Three Fauvists


Videogame culture, by and large, still predominantly values representational spatial aesthetics. That is to say that the way spaces and the things in them look, and how we navigate them, are valued for how verisimilar or adjacent to photorealism they are. The culture even still seems to view text-based representation as somewhat radical (despite its deeply-rooted history in interactive media). But there’s another kind of virtual-spatial representation sitting on the outskirts of games that’s rife with its own expressive potential. This style relies on clicking on static images, or parts of static images, which then lead to new images. This kind of spatial navigation is very similar to the hyperlink structure of Twine, but relies instead on 2D visual frames to construct its aesthetic and sense of environment. This style can evoke a photo montage, or the quick, sharp effect of jump and axial cuts in film. In some cases, it might even evoke a Powerpoint presentation, which may not necessarily be pejorative depending on what the designer is trying to communicate.

This style also has a deeply-rooted history in point-and-click adventure games. Think, of course, of Myst [1993] or Eastern Mind [1994]. Traditionally, this approach was used in DOS games to create an illusion of 3D spaces for games which used cursor avatars. The technique was born of a need to circumvent certain technological and budgetary limitations, stringing together pre-rendered static images with a series of clicks and perspective tricks to implied a contiguous 3D space. Recently there’s been a small but fascinating reclamation of this approach, notably in the impressionistic Forska [2014] which Claris Cyarron discusses in her piece “Rothko and Videogames’ Abstract Architectures”, writing,

“Movement in the game is as simple as clicking on the landscape where you would like to go, and then, voila! You are there. If there ever was a journey from your previous location to the new, it was edited out of your experience. The result is not unlike Myst, but in that game each mouse click yielded a set distance and a slight loading time. The act of travelling far still felt arduous in some way, but here the strain of movement has been completely removed, and without any other means of a more embodied movement (like a jump button), there’s not really much reason to think that the player has been granted a body at all.”

But Forska, though airy and alien, is still a controlled aesthetic experience which builds a contiguous illusion of space. In many unsung little games, there’s been a bit of a departure. These games, by contrast, use flattened and non-contiguous frames connected by sharp, abrupt transitions and move the point-and-click beyond the representational and into something much more abstract.

Many of these games find a home on Glorious Trainwrecks, the punkish community hub for Twine tutorials, macros and tips, and longstanding distribution resource for those games too fringe for the fringe. Glorious Trainwrecks is also the number-one venue for “flickgames”, so named after the easy-to-use tool by developer Stephen Lavelle, a.k.a increpare (Slave of God, English Country Tune). Perhaps easier, though more functionally limited, than Twine, Flickgame allows the creator to make simple point-and-click graphical adventure games in their browser. The lightweight tool gives the player 16 potential slides to work with, a simplified palette of paint colours, an import feature for images, a brush of various thicknesses and a small window in which to draw. Creators can connect numbered slides to one another by associating a color used in the frame to a slide number selected from a dropdown beneath the palette. This requires no foreknowledge of programming syntax whatsoever and is easily done with the tool’s UI.

The result is generally a quick, punchy game that lends itself particularly well to the kinds of dark, acerbically self-aware wit and postmodern, sometimes Kafkaesque snapshots that one tends to find in the overall community sensibility. That bold punchiness, however, is reinforced by a visual aesthetic and texture which is more outgoing than the gossamer impressionism of Forska. These games, rather, often feel post-impressionist.

But I don’t want to be too reductive. There are a multitude of flickgames, many having been made this past July for the first installment of “Flik of the Month”, a themed version of “Klik of the Month”, a regular site game jam. That being said, there are three flickgames in particular which I think stand out, both because they use the tool to these effects so well and because they each do it boldly, distinctively while being in conversation with one another.

These games, 16 Rooms 16 Doors 16 Colors by everythingstaken, Apparition Plate Savers by ghettowreath and Ghorkak by ihavefivehat, each push the the idea of the flickgame into the realms of the provocatively vibrant and abstractly dramatic. These three in particular remind me of a specific post-impressionist tradition: Fauvism, the turn-of-the-century painting style Kyle Chayka ably describes in his piece, “Yoshi’s Fauvist Island”,

“Fauvism, which literally translates to “wild beast,” is so named for the term used by shocked French critic Louis Vauxcelles to describe his immediate reaction to the works of such painters as Henri Matisse and Andre Derain featured in the 1905 Autumn Salon, a rebellious exhibition held in response to the Parisian Academy Salon’s own conservatism. In fact, the artists’ color choices in their painting of landscapes and figures remain shocking; deep, cool blues set against incandescent reds and oranges light up Derain’s French seascapes, while Matisse’s portrait of his wife with a single lime green stripe down her nose still manages to upset viewers.

 

‘Wild beast’ could just as accurately describe Yoshi’s Island’s careening sense of color, with level backgrounds that range from pastel-tinged mountaintops to green-jeweled forests and dank blue caves. During the game’s introductory cut scene where Baby Luigi first goes missing, the rainbow group of Yoshis congregate in a surreally-colored forest bower, with pale pink and orange bushes, parti-colored vine tendrils of blue, green and purple, and trees set with orange flowers. In the early stages of the game, Yoshi bounces through rolling hills, afternoon sunlight turning them a bright, solid yellow. The game looks beautiful, but looking with an eye to art history, Yoshi’s Island’s aesthetics are actually very avant-garde.”

These three games may each be slotted into slightly more contemporary art styles like lyrical abstraction or action painting, given the propensity for messy, swishy, gestural lines and bold splotches of colour. They’re certainly less prone to figuratism and verisimilar spatial representation than Yoshi’s Island or even Forska. But in all three games there are clear, bold colour contrasts that only vaguely imply intensely-hued gestalts of actual spaces, and a form of navigation which is curt, abrupt and provocative. These games each make use of a flatness which often feels harsh and direct, and which is supplemented by aesthetics which at least appeal to the forthrightness of the Fauves.

In 16 Rooms 16 Doors 16 Colors, everythingstaken lives up to their username by making use of almost every available feature in the flickgame tool. The 16 slides each reveal a different image, almost each one a study in non-representative art. There are plenty of chicken-scratch lines, repeating patterns and swathes of colour. Except for one “room”, which only displays a thinly drawn ghost outlined in blue lilac against a dark mauve background, every other instance of something vaguely figurative—usually a face—is to be found bursting with colour. But even that one oddity serves as a contrast, naked and obscure compared to other, more vibrant “rooms.” It stares intensely, permanently awestruck, as if it were a sudden shock for the both of us to find each other. 

The chalk-like outline of the  flummoxed blue phantom from 16 Doors seems to stare back at the player.

The chalk-like outline of the flummoxed blue phantom from 16 Rooms seems to stare back at the player.

There doesn’t appear to be a correct order to clicking on the “doors”, or therefore any consistent narrative. Playing, I found I got more meaning from trying to click on different patches of colour in different “rooms”, trying to see where they led and constructing a ramshackle mental map. Like a Fauvist work, there’s the tendency to very strong colour contrasts, but what really moved me was the highly abstracted feeling of world-building. I had to interpret things myself out of the extreme flatness of the visuals, and the very texture of having to navigate between static images by clicking on hyperlinked parts of them more or less at random. Other, more direct flickgames may have the player searching the image for that one bit of active pixels, be it on the neck of a beer bottle or the hilt of a knife, and therefore construct a pictorial narrative. Because all flickgames use the same abrupt slide transition, they all feel kind of terse and cheeky. But in 16 Rooms, the blinking movement between these strange, striking visuals feels provocative and oddly alienating. Vibrancy, contrast, flatness, boldness, gestural and hand-drawn, a mix of tones and brush thicknesses and patterns all serve a sly metacommentary about the kinds of spaces Flickgame makes. There is no pretense of realism even attempted in 16 Rooms. In a sense the looping, ever-connected visuals nightmarishly match the kind of space the navigation system insinuates: an abstract prison of the disjointed and the discombobulating.

A fragmented swirl of orange specked with contrasting tones of blue and green.

A fragmented swirl of orange specked with contrasting tones of blue and green.

16 Rooms has a lot in common with its predecessor, Apparition Plate Savers, which developer ghettowreath released for Klik of the Month Club #96 in June of this year, but deviates quite a lot in visual style and tone. (Perhaps notably, Apparition Plate Savers was not made for a flickgame-specific jam, unlike 16 Rooms and the Ghorkak, but seems to have been an inspiration to both. The page for Ghorkak tells us so explicitly; 16 Rooms’ page contains a tag with the game’s title.) This game is a little more controlled, both in terms of the visual style and the overall composition, compared with 16 Rooms. We begin Apparition Plate Savers with the doodle of a smirking punk, the space around them punctuated by dots of colour. We will see this again. Throughout the game, interspersed between highly expressionist swirls of colour, there are more of these faces, and many appear to be looking upward. They are always thinly drawn, but the splotches of colour around them are often thick and painterly, and often vibrantly contrasted to the background and figures. They become these focal points, which suggest a kind of dimension: there is an up that the faces are looking to, and there is therefore a down. When I click on a patch of colour above or beside a character’s tilted head, I interpret the next slide to mean that I’m also looking up.

These expressionist swirls imply the sky. They imply the cosmos. Tapering comet tails and yellow specks of starlight dot hazy grey swirls of cloud. I click on a patch, a speck, a swirl, and another one appears, layering the image as I click. This happens three times, the same fundamental slide image copied and slightly altered each time with a new, superimposed detail. There’s an illusion of depth being made, and of moving inward, toward greater detail. There’s still that sudden transitional sharpness, that high contrast—blues and oranges, especially—but here it manages to feel joyously surprising. This moment seems to be a deliberate invocation of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, although I’m speculating. Perhaps the story is sinister—perhaps a  meteor is about to impact the Earth while gawping faces helplessly look on. One or two of the doodled figures seemed to express something other than awe or happiness. But perhaps it can be read another way: the fundamental building blocks of the universe drawing upon, and connecting, these figures through time and space.

A black void populated by loosely-drawn swirls and colourful dots seem to suggest a galaxy.

A black void in Apparition Plate Savers, populated with loosely-drawn swirls and colourful dots, seems to suggest a galaxy.

Apparition Plate Savers feels less aggressive than 16 Rooms, but the ways in which the game uses two-dimensionality and the limits of the frame—calling into question the very performance of clicking a screen—still suggest something alien, interpretive and confidently self-aware. Truly, if Forska implies disembodiment, Apparition Plate Savers is pointing toward a hyper-awareness of one’s actual body in space. These games do not immerse or absorb easily. They don’t represent spaces and things as much as they insinuate a feeling about them. They don’t end and restart; they loop. We click, and they point back at us. There is still something of a picturebook “point-and-click” feel to Apparition Plate Savers—a nugget of familiarity—but there’s also a clear point of departure.

Then there’s Ghorkak—or, it’s full title, Ghorkak Baknular Hjeiunil Nimbramniti Nianomipou miHiglmnbGG vErnamioLomnionix HniiononoAnilm’iol Ghartmeakenterenian Haermemeow. Admittedly, I played Ghorkak first and then backtracked to the other two linked in the first’s description. Developer ihavefivehat’s accomplishment was openly inspired by them, and it’s interesting to see how the dev has synthesized two different approaches into something new and unique in this mouthful of a game. Ghorkak, like 16 Rooms, was made for Flik of the Month. Like 16 Rooms, Ghorkak presents highly abstracted visuals—they’re arguably even less controlled, more action painting than Fauvist landscape.

The game is stylized with some of the rhetorical trappings of text adventure games deeply enmeshed in motleys of colour and lines of varying thicknesses. The game’s description warns us that these second-person declaratives may even be difficult to read, but among them I found the iconic (“You befriended a wizard”), the pathetic (“You spent too much time looking in the mirror”), and even the memetic (“Weasels ripped your flesh”). Like the others, Ghorkak loops: the act of cycling through different slides, offering supposedly different events, does not seem to have an exact beginning and end. The way these fantastical, melancholy and absurd things happen, the player can at once take time to interpret their own narrative experience as well as engage with barely-intelligible visuals. I click on a patch of colour here and now I’m lost in a dungeon, and I click on one there and now I’ve forgotten my mom’s birthday. It’s almost stream-of-consciousness, curt and without segue, as if the mind that plays is flitting from one worrisome thought to the other.

There are few representative geometries in Ghorkak. While there are plenty of bold colour contrasts and vague shapes of various sizes, the sense of space is conjured only through a combination of interpreting the words and imagining the abstractions as manifestations of them. The result is a hazy memory of the text adventure and RPG games of yesteryear. I note the frequency of greens, browns and blues. Is that a world map? A tree? A cave? Ghorkak—the name itself reminiscent of some absurdly exaggerated Dungeons & Dragons nomenclature—becomes not just an adventure game but the swirling morass of every adventure game, and everything I was feeling when I played them, and everything I felt after, and what they meant to me years later, and all the ironic detachment of jokes at their expense, and all the jokes that were really love letters to them.

ghorkak

A Ghorkak slide reads, “a centaur made fun of you”, which needs to be picked out of the concentric confusion of curved lines in blue, orange, green, red and other colours. Try to pick out other details.

The Fauvists, and the post-impressionists in general, were formulating a set of concepts which would become prominent in the modernist and post-modernist movements of 20th-century visual art. Chief among them was a self-consciousness around the artificiality of artistic production, and a meta-oriented preoccupation with self-reference that would become exaggerated as technological reproduction, and especially automation, leapt forward during the 20th century. Speaking very broadly, as hardware increasingly turned to software and the immaterial, digital and often interactive art forms, like net art, also began drawing upon the new dynamics of virtual relationships. Now, it wasn’t just about people’s relationships to machines but people’s relationships to each other through machines. This impresses upon the question: how can virtual space be used to frame experience?

In the fourth “MIXTAPE” of the ongoing series, critic Line Hollis discusses games which break the fourth wall:

“Games that push against the boundaries of their toolset always appeal to me because they help you see how the toolsets shape and limit the things made with them. So many conventions surrounding software go unquestioned in digital games, and they really shouldn’t.”

Flickgame is clearly a very simple tool. To some, it may feel sparse or underpowered. But each of these three games have cleverly used it to interrogate what a “point-and-click” or an adventure game is expected to feel like and conjure. They each push their concepts toward a place of aesthetic wildness and occasional abandon to unintelligibility and pure, and passionate, challengingly unbridled emotion. But also like the Fauves, these three devs are having this dialogue within the confines of their medium, somewhere between the familiar and the otherworldly, and pushing the seams to a bursting point.

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