Even those who would reject the idea that videogames are an “art form” could agree that games can exhibit certain traditional aesthetic values. One prominent one is elegance. If we look toward traditional, analogue games, it seems inarguable to me that Go is elegant, and that Chess is elegant. Over the course of centuries, the tumbler of human culture has worn them down to their most perfect, least messy forms. (And they often come in supremely visually pleasing packages, to boot.) Looking to the history of videogames, it seems uncontroversial to propose that Tetris (Alexey Pajitnov, 1984) and Breakout (Atari, 1972) also exhibit this serene mixture of simplicity and grace.
Of course, videogames can also be bloated and unrefined. On the audiovisual level, the public imagination has long associated the medium all that is cacophonous and retina-searing: a ceaseless stream of crude stimulation optimized for goldfish-like attention spans. A peek at the output of PlatinumGames or Treasure over the past decade demonstrates that this conception is not entirely unearned. On the design side of things, games often come packaged with an inordinate amount of mechanical cruft. To boot up a contemporary Ubisoft game is to be assaulted by map icons, as the core activities of the game are augmented with collectibles and minigames and side-challenges and online player “invasions” and microtransactions and and and and and and and and and….
Sometimes, though, you can point to a game and say, “this is exactly what it needs to be, and no more.” Sometime a game stands as a perfectly-cut gem of craft, with every element contributing to an overall sense of balance. Its user interface is a triumph of usability, compact and graceful. Its color scheme is tamped-down and meaningful. Its sound design is minimal and expertly-deployed. It is thematically tight: if there is a narrative involved, it is a lean and coherent one. It is, overall, soothing in its form, even if it might simultaneously be stressful in its challenge.
The first five games of this list all chase this sort of technical perfection. Some are small, and some are large, but they all are careful not to hit one unnecessary note.
Tomorrow marks the 163rd anniversary of the publication of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods. I have decided to celebrate the occasion by resurrecting my old “Process Genre in Videogames” blog post series, turning an eye toward the USC Game Innovation Lab’s recently-released Walden, a game. I ended up having too a bit too much to say about it to fit into a single blog post, so I’ve split up my thoughts across two days.
Just a quick refresher: in this series, I borrow the term process genre from Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky’s work in cinema studies. According to Skvirsky’s definition, “process genre” films are films about labor, films that focus on processes of doing and making, that are fascinated with seeing tasks through to their completion. They are deliberately paced, meditative, and often political. In this series of posts (you can see them all here), I examine games that strike some of the same chords. Today, that means turning to the life and work of everybody’s favorite environmentalist pseudo-hermit, Henry David Thoreau.
The itch.io page for Walden, a game claims that the game is the product of a “very small core team” at the USC Game Innovation Lab working on the project for “the past ten years.” I first became aware of it in November 2011, when Tracy Fullerton sat down and had a wonderful talk with students during a session of the University of Chicago’s New Media Workshop. Back then, Fullerton described the project as a difficult balancing act, balancing the quantitative and systems-heavy “gamey” aspects of games—which are actually right there in Thoreau’s text, making this entire project of adaptation especially tempting—with the need to present nature, and the labor one does when living in it, as a source of unpredictable inspiration, worthy of our respect and wonder.
So, a disclaimer: This is not a lesson plan, not precisely. I did in fact teach Harun Farocki’s Parallels series for the final class session for my SAIC writing seminar “Moving Images and Arguments.” But since it was the final class, and since we were in a phase of the course in which my top priority was guiding students during revisions of their final essays, our discussion of the videos wasn’t nearly as detailed and rich as what you see reflected here.
Really, these are notes toward a future lesson, delivered under ideal circumstances. Although it was outside of the scope of my “Moving Images and Arguments” course, what I am most interested in about the Parallels videos are the connections Farocki draws between the videogames’ imperfect simulations of reality and the problem of philosophical skepticism. Although present to some extent in Parallel I (2012), the specter of skepticism is most pronounced in Parallel II (2014) and Parallel III (2014). I was deep in the midst of writing my dissertation in 2014, and didn’t end up seeing II, III, and IV until 2016. This was a shame, because problems of skepticism actually play a large role in the first chapter of my dissertation, and it turns out that I missed the chance to incorporate an analysis of these videos into that discussion. Parallel II and Parallel III form the main inspiration for this post, as a way of making up for that lost opportunity.