I’ve been thinking a lot about Niklas Akerbald’s talk at the No More Sweden event, about the art he did for iPhone indie darling Kometen. Although claiming to be “nervous as fuck”, he tackled some hefty issues such as “are games art?” and “what is art?” This guy had the balls to answer both. Sort of.
So what is art? According to Niklas, “that guy from Sweden” once said that art is a question. It invokes a question in the spectator, and so is a question without words. Even film and poetry, which may also be art, and also has words, doesn’t state that question explicitly. These media use tangible things: paint, iron, words, to say something intangible. And when the spectator contemplates and responds to that question, then a discussion is formed. That, in short, is art.
Niklas showed a screencap of Gears of War. He said about a hundred artists got together to make this game, but it isn’t, “obviously”, art. Although he didn’t elaborate, I was left to make the connection that Gears of War’s agenda was to be a power fantasy spectacle, as opposed to asking this “question without words”. Thus, the game failed the criteria of being art.
Niklas then moves on to show us the artwork that made its way into Kometen. The game has the player careening across the galaxy as a grinning comet, eating space debris to fill up an invisible meter so the player can boost across the sky thousands of miles an hour, tongue flapping in the non-existent wind. Niklas says Erik and his goal was to create a game without any goals; to have the player create his own goals as he went along.
As someone who has played and “beat” Kometen, I would say that Nicklas’ intention carried through. The player quickly develops his goal to “explore space and visit every planet in the galaxy to fill out my map.” Visiting the “planets” which are merely circular pieces of Niklas’ art, become the reason to keep playing the game.
In his presentation, Niklas went on to explain a few pieces of the art found in the game, what each one meant for him, and about the questions it is supposed to evoke to the spectator. Each piece had personal meaning to the artist, and featured similar themes of paranoia, repression, and an idea that everything is not as it appears to be.
However, each piece is fundamentally different, telling no unifying story. Moreover, how these pieces of art relate to the game itself, to childishly careening around the galaxy as a lovable comet, is unclear. Niklas didn’t touch upon this topic, but I would argue that the value of this game as art hinges on this.
If Niklas and Eric made Kometen without the intent that the art-planets relate to the meaning of the game itself, then I would argue that the entirety of the game is merely a gallery; that is, the game itself isn’t art, but it features art in it.
The game’s mechanic of flying around the universe is just a means to an end, akin to walking through an art exhibit, enjoying the stroll down the long corridors between each installment. However, if these sinister paintings are thematically related to the meaning of the game itself, then Kometen does raise that important intangible question. Then it becomes something that I create a dialogue with (in my head anyway), and then, by Niklas’ own definition, it does become art.
There is evidence for this argument, as the sinister vibe finds itself in other parts of the game. As blissfully puerile the comet’s enjoyment of exploring the galaxy is, the player will occasionally see the corpses of other comets floating lifelessly in the background. The notion that the joy that life brings will one day end cuts the game with a bittersweet flavor from then on.
But the comet, with his shit-eating grin and tongue rolling out his mouth like a dog sticking his head out a car window, is blissfully unaware of the sinister nature of the universe. At any given time it is possible to pause the game and read the comet’s thoughts. At one planet he thinks, “So many pretty colors. Where do they come from?”
Is the comet one of the only sentient beings left in a galaxy destroyed by repression? Or am I assigning meaning, creating a link between the art and the game that wasn’t intended? The actual answer is almost pointless. What we do know is that it is at least possible for a game to be art. But the mere question of whether Kometen was intended to have meaning is a surefire sign. It’s extremely subjective.
I can only conclude that games, like any other medium, can be art if and only if the spectator believes it is, sort of like those quantum particles that change their behavior when being observed. In other words, art is a tricky gray area. Good luck figuring it out.