“Those that go searching for love, only manifest their own lovelessness. And the loveless never find love, only the loving find love. And they never have to seek for it.”
This is the D.H. Lawrence quote I was greeted with at the end of Pretentious Game 3, and given it’s story, it was an interesting food-for-thought kind of quote. But it had me thinking: are these kinds of high-concept looks at the philosophical depths of things such as love or human condition something that gamers immediately shuffle into the pretentious artsy-fartsy bin to scoff at. Is this kind of exploration through nontraditional means something that gamers are still a bit weary of when it comes to the indie game scene?
Before digging into the art-game discussion, which we all know I can go into with ease already, let me dial it back and take a look at the game, or games, that inspired another look at “pretentious” art games. Inspired by a recent Rock, Paper, Shotgun article about the third game in the series, I dove into the Pretentious Game trilogy from Keybol Games. And with a name like that, you can already tell the developer knew how this game was going to be viewed.
The first question that sprang to mind was: is this meant to be satire? The article on RPS was about this game being mistaken as a tongue-in-cheek shot at recent indie success Thomas Was Alone. And that comparison, and misinterpretation of intent, isn’t without merit. They’re quite similar games. Both are platform-puzzlers where you play as various rectangles that represent characters. At their core, they’re basically the same kind of game.
Being a big fan of Thomas Was Alone, I immediately felt at home moving rectangles around other rectangles. However, since the Pretentious Game trilogy is just some simple flash games, the controls and complexity of the levels are far less than it’s slightly more polished and realized counterpart. The puzzles are simple enough, especially in the later two episodes. At times, I found them to be clever and well executed. In fact, I found myself wishing the game was a more full experience. Each of the three pieces will only take you ten minutes tops, so you never get a chance for the game to really utilize the clever designs enough to fully satisfy. But for what it is, a short flash experience, the gameplay functions well enough.
But the gameplay isn’t the real focus. Much like Thomas Was Alone, we’re not playing as empty rectangles. They’re characters. And through some text on each puzzle, we’re slowly introduced to an emotional and rather adult story about love, loneliness, infidelity, betrayal, and tragedy. The story is very simple and doesn’t dig very deep. It’s a very familiar story, but pulls out a rather dark and surprise twist later on down the line. All in all, the story is effective but doesn’t break any new ground.
As a game, it’s enjoyable enough to merit a playthrough of all three chapters. The level designs give you occasional “oh, neat” moments and a couple “AHAH!” realization moments. There isn’t anything as swooping and complex as Thomas Was Alone, but seeing as this is a humble flash game, it’s quite nice in it’s simplicity.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s discuss that title, shall we?
It’s a little hard not to look at the title and immediately get a cringe-worthy sense of worry. Recently, indie games have started self-satirizing themselves by poking fun at the pretentious artsy nature of some indie developers. it’s become so bad that “Indie Games Making Fun of Indie Games” might as well be a genre at this point. And it’s no wonder developers feel like making those games: they’re mirroring the attitudes of a lot of gamers. There is a very aggressive attitude thrown towards games that shrug off convention and try to achieve something more abstract, philosophical, emotional, or artsy.
This isn’t unfamiliar territory for media junkies. Movies, music, books, any form of art that has existed has tread this same water. And it’s something that’ll never change. Art house films will still be laughed at by people who rather watch Michael Bay movies. But for every Michael Bay film, there is a David Lynch movie waiting in the underbelly. And as such, for every Call Of Duty, there is an artsy indie game waiting to poke the sleeping bear that is “art”.
Now, I’ve already ranted plenty about the importance of these games for both variety, expression, and enjoyment for those into that kind of thing, so I’ll spare you the lecture on that. Instead, I want to turn back to what we view as “pretentious” and what immediately gets pushed into the art box. Is it the throwing-aside of traditional art that makes us immediately imagine it as trying to appear artsy? Would the game be viewed as more of a traditional, acceptable game had it used sprites and organic level art? Sure didn’t help Braid or Limbo get called pretentious at times.
So it must be the concepts it puts forward, right? The internalization of various sides of a love-relationship. Emotional, gritty, real, and ultimately unfortunate human condition. Is exploring something like that where we draw the line between a normal “game” and an art game? Are invoking negative feelings, pointing out disturbances in human nature, or exploring philosophical depths something that scares us?
Modern games are starting to shrug off the baggage of being “just for fun” or “child’s toys” and have dove head-first into a lot of dark territory. Big-budget successes such as Bioshock or The Last Of Us have torn into human nature and philosophy and shown us things that are far more high-concept than “save the princess from the lizard”. But when it’s on an indie level, or in a more abstract form, we seem more inclined to throw it aside. If Ayn Rand’s philosophical views had been presented in a game where you played as a bunch of rectangles, instead of a familiar first person shooter, would we have said Bioshock was a pretentious art game?
Is this combination of abstract ideas and abstract presentation what pushes people away from games? It would seem a lot of gamers want things in a much more easy-to-swallow pill format. And that’s fine. But is dismissing a game that presents these things in a daring, imaginative, and ultimately harder to choke down way worthy of being immediately written off as pretentious or artsy? Is that negativity really warranted? Sure, some of these developers act like they’re the next Mozart or Picasso, but does that mean we should completely dismiss an entire direction the art of gaming can be taken? Absolutely not.
So, does this title mean something? Yes. It means that indie developers are recognizing the attitude towards abstraction. Maybe this is a sign of things falling apart, or maybe it’s a potential step in the direction of showcasing self-recognition when it comes to these kinds of games. Either way, “art” games aren’t going anywhere. And they’re not always as inaccessible as they may seem.
Pretentious Game is a flash game you can play easily in your browser. Swing by Keybol Games for these and other neat flash games. Or check out each individual part of Pretentious Game here: | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | – This should go without saying, but I recommend playing them in order to get the full effect. Also, give the developer a follow on Twitter as well.