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Looking at Video Games as Art with ‘Tengami’ and Writer Matt Sainsbury

Matt's new book 'Game Art' features incredible imagery, but is the public ready to accept video games as art? Here's a chat about that, alongside a chapter from the book.

Mike Diver

Mike Diver

The cover of 'Game Art' – click to the No Starch Press site for further information

"This book does not argue that video games are art. It simply accepts this as fact, goes straight to the developers, and allows them to talk." So states the self-penned preface to Australian arts critic Matt Sainsbury's new book, the matter-of-factly titled Game Art, published in late September through No Starch Press. Within its pages are interviews with such influential, independently spirited games-makers as Goichi Suda (Shadows of the Damned, Lollipop Chainsaw), Hidetaka Suehiro (D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die, Deadly Premonition) and Naoki Yoshida (Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn).

One of the book's most striking chapters focuses on 2014's genuinely gorgeous puzzler Tengami and speaks to its studio Nyamyam's co-founder Jennifer Schneidereit, and we have that chapter in full below. But before that, I wanted to shoot some questions the way of Sainsbury.

VICE: Hey Matt. In your preface, you say that games are art, and that the book accepts that as fact. That being the case, can we divide games into categories of art, as we do other mediums – high art, low, and so on? Or should it be the developers making these calls?
Matt Sainsbury: Before we start dividing games down those lines, I think it's important to get general society on board with the idea that games are art. While blockbusters like Call of Duty and little time wasters like Angry Birds are artful in their own right, the challenge lies in getting those outside the industry to recognise that the world of video games extends so much further, even if they never play anything but mainstream commercial successes.

Think about the film industry: even people who don't really watch films know that alongside blockbusters like The Avengers there's a robust art-house scene. And everyone knows how important Citizen Kane is, but how many people have actually watched it? Not so many.

That said, games can certainly be described like art is in other mediums. We have experimental post-modernist stuff, cult art-house hits, and local industries producing games almost exclusively for local audiences, similar to what Bollywood does in cinema. Some game directors play a similar role in this industry to Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg, Jean-Luc Godard or Antonin Artaud in film. It's all out there, and that's a basic fact.

The book showcases a wild diversity of aesthetical approaches and cultural influences. Is it fair to say that games are processing inspiration now just as much as any other means of expression? And if that's the case, what do we as fans of gaming "need" to do to make sure the public en masse sees this, and doesn't think of games simply as shooters and sports titles, the dominant commercial genres?
Games easily compete with any other form of entertainment and art in terms of sales, and that puts them in the public eye more than ever before. To continue having important discussions and debate about and through art, and for art to even maintain its relevance in society, we have to consider all dominant forms of creative expression, which includes video games.

Film originally had a reputation as a mindless distraction. When novels were a new and innovative form of writing, critics of authors like Daniel Defoe harped on how inferior the novel was to the purity of poetry. Games are on the cusp of breaking away from that same reputation right now, and part of the reason I wrote this book was because I wanted to join that discussion.

That's not to say we can't have our shooters and sports games, but even cinema would not be worth nearly as much as a creative outlet if all it offered was superhero movies. I think that for the games industry to develop further, everyone has to recognise that games are much more. Games are clearly a popular medium for creative expression, and fans of gaming can help the general public see this by encouraging popular culture, as a whole, to legitimise art-house games as it has art-house cinema.

What, in your opinion, have been the most essential releases in moving games from the toy arena into the arts? Do you have a favourite game or two that actually inspired the making of the book in the first place?
Well, obviously I think all of the games that appear in Game Art definitely illustrate that games are moving away from being toys and into offering a greater depth of meaning. Many of the games I featured are personal favorites, too.

But there are three other games, outside of those that appear in Game Art, which led me to write this book.

The first is Persona 4. It expresses and explores Japanese cultural values, but I think it also reaches deep into nihilist and existentialist philosophy. Persona 4 was perhaps the first game I played that convinced me that we can study game narratives as we would the likes of Shakespeare. That's not to say the writing rivals Shakespeare, of course, but it aspires to offer that kind of depth beyond the literal narrative.

The second is Nier. This is a deeply emotive and intellectually engaging game, but it's one of those cult hits I touched on earlier. Mention it to someone outside of the games industry, and they won't know what you're on about. In fact, if you mention Nier to half the people who do play games, they'd probably have no idea what you're on about. But I've never quite managed to get it out of my mind since playing it.

The third is the Mass Effect trilogy, so I'm cheating in listing it a bit, but I think it deserves recognition for offering the most comprehensive, intricate, and detailed science fiction narrative outside Star Wars. I also loved the strong environmentalist theme that I drew from its narrative, but other players drew their own themes from the game. That's generally a sign of a good work of art: when it has a powerful, but divergent, impact on individuals based on their own interpretation.

"Labelling something as 'art' does not place it beyond criticism. Quite the opposite, actually: I think one major purpose of art is to generate discussion and debate." Matt Sainsbury

You've spoken with many Western and Japanese developers. Did you notice any significant cultural differences when it came to how these creators were approaching their art? I think, in the West, we can perceive Japanese games as being, let's say, sometimes more risqué, but at the expense of contemporary appreciation of equal representation, feminism and other values we're increasingly seeing in games made here. Does that stand up, in your experience? Or: can bikini armour ever be art?
This is a big can of worms, and I could easily write a book about it all by itself, but if I can make a couple of brief points here:

Firstly, bikini armour can be part of a work of art – but labelling something as "art" does not place it beyond criticism. Quite the opposite, actually: I think one major purpose of art is to generate discussion and debate. Sexuality is a core part of many works of art, from pin-up photography to the work of Marquis de Sade to Dracula, through even Dead or Alive. These have all been criticised for their sexual aspects, but I tend to believe that in being criticised, they become more relevant as works of art, not less so.

Regarding how the Japanese approach sexuality in art, I do think Japanese culture has a different view on sexuality and representation than Western culture. There are certainly issues with how women are treated in Japanese culture – for example, local feminists are fighting for representation and opportunity in the workplace and moving past the idea that women should raise children while men earn the income – but I don't think that necessarily leads to the kind of conservativism we see in Western cultures toward depictions of sexuality in games.

After speaking with the Japanese developers in Game Art, I get the impression that sexuality is seen as a kind of empowerment, and that incorporating it into a character design is a sign of strength and respect for that character. Regardless of how we feel about these games in the West, in Japan, they're not problematic in the same ways, and I included them in the book to represent a very different way of thinking about games.

Incidentally, this discrepancy in Western and Japanese values and the way they are reflected through games is a topic I tend to write about at length. If you're interested in seeing some further and more in-depth thoughts from me on it, I'd like to point you to my website.

Read the chapter "Serenity and Wonder" on 'Tengami', from 'Game Art', after the video below...

In-game art from 'Tengami' (courtesy of Ryo Agarie)

SERENITY AND WONDER – AN EXCERPT FROM 'GAME ART'

Jennifer Schneidereit, co-founder at independent developer Nyamyam, designed and released Tengami as her first independent game. Tengami is a point-and-click adventure, but its papercraft art style and push-and-pull puzzles mimic a pop-up picture book. Schneidereit, an industry veteran, and co-founder Phil Tossell quit their steady jobs to become independent developers in 2010. Their inspiration is simple: "Phil was watching a pop-up book animation, which some students had done as a university project, and we started to talk about how we'd liked pop-up books as children because they gave us a sense of wonder as we were turning the page," Schneidereit said.

"You didn't really know why it was possible for folded paper to create such intricate scenes, and that's a beautiful thing. We were wondering why something so interesting and beautiful as a pop-up book had not been used as the basis for video games before. Then we got to thinking about what kind of video games could be developed that used pop-up as a mechanic and setting."

Pop-up books inspired Schneidereit, but she felt it was important that Tengami not be childish, so she and her team searched for the perfect paper texture first. This unusual first step in game development may seem obsessive, but achieving the right look was necessary. In their search for the right look, the team started by scanning dozens of brightly coloured, patterned origami paper samples.

"It looked beautiful – but in a very obvious and loud way," Schneidereit said. "We didn't want our game to be a typical happy, brightly coloured pop-up book for kids. We wanted to create a very quiet, contemplative tone, and so we wanted something more sophisticated to fit that concept.

"We kept experimenting, and eventually we found some paper where you can sometimes see the imperfections in the surface. While the paper was very minimalist, it was also very striking, and it drew us in. It was calming and contemplative and had all of the elements that we were looking for."

Concept art from 'Tengami' (courtesy of Nyamyam)

A Self-Paced Adventure

With the paper texture chosen, the team began designing the mechanics.

"Initially, we did a lot of experiments with the moment-to-moment gameplay with a pop-up book in mind. At first, we were actually thinking about a faster-paced game. We had a character who was jumping and running along, and players would make paths for this character by manipulating the book to open and close platforms," Schneidereit said.

"We spent a long time prototyping bits of that. But at some point, we sat down to analyse it, and we felt that approach didn't really play to the strengths of the pop-up book. The idea there is that a person spends time with this beautiful book and takes their time to turn pages and contemplate what they're seeing. So we scrapped all that we'd just done because it wasn't creating the feeling we wanted. We had to go back to step one and look at it all over again."

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The second time around, the game took form.

It would be released as Tengami: a serene adventure game that invites players to explore the world in their own time, rather than being pushed through with no time to think. Its tranquil atmosphere also reflects the reverence that the Japanese have for origami, which Schneidereit worked hard to capture authentically in the gameplay. The powerful emotions and spirituality behind Japanese papercraft can be best summarized in the story of one little girl.

When America bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II, the resulting nuclear radiation made many people sick, including Sadako Sasaki, who was two years old when the bombs fell. Sasaki was diagnosed with leukaemia at age 12, and from her hospital bed, she was inspired by a legend. According to this legend, if you fold 1,000 origami cranes, thus exhibiting the loyalty and dedication that cranes are known for, you'll prove your worth of having a wish granted. And so Sasaki folded cranes – while praying for world peace.

She died before reaching 1,000 cranes, but in tribute, her classmates folded the rest, and she was buried with the full thousand. A plaque at the base of her grave reads, "This is our cry. This is our prayer. Peace in the world."

Thus, origami is about patience, reflection, and single-minded focus, and Schneidereit said her team realised that making Tengami fast-paced or complex would never have done the art form justice.

In-game art (courtesy of Ryo Agarie) and concept art from 'Tengami' (Nyamyam)

East Meets West

Schneidereit has developed games at both Japanese and Western studios. Born and raised in Germany, she started her career at Acquire, a prolific Japanese studio where she worked on the stealth title Shinobido: Way of the Ninja as well as the open-world adventure Way of the Samurai 3. After leaving Acquire, Schneidereit also left Japan, moving to the UK to work with Rare on Kinect Sports before she and Phil Tossell started their own independent studio. From her experience, she's gained perspective on the two cultures.

"In Japan, people are a lot more joyful about being game designers. Within their games, they focus on the little jokes and little moments, whereas in the West, game development is more about the overarching story and the big reveal. At the moment, the Western game business model is more commercially successful for the same reason that Hollywood is: it focuses on those big moments because it's much more difficult for the audience to appreciate the little moments.

"Now, I'm trying to combine what I learned about both industries – to include little moments while not losing sight of the bigger picture. It can be tricky. If you get too much in love with each little moment, then it becomes very hard to make a cohesive overall experience in the end."

Schneidereit's early affinity for Japanese culture came through exposure to video games. She said, "In the '90s, I was a fan of Tenchu, a ninja action game that Acquire made. Older games like Tenchu actually sparked new interests for me. I didn't know anything about Japanese culture and history when I played it, so I read books about them, and that's what made me want to live in Japan."

Promotional art for Tengami (courtesy of Ryo Agarie)

Why Take a Risk?

Schneidereit took a financial risk to break away from the studio system, but she's always wanted creative freedom.

"I had a good time with the big studios, but there's a lot of compromise and politics involved in making games for them," she said. "I do still get the triple-A bug, and it makes me think I can create a new universe that's better than anything else. But to do that, you either need to start up a triple-A devel­oper from scratch or join an existing one.

"After I worked on Kinect Sports, it was clear that Rare would only be making Kinect Sports games for the foreseeable future, and sequels are a bit boring. That was when Phil and I started to talk about whether it really would be so difficult or risky to set up our own studio and use our savings to create an interesting, well-made game."

Beyond the creative freedom, Schneidereit also said she was drawn to independent development by her increasing frustration with how straightforward modern blockbuster games are. Of course, many other games draw on history, cultural traditions, and mythology too, but they tend to just show players these elements, rather than let players discover, investigate, and interpret what they see for themselves. Tengami is inspired by ancient Japanese artistic traditions, but the references aren't obvious.

"Look at the evolution of the Tomb Raider franchise," she said. "The original was filled with references to Greek mythology that the game itself never explained. You didn't have to be a mythology buff to enjoy the game, but to fully understand the game's background and context, you had to do some research. When you did that research, you appreciated the context of the game all the more. Contrast this with the more recent Tomb Raider reboot, which left no such mysteries to uncover, and I find these modern popular games don't inspire my imagination quite as much."

And she isn't holding out hope for a change.

"Games are too explicit and bite-sized now. They tell you everything that you need to know to enjoy the game to the fullest, and people expect that now. That makes it hard for me to get into modern games."


Game Art is published in late September and pre-order links/more information is available at the No Starch Press website and Amazon.

@MikeDiver / @MattSainsb

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