in the fourth quarter of 2012.

The full list can be consulted on the Notgames blog.
http://notgames.org/blog/releases
This page will be updated continuously. New titles and release dates have already been added, with certainly more to follow.

THE NOTGAMES INITIATIVE

Tale of Tales’ Michaël Samyn started the notgames initiative in 2010 as a gathering place for developers who wish to explore the potential of videogames as a creative medium, beyond the confines of conventional game design. Notgames is not a category but rather an invitation, a challenge, a design method. The members of its community have already produced several titles that did not pass unnoticed. Next to the authors and work mentioned above, Frictional Games created multiple award winning “Amnesia: The Dark Descent”, Krystian Majewski is the author of recently released “Trauma”, Erik Loyer produced the iPad hit “Strange Rain”, Erik Svedäng made a big impression on the iPhone with “Kometen”, and so on.

“Everyone with an interest in developing videogames outside of the boundaries of rigid game structures is welcome on our forum,” says founder Michaël Samyn. “We prioritize quality over quantity and we are not in a hurry to grow, but we are an open community and welcome all. Our purpose is to help and support each other with the difficult task of creating without conventions to fall back on. In all peace and sincerity.”

Notgames also has a Tumblr stream, a Facebook page, a Twitter account and a blog.

Notgames Fest keynote

This is the keynote presentation Cologe GameLab asked us the give at the finnisage of the Notgames Fest on 16 August 2011.

Almost 10 years ago, Auriea and I switched from the web to video-games as a medium for our artistic activities. We had already been playing some video-games and they had inspired our work here and there. But somehow it had never occurred to us that we could make them ourselves.

When you come to video-games late, like we did, when you missed Mario, skipped Zelda and can’t distinguish too well between childhood memories of Hide & Seek and Pac-Man, video-games seem like an exciting new medium for artistic creation! In video-games you can make living worlds to explore, you can breathe life into artificial characters, you can set up conditions for situations without knowing how they will play out, you can create a visceral form of visual poetry that makes the separation between the art and the spectator very small. How could our artists’ souls not be attracted to all this potential? Indeed, this medium seemed like a godsend to satisfy centuries of artistic desires. The desire of the artist to become one with the spectator, the desire of the spectator to step into the mysterious world imagined by the artist. It was pretty clear to us: the medium of video-games is the medium mankind had always been waiting for.

As newcomers to a field, we started to investigate our new surroundings. We visited conferences and fairs and played hundreds of video-games. From the most well-known to the plain obscure.
We ended up confused and disappointed. Yes, we did find the worlds and characters and situations and even the poetry that comes so natural to this medium. But we were surprised to find that most video-games were structured in a way that prevented us from engaging with this content. With almost no exceptions, each video-game put obstacles in our way that we needed to overcome. The connection between these obstacles and the fictional world they were placed in was mostly rather vague and often even absurd.

It seemed to us that the things we were interested in -the imaginary world and its fictional characters- only served as visual presentation of an underlying system. This would explain the shallow characters, the cliché story plots and even the bad walk cycles of the avatars that you are staring at for hours on end. Only then it dawned on us that video-games were essentially games! That’s why they were called video-games. All this amazing technology, the spectacular realtime rendering, the sophisticated artificial intelligence, the revolutionary non-linear story-telling and mind-boggling capacity for interaction were used only as a way to present dull sports-like games.

Playing these games was not about engaging with characters at all. It was about winning or losing. It wasn’t about exploration at all. It was about attaining goals. It wasn’t about having a good time. It was about getting rewards, getting results. We were dumb-founded. It was as if somebody took a big brush and scribbled a tic-tac-toe grid over Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. What a terrible waste of a perfectly fine medium!

Auriea & Michael keynoting@notgamesfest

What have people done to amuse themselves with computers since the CD-Rom era? Why hasn’t anyone made another Ceremony of Innocence since? What happened to the promise of exploration made by the first Tomb Raider? Why had people not realized that most of us were playing Myst for its world and its stories, and not the arcane puzzles? Why had developers continued to refine the simulation of fire arms rather than the immersion in virtual landscapes? And where does this damn loyalty to the 8-bit stone age come from?

I have no idea. Maybe it was easier to come up with rigid games than wrangle with wild fantasies. Maybe the technology was not accessible enough to artists. Maybe the industry was satisfied with its commercial results and reluctant to expand. Maybe the art world didn’t care enough.

I don’t know. But what I do know is that the desire is still there. We all know what we want from this medium, from the medium of video-games. We want it to deliver on the promise that art has been making for centuries. We want to visit other worlds, we want to walk in somebody else’s shoes, we want grasp a little bit of what it means to be in another situation. We want this medium to make our lives richer, our understanding of the world more intense, our connection to other people more profound. We want to live through adventures. We want to see the attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. We want to watch the C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate.

That is what video-games promise us on the back of the box. That is what gamers talk about when they reminisce their hours of playing. That is what excites non-gamers when they hear about this medium. We all like playing games just fine. But this is about something else! Something more! Something much more profound. This is not a game.

I’m delighted to see that, despite the setbacks of the previous decade, the first glimmers of hope have started to appear on the horizon of the video-games medium. That is what is presented in this exhibition. Video-games created by passionate people intent on exploring the potential of this new medium. Unsurprisingly, most of these have been created by independent developers, individuals or small teams working on shoestring budgets. It’s hard work. And we’re going against the grain. But we all believe that this work needs to be done. We owe it to this medium. And we owe it to humanity. We will find a way.

NOTGAMES FEST EXPO

I would like to thank the Cologne GameLab for organizing this event and designing this truly wonderful exhibition. Maybe it will become historic. Maybe this will be the turning point. Maybe video-game developers and artists will respond to the wake up call. We have a wonderful new medium here, let’s make something with it!