Getting Over “Game Over”: How Indie Developers Are Making Games Into Art

There’s a movement of independent “art games” that defy what we expect from videogames. Kevin Nguyen talks with the creators of Gravity Bone, You Have to Burn the Rope, and The Graveyard.

Brendon Chung’s Gravity Bone may be the best videogame you’ve never played. (PC users can download and play through it before reading on—it’s quick.) By traditional metrics of what makes a game good — graphics, sound, length, “replayability” — Gravity Bone would score pretty low. But I don’t know many games that try to deconstruct narrative conventions and still offer a rewarding experience in the span of fifteen minutes.

The first level functions primarily as a training mission, wherein the controls and surroundings are revealed to the player in a fashion similar to most first-person shooters (i.e., introductions to basic movement, opening doors, using items, and so on). The second mission involves breaking into a building to take pictures of birds, which squawk and explode in a bizarrely comical manner after being photographed.

Brendon Chung's Gravity Bone.

Brendon Chung’s “Gravity Bone.”

Gravity Bone could be praised for its charming, quirky art direction, but it’s the game’s ending that makes it memorable. As you head to the exit with your photographs completed, you’re unexpectedly shot in the back three times. You turn to see your assailant. She’s a calm woman, cooly smoking a cigarette, who takes your camera and leaps out the window. As a lushly orchestrated rendition of “Brazil” kicks in, you chase her through a train tunnel, into a dining room of blue-blooded patrons, and back outside to a catwalk. When you turn the corner, she shoots you again and you fall — a slow-motion plummet, spliced with mysterious flashbacks that (we’re left to assume) make up the life of the character we’ve had too little time to become acquainted with.

And that’s how the game ends.

Gravity Bone is one among a movement of new videogames that I find myself talking about with the same language I might use to describe a novel or film, noting every other feature as “post-modern.” I may sound pretentious, but these dialogues center around a small yet important niche of experimental indie games, often called art games.

Chung’s game was both heavily praised and criticized, spurring a strong reaction from both sides of the gaming community. Duncan Fyfe of Hit-Self-Destruct summarized the creativity and significance of Chung’s work the best:

The game asserts the existence of a deeper fiction and plot threads that will never be resolved. It establishes a pace of simple, episodic missions, and ends before anyone would predict. Gravity Bone is a 300-page novel that ends on page 60. Because the art style is so charming and pronounced, players might think that that’s the big attraction and therefore the extent of the game’s creativity. Gravity Bone‘s purpose is to manipulate expectations by cutting them short, which is why it’s effective at all. Everyone who plays Gravity Bone gets played by Gravity Bone.

It’s Chung’s careful attention to detail — the kind of nuance you’d expect from a longer title — that really sells the experience: you play the “career” mode and get paid for the mission you accomplish. Even your inventory, which by gaming tradition is mapped to the number keys, take up slots 1, 2, and 4. There’s an empty spot for the 3 key, an item you’ll never pick up.

I briefly talked to Chung over email; by day he’s a designer at Pandemic Studios. The game was a personal project wherein Chung challenged himself by imposing artificial constraints on his design.

“I’ve always found placing such limitations makes things more interesting, both in the creative process and the final result,” he said.

If Gravity Bone‘s strongest feature is its reversal of the player’s expectations, then the best part of You Have to Burn the Rope, a Flash-based game by Kian Bashiri, is exactly the opposite. The entire premise of the game is contained in its title. Literally, the only thing you have to do is burn the rope, and you’re even reminded of that when you start the game. It’s a clever satire of the medium, and no surprise that it’s become a beloved gem on the web.

Kian Bashiri's &You Have to Burn the Rope.

Kian Bashiri’s “You Have to Burn the Rope.”

“[Burn the Rope] is, by formal definitions, a game since it has all the things that make up a game — besides losing condition which I regret not adding — but I wouldn’t call it a game since it is hardly interactive in any meaningful way,” Bashiri said, a first-year student at the School of Future Entertainment in Karlshamn, Sweden. “The point was to make fun of other games that limit the player’s interaction by being easy, linear, or heavily controlled and jokingly ask at which point these games also cease to be games.”

Yet, there are even art games that use that kind of linearity and constraint to craft a narrative experience unlike any other. In The Graveyard, you control an elderly woman and walk her to through a cemetery. When you finally hobble to the end of the cemetery, she sits down on a bench and reminisces while a Flemish song plays. The game cuts to a close up of her face, but her thoughts are not disclosed to the player. When the song ends, you get up and walk out of the cemetery. The Graveyard might sound like it could work as a short movie or story, but interactivity is key to the experience, giving the player an immediate and deeper connection to the old woman.

Unlike Chung and Bashiri, the creators of The Graveyard seemed conscious and deliberate about treating games as art. I sent a few questions to Michael Samyn and Auriea Harvey, the game’s lead designers and co-founders of the Belgian development studio Tale of Tales, who answered collaboratively.

The Graveyard; by Tale of Tales.

“The Graveyard” by Tale of Tales.

In our discussion, Samyn and Harvey said they liked the advantages of creating indie games: they require less demanding budgets and are able to work with a smaller team, which allows them to have a hand in every aspect of development. Also, the short production cycle lets Tale of Tales to move from one project to the next quickly.

“We often call our work ‘short games’ in analogy to short film, because short films have a tendency to be more experimental and artistic than long films.” Samyn and Harvey said, “We have a lot of ideas, a lot of things we need to explore.”

I saw this analogy to making movies repeated among developers and players. If mainstream games — your Halos, Final Fantasys, and Maddens — are like blockbuster films, games like Gravity Bone, Burn the Rope, and The Graveyard are experimental short films.

“I think it’s comparable to the boom in independent films in the past fifteen years: get a cheap Hi8 camera and some editing software, and you’re good to go,” Chung said. “With [development tools] like Xna, Flash, Torque, and [distribution systems like] Steam, it’s becoming more and more attainable for anyone to learn how to make games and get them out in the world.”

Though these art games share common traits — unconventional narrative, simple but strong art direction, fantastic use of music — they all take separate approaches. The games I’ve focused on in this article are but a few examples of those that are pushing our expectations of what games are and what they can be. Work that breaks similar ground include Daniel Benmergui’s I Wish I Were the Moon, Adam Saltsman’s Fathom, and most famously, Jason Rohrer’s Passage. Clearly, there’s a lot of space and interest for experimentation and exploration in the realm of videogames.

Gravity Bone, Burn the Rope, and The Graveyard have all been well received by the indie gaming community, the latter two shortlisted for the Innovation Award at this year’s Independent Games Festival. But while these games may appeal to a niche audience, one has to ask what relevance they have to a largely commercial medium.

“I think all games influence one another, regardless of whether they are mainstream or indie,” said Chung. “It’s still a very young form of media.”

Samyn and Harvey took that opinion even further, predicting future success for developers who can understand the ideas behind art games and render them into something more mainstream.

“We believe that the first developer or publisher who has the courage to do this stands to be hugely successful. We are personally not very well in touch with what moves the masses,” they conceded. “But somebody who is will apply ideas like those developed by art-game makers to a videogame, and then videogames will suddenly become a real medium, next to literature, cinema, television, and music.”

This forced me to consider that I probably would’ve never played Chung, Bashiri, or Samyn and Harvey’s work if they weren’t available as free downloads. I’d have missed out on three titles that re-wired how I thought of videogames.

Actually, the free copy of The Graveyard is a trial. The full version of the game can be purchased for five dollars, which adds one feature: the ability to die. Otherwise, the game is exactly the same. I asked Samyn and Harvey how death changed The Graveyard‘s experience.

“It’s the difference between life and death! It doesn’t get more epic than that,” they replied. “But to the computer, the only difference is a checkbox labeled ‘avatar can die.’ We think there is a lot of poetry in this.”

So I paid my five dollars and downloaded the full version of the game. I walked the old woman through the cemetery and sat her down on the bench. About halfway through the song, she slouched in her seat and let go of her cane. The song continued playing until it finished, and afterward, the faint chirping of the cemetery’s birds were the only sound coming from my computer. In The Graveyard, death is simple and undramatic. It didn’t ask me, “Continue?”.

“One of the questions that we wanted to ask was whether death is always so unwelcome. Perhaps the peace that death brings is good. Perhaps life just goes on without us, and perhaps our own death is only a small event among many,” Samyn and Harvey said.

In traditional games, death means “game over.” In The Graveyard, death is the point. I realized how tweaking a small aspect of the game’s narrative changed the entire experience, and the image of the woman slouched on the bench stayed with me for the rest of the day.

Brendon Chung’s work can be found at Blendo Games. Kian Bashiri is currently working on a rhythm platformer called A Common Pulse. Michael Samyn and Auriea Harvey of Tale of Tales recently released The Path, a short horror game inspired by “Little Red Riding Hood.” Special thanks to Andy Baio on recommended playing.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.