When we doodle during meetings or sing in the shower, we flirt with the world of art. But we know, as we scribble or screech, how far our private creations are from the greats of those fields. But the interactivity of games can let us communicate with their designers and make us collaborators in the creation of a work’s meaning. Two games (nominated for the Nuovo award in this year’s Independent Games Festival) put their players in the role of artist and allow her to close the distance to great art: Rooftop Cop by Stephen Clark, and Become a Great Artist in Just 10 Seconds by Andi McClure and Michael Brough.
Rooftop Cop, which Clark describes as “A world of Police that have forgotten what, and why, they are policing,” is made up of five chapters where the player explores decaying systems and games where rules and incentives are forgotten. In the first four of five chapters, the player experiences what the game has to give by discovering the boundaries of these systems.
But it is in the fifth chapter, “Palace of the Organizer,” that the player becomes a creator by wandering a shoreline and dragging driftwood into piles. In the shelter of the cliff a computer prints maps marked with lines like the sleepers of railroad tracks. Videogame logic tells the player she must somehow replicate this map upon the beach in order to proceed. What other purpose could these printouts have? But there are obstacles to completing this task; the marks on the printout are clean lines, while the driftwood is irregular, and the suitable pieces are spread across the beach, requiring too much time to succeed.
This quiet emptiness, devoid of instruction, feels futile. If the player is to be this beach’s organizer, it is not much of a palace. And since time and material limits prevent success, the player must decide how to proceed. This simplicity in Rooftop Cop‘s fifth chapter requires the player to become an artist and create meaning for herself.
Become a Great Artist more explicitly places the player in the role of the artist. The game gives its player a canvas and a keyboard full of operations, each introducing color or characters, shapes or lines, without any apparent order. Through a series of practice sessions and ten second exams, the player modifies random starting canvases to replicate a portrait, a landscape, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and receive a score for the canvas’s similarity. This score is not the peak value of a session either, so if the player uses one of the more destructive modifications in the last second and her score drops from 35% to 8%, that is part of the game.
Because of the chaotic controls of Become a Great Artist, it is impossible to replicate Starry Night. Even if the game calls the player’s work a strong match, this wouldn’t fool anyone. But this impossibility makes the challenge of becoming a great artist easy. The contradiction between the instructions and the actual output becomes ironic, and the notion of great art is abandoned in favor of chaotic self-expression where anyone can be an artist.
This irony also lets the player avoid the difficulties of creating meaning, as was the case in Rooftop Cop, where a similar contradiction exists without the same satirical tone. It does not matter what the player creates with the tools of Become a Great Artist—black and white noise, color fields, gradients—because the game’s meaning already exists in its ironic challenge to established definitions of art, much as Van Gogh’s expressionistic paintings challenged the definitions of art before they became canon.
Rooftop Cop develops its ideas more slowly and subtly. The fifth chapter’s meaning depends not only on the player as a creator, but on its place in the sequence of chapters. In the second, “Capture the Flag for One,” which has the most in common with the fifth chapter, the player must clamber over crumbling forms to retrieve a flag and return it to base. As the ground collapses beneath the player’s steps, success becomes impossible.
With a few changes, Rooftop Cop could be as fast and intense as any arcade classic, but Clark’s chosen pace favors introspection. The first four chapters prepare the player for the last, where the city has crumbled to sand, and the signs have dropped away. Where chapter two presented its variation on the familiar idea of capturing flags, five gives the player nothing. And where Become a Great Artist presented meaning through its framework, an irony from the contradictions between instruction and experience, the meaning in Rooftop Cop depends on the player. And if the player as artist cannot succeed by the game’s instructions, it is up to the player to define new rules.