games as art
Heavily work in progress, watch this space for when I get my ideas in order

I like to play obscure games. If you've known me for any block of time, I've probably mentioned Marek Kapolka's [fr0g] clan official server 24/7 zk map (for stranger) at least once, and I hold it as one of my favorite games. Conceptually, it's much like Getting Over It with Bennet Foddy or a Roblox obby: familiarize yourself with this movement system and get to the end of this map. It also adds a route-finding aspect to the concept: what's the best way to navigate this aimless confetti of primitives?

Another one is Stranger's Sebil Engineering. I haven't yet played it, but it is a physics puzzle game based on getting cars to a finish, much in the line of Bridge Constructor.

These games are alike in their refusal of aesthetics: there is no music, and the graphics aren't good either. These games aren't painted to impress. All they have to interest players is the gameplay itself.

Patricia Taxxon is a musician who also does video essays primarily on video games. Her most recent is Celeste's Biggest Mod (and why it's interesting), approaching it as a case study of difficulty, how as mechanical difficulty goes up, conceptual difficulty goes down. It gave me homework*, like many of her other video essays. Go watch it.

However, that's not what I'm looking at. I'm looking at a specific post on her tumblr, about how when she thinks of games as art she thinks of games that "tell a story with their play".

When people think of video games as art, they typically think of games as something similar to a movie. A story is told audiovisually to a viewer. But this time it's interactive. While a movie's impetus for the telling of the story being whatever format the movie is put on, a game's impetus is the direct input of the player. Without continued input, the show cannot go on. Outer Wilds is an excellent example of this approach. Minor spoilers ahead.

Outer Wilds is a mystery exploration puzzle game based around figuring out why the sun explodes in 22 minutes, and why you keep being sent back in time over and over again. To do this, you are given a ship, a translator tool, a signal finder, and a computerized string-and-pinboard. You traverse the solar system, however you like, and gradually figure out what happened. And Outer Wilds is packed to the brim with narrative hooks. Everywhere you go there's always going to be something to reward you with going there and then point you to where you should go next. It's the epitome of player interaction driving the plot forward. No wonder it was so highly praised.

But this approach to games neglects games where there is no plot, no story being told. A player looking for story doesn't care about, say, THOTH. Sure, you're a little circle fighting projections of basic shapes, but THOTH doesn't care why its here or what its doing. It's just a tool for you to interact with the game.

With this lens, let's interrogate THOTH, a puzzle twin-stick shooter. But if we look at THOTH as an art game, what does THOTH have to say? Is there any "moral of the story"? Can we fit it into a period of games? No, there's absolutely no plot to speak of. But there's still something going on here, it still has something to say.

I'm going to return to realm of typical games. THOTH is a minimal puzzle twin-stick shooter by Jeppe Carlsen. It is abstract, what theming there is is harsh, and austere. You are a circle shooting at the projections of octahedra, spheres, or prisms. Technicolor shapes with a auditory backdrop of drone or noise. Every action and event is marked by harsh, synthesized noise. When you die, the game plays an almost admonishing sting, as if the game was a disappointed handler watching the failure of its gladiator-pet. And the ludonarrative reflects this: every enemy becomes *more* dangerous when you "kill" it, with few exceptions. There is no mute button. There is no pause button. There is no tutorial. Nothing in THOTH welcomes you to play it.