Register Thursday | June 27 | 2019

Artsy Games

A group of experimental, pretension-free video game artists in Toronto is redefining the gaming industry.

A baby manipulates his environment through a seemingly omnipotent activity centre. An ex-con’s future hangs in the balance as you decide whether he deserves your help. A bookstore clerk learns self-confidence on Toronto’s Queen Street West. An animate plastic bag kills seagulls in defence of the dump it calls home.

What do these disparate concepts have in common? They’re all videogames produced by members of Toronto’s Artsy Games Incubator. They’re all free to download and play. And their mix of zany surrealism, reflective characterization and lofty pretensions could represent the future of gaming.

Mainstream videogame developers have largely forsaken innovation in favour of just refining the same genres that have been established for years (and sometimes for decades). In the last few years, though, a movement of small developers, independent from the global corporations that dominate game creation, have found success in being refreshingly unconventional. Led by mainstream breakthroughs like Braid, World of Goo and Castle Crashers  and supported by influential game journalists and bloggers, the popularity of so-called “indie” gaming is surging.

“I want to make games that I’d like,” says Toronto barista Filipe Salgado by email. “Obviously there are tons of games out there that I dig, but it’s daunting to see all these AAA cookie-cutter games come and fade from memory. I could either endlessly complain or I could get off my ass and do something about it. . . . If I do a decent job, maybe there will be others who will see the game I made and dig it, too.”

With the number of like-minded gamers growing, informal groups like the Artsy Games Incubator are acting as a kind of game design boot camp for the indies. Salgado joined other part-time game designers in a three-month jam session in which participants met weekly to brainstorm, share and critique each others’ games. Each game was a one-person project built using free, accessible development tools that didn’t require much programming ability. Toronto has hosted four rounds of the AGI with a fifth session scheduled for this year, along with a first for Montreal.

For his project, a dialogue-based text game called My Uncle George, 22-year-old Salgado worked a couple of nights a week while also juggling school and a job. Illustrator and web designer Benjamin Rivers crammed work on his game, Snow, into weekends and early mornings -- even frantically adding the finishing touches at the very arts festival where it was to make its debut. Miguel Sternberg worked on his H.P. Lovecraft-inspired game Night of the Cephalopods for two months, including time spent coding and creating the game’s art in the backseat of a car while on a road trip with friends. With no prospect of the games generating any income, the work of these designers were clearly labours of love.

All three belong to the generation raised on Ataris, Intellivisions, Nintendo Entertainment Systems and personal computers. Gaming is in their blood. Thirty-year-old Rivers even admits to a passion for singing music in “high-pitched meows and caterwauls” from the 22-years-worth of games from the mega-popular Final Fantasy series. “This drives my wife positively bonkers,” he says by email, adding, “My rendition of ‘Aerith’s Theme ’ is particularly heart-warming.”

When it came time to expand his creative output from his roots in graphic novels, gaming was a natural step. “I’m a visual artist, but I find that my most interesting expressions come in the form of games,” Rivers says. “All the years of playing games, forming opinions on what I wished I was playing, and then the realization through the Artsy Games Incubator that the ability to apply these ideas was within my reach set me off on this particular path. I felt like I had something to say, or at least something that was worth trying out in the form of a game. So, I gave it a shot.”

Rivers' Snow is based on his graphic novel series of the same name which follows the life of a twentysomething woman in Toronto. The game has a simple point-and-click interface, much like classic “adventure” games of the 1980s and 1990s like Secret of Monkey Island and King’s Quest. Unlike those games, in which elaborate puzzle-solving leads players through fantastical worlds and heroic feats, Snow’s plot is simple, intimate and emotional. Players can click around the Queen Street West setting to get textual descriptions from Snow’s protagonist, Dana, that convey a mood of urban dissatisfaction. “Trendy breakfast bars,” Dana observes when you click on the contents of a café’s food display, before asking, “Why not just, you know, eat breakfast?” Snow’s minimalist story has Dana showing up to work at a bookstore and having the player decide how she deals with a confrontational customer.

Rivers’ low-key approach makes Snow a very different experience from the cacophonous, flashy and violent games that dominate the mainstream market. “I want games to be story-driven, easy to play, and highly minimal,” Rivers says. “Snow was my first attempt at creating a tiny, story-driven game that has no systems, no skills, no combat and requires only one thing of the player: that he or she invest themselves emotionally in the experience. All you do is click, observe and read. By the end of this short, little adventure, I wanted the player to feel some empathy with Dana and to care about the few, small choice they were able to make while going from beginning to end. I wanted the player to believe in her world—my Toronto—and form an attachment to it.”

Salgado’s My Uncle George shares a similar focus on minimalism and emotion. The George character is an ex-con and the game gives players a chance to make a life-altering decision based on how they feel about him. “The original idea behind the game,” Salgado explains, “was that you would start to talk to George and the conversation and what it revealed about George would give the player enough information to make a decision, but also enough information to know that they could make the wrong one.”

Gamers are rarely asked to make this kind of complicated moral choice with the vast majority of games dealing only in “kill” or “don’t kill” dichotomies. Projects like the AGI are helping the game industry as a whole by providing a space for experimentation with new ideas and different storytelling techniques. It can be difficult, as Salgado attests. “[My] problem, I discovered late into implementation, was that I’d made George too likable,” he says. “While there were some dark turns the conversation could take, they’re buried under other topics and few of my testers encountered them. George comes off as a lovable rogue more than anything else.”

Sternberg also used the AGI as an experimental lab with his two Lovecraftian games, Night of the Cephalopods and Cephalopods Co-op Cottage Defence. The former uses an innovative narrative technique of vocalizing the protagonist’s thoughts dynamically in reaction to where he is and what’s happening onscreen, thus avoiding the non-interactive cutscenes on which most games rely. “That sort of exploration of the narrative structure would be incredibly costly for a typical 15-to-30 hour commercial game,” Sternberg says. “Since my game was only six minutes long, this was a much more achievable goal.”

After working as a freelance pixel artist on mainstream games for years, Sternberg says he’s grateful for the opportunity to create something of his own. He says the AGI was “extremely helpful.”

“The group provided really useful feedback as well as the structure of weekly deadlines. Having other people going through the same process at the same time was also great motivation.”

Sternberg has now incorporated a company called Spooky Squid Games and, along with a programmer partner, is working on a game called Guerilla Gardening: Seeds of Revolution, inspired by the guerrilla gardening movement of street art. It’s another concept that industry bigwigs like EA, Ubisoft, Sony or Microsoft would never touch with a ten-foot-controller, but one that seems perfectly suited to the new indie game aesthetic.

“A lot of folks wish that games were able to explore more aspects of our lives and imaginations than just shooting an alien in the face,” says Rivers. “With ‘artsy’ games, people are taking up this task and are producing beautiful, unexpected, and yes, flawed, titles on their own—just like the big boys do.”