Roger Ebert might not think so, but video games are increasingly as much an artist’s medium as an adolescent pastime. This week, San Francisco nonprofit organization MADE began raising funds for a west coast video game museum, and the Smithsonian opened up voting on who should be included in their video game canon. Though most commercial games involve so many producers, technicians, directors, and artists that its difficult to single out one mastermind behind them, an increasing number of independent games are helmed by just one or two masterminds. The recent iPhone and iPad app explosion has given a canvas for some artists to make some gorgeous, brutal, and astonishing work using video games. Click below for our round-up of 10 artists who use video games as their weapon of choice.
Video game artist Mark Essen makes lo-fi, beautiful and harsh video games, from the two person sword-fighting game Nidhogg (above) to the trippy, slightly ghastly Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist. His aesthetic experiments landed his work in a New Museum exhibit at the tender age of 22, and caught the eye of Adult Swim executives, who had Essen design two games for their website. Recently, Essen’s been nominated for three awards in the Independent Games Festival in San Francisco. His work isn’t just aesthetically pleasing, but fairly fairly addictive, too: we recommend Flywrench , Essen’s clever homage to old-school arcade games.
Greg Wohlwend and design partner Mike Boxleiter make up the indie video game outfit Mikengreg, specializing in deceptively simple games that can easily suck up all your waking hours. Solipskier, pictured above, is one the team developed for the iPhone, and it makes use of the single-button interface and color contrast in an interesting and dynamic way. They’re currently working on a multiplayer game called 4Fourths that promises to be pretty spectacular on the visual front.
Chinese artist Feng Mengbo mashes up elements of popular culture with Chinese political imagery to make arresting aesthetic statements. His work usually involves hacking video games to transform them into political commentary, such as his Taking Mt. Doom By Strategy, which combined the video game Doom with the cultural revolution’s opera Taking Tiger Mt. By Strategy. The work above, The Long March: Restart, was acquired by the MoMA last year.
Mark Johns grasps the things that make video games great: interesting colors, satisfying “boop” sounds, and many, many explosions. His games Space Barnacle (above) and Owl Country are inspired by NES games, and have the alluring super-pixellation blocks with a little more modern video game violence added in.
You wouldn’t think that you could make video games about meditation, but that’s exactly what Ian Bogost did in A Slow Year (above), his collection of four games, one for each season, in which the goal is to observe instead of gain stars or murder zombies. Bogost even calls them “game poems.” His previous games has similarly counterintuitive approaches: Guru Meditation, for iPhone and Atari, rewards the user who can keep still the longest, and Cow Clicker, for Facebook, essentially makes fun of the idea of a Facebook games. (As Bogost explains on his site: “You get a cow. You can click on it. In six hours, you can click it again. Clicking earns you clicks… You can publish feed stories about clicking your cow, and you can click friends’ cow clicks in their feed stories.”)
Daniel Benmergui designs experimental games that focus on storytelling. Today I Die, shown above, literally uses words to tell a story, one that the player has to piece together through a series of obstacles. His games are mesmerizing, interactive pieces of art, and they have a meditative quality as well. It’s an impressive feat to combine reading with video games, but Benmergui might just have something going.
Swedish designer Erik Svëdang makes luscious-looking games with 3D graphics, the kind that make you almost want to live in the worlds he’s created. His Blueberry Garden won the Grand Prize in the 2009 Independent Games Festival, and his new iPhone game Kometen is as fun and functional as it is breathtaking in its intricacy.
Writer, programmer, and game designer Jason Rohrer makes video games that focus on social issues and literature. His third game, Passage, released in 2007, focused on a cost-benefit analysis of marriage. Rorhrer is also known for his frugal lifestyle, releasing the games for free and claiming to live on a budget (with his family of four) of less than $15,000/year. In addition to marriage, Rohrer’s also made games about diamond mining in Angola and social ties between community gardeners. Watch out, Mario: we’re guessing he might go after the plumber’s union next.
Steph Thirion works on interactive art, not video games exclusively (check out his incredible visualization of cars in cities, Cascade on Wheels , for example), but his 2009 Eliss (above) made him a break-out video game art star. The game involves transporting blobs of color over your iPhone, a pretty simple concept, but one that is perfectly tuned to the way the iPhone and iPad work.
Jonatan Söderström — better known by the handle Cactus — is at the forefront of experimental video game design, crafting games chock full of bizarre plot twists and mind-bending graphics. His game Stench Mechanics, for example, is an adventure set in outer space, set on a spaceship powered by smelly pink gas. Another features a 3D plant that you can make bloom. Cactus is as prolific as he is widely-respected, with over forty games, some with simple line drawings and other with intricate graphics. Our favorite, for the description alone, might be Space Fuck! which Cactus describes as follows: “First there was Fuck Space! now there’s also Space Fuck! An erotic space adventure with a deep moral message.” Indeed.