hardcore gamers

Why are we playing computer games, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? Can the interactive artist isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages our intellects and our hearts? Can the programmer-creator renew our hope for the interactive medium? Why are we playing computer games if not in hope that the creator will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power?

What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered? Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking.

(Adapted from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life

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Just a quick announcement to let you know that I’ve implemented a new comment system on the site. Avatars are here, and you can now optionally log in to leave comments using your OpenID, Facebook, or Twitter accounts. Also, when you get email notifications to threads, you can now reply to the thread directly through email without even visiting the site! Pretty cool huh? All courtesy of Disqus. The old comments will remain up for now, and as soon as the functionality is available (currently in development) I will import them into the new system.

Secondly, I’ve set up a guestbook, for all you people nostalgic for the 1990’s . I know that some people like to read but don’t leave comments, so here’s your chance to let me know who you are, so we can start to develop a little sense of community. No more reviews until you sign. Cheers.

Academic Paper Revisited, Episode 1: Attack of That Darned Question! screenshot
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A paper I wrote in 2005 for an undergraduate Aesthetics class, in which I examine that clichéd question: can video games be art? The question is addressed here specifically in the context of art history and art theory. To that end I briefly analyze video games from the perspectives of mimetic theory, formalism, art as play, deconstructionism, art as political platform, the Artworld theory, and the theory of aesthetic experience. The style is necessarily academic, and I hope that my reader will not hold that against me.

It is perhaps obvious, but should be noted that my views have changed somewhat in the four years that have passed since I wrote this. I still think it serves as a decent launching point from which to think about games and art, however, especially in the broader context of art theory. And that is why I have bothered to transpose it.

The paper begins thusly:

It’s 2:00 A.M. Saturday morning, January 29th, 2005. Artist/Entrepreneur/Game Designer Derek Yu sits on the floor of his San Francisco apartment with a paintbrush in one hand and a joystick in the other; I’m halfway across the country conducting an interview via Microsoft Messenger. “Why make games?” echoes Derek, “Because to make a game is to create a world. More so than a book, a painting, or a movie, a game is something where the creator has complete control over the rules. And for a creative person, you can’t ask for a better opportunity.”

It’s 2:00 A.M. and my senses are starting to fade—did someone just compare making video games to painting and writing? I have to go to bed.

Ten hours of blissful sleep later and the interview feels like a dream: video games are video games, art is art, and that is that—all is right with the world. For two weeks. At which time an innocent friend tells me about Sanitarium, a “serious” computer adventure game that I just have to play. The game engages me, frightens me, and leaves me in emotional tatters—at which point I recall Derek’s words. Could this game be art? Surely not, but perhaps I should look into the possibility—just in case.

And now my world comes crashing down. Upon “looking into it” I find that far from being alone, Derek is only one of many people who seem to be on a veritable crusade to validate video games as art objects. I find websites dedicated to game art, museums featuring “art games,” and academic papers discussing video game aesthetics… what in the world is going on? Read more »

Living Adventure: Spelunky vs. Fate of Atlantis screenshot
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Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis

Game released: 1992

Developer: LucasArts

Production: Commercial

Platforms: DOS, Mac OS 9, Wii, Windows

Price: $5.00

Get it from: Steam

Spelunky

Game released: 2009

Developer: Derek Yu

Production: Independent

Platforms: Windows

Price: FREE

Get it from: Official Website

Who doesn’t dream of donning a fedora and leather jacket, grabbing a 10-foot, 12-plait bullwhip, and diving into the nearest cave in search of treasure, danger, and adventure? Who doesn’t want to look like an Average Joe on the outside, but secretly be a professor of archeology on the inside, and even more secretly be a globetrotting daredevil?

There are a bunch of games out there that let you do the whip-wielding archeologist thing, but most of them aren’t that great. Two very good ones though, are Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, released by LucasArts in 1992, and Spelunky, released by Derek Yu seventeen years later (that’s 2009, for the mathematically challenged).

The fascinating thing about these two games is that they are quite similar in terms of theme and mood: both do a fantastic job of imparting that sense of earth-encrusted derring-do—both make me feel like an armchair Indiana Jones—and yet the mechanics that make the games tick are very, very different. Fate of Atlantis is a classic point-and-click adventure game, filled with puzzles and featuring a well-developed but mostly linear plot; Spelunky, by contrast, is a an action-platformer-roguelike with procedural level generation, whose player-created story arcs are less defined, and never go the same way twice.

As I recently finished playing through Fate of Atlantis for the second time, after fourteen years away (you can download the game for $5 from Steam now, which is great), I was struck that these games, with their similar themes yet different mechanics, present a great opportunity to compare and contrast two breeds of interactive experience. Read more »

Shadow of the Colossus: It's a Poem  screenshot

Shadow of the Colossus

Game released: 2005

Developer: Team Ico

Production: Commercial

Platforms: PlayStation 2

Price: $19.00

Get it from: Amazon
Jordan Magnuson's picture

My life is flashing before me, and I wonder if I will get down from here alive. “Here” being the back of this behemoth of all ancient beasts, this blue whale monster of the air. Like an elephant senses a fly it has become aware of my presence, and it is writhing to shake me lose: I am an inconvenience, a tickle, an insect that it would rather be free of. And so I cling to my life by the hairs of its back, and pray for the strength to hold on. The world spins around me, and I wonder at my power, and my weakness: the fact that I have in my hands the means to end this creature for all time—though it does not know—and the fact that, if it does not stop spinning, my body will be crushed against a desert rock within the space of three seconds. I wonder what has become of Agro. Dear friend; she will miss me.

Such moments as these are not uncommon while playing Shadow of the Colossus, a game released in 2005 by the same people who made Ico. And what I mean when I say this is not that such moments in their factuality are not uncommon—not that you often die, or often fight large creatures—but that such moments of epic poetry are not uncommon. Shadow of the Colossus, more than any game I’ve ever played, brought me close to Tolkien and Beowulf and Sagas of Icelanders: the game is a setting, a feeling, a long waterfall of tumbling verse. Read more »

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