A Portrait of the Artist as a Game Studio

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While we often see the evolution of artists working in old media, ever-shifting technical terrain tends to obscure videogame makers' aesthetic trajectories. In Thatgamecompany's pathbreaking and gorgeous games for the Playstation 3, we get the rare chance to watch these artists at work against a fixed technological backdrop

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Artists' aesthetics evolve and deepen over time. You can see it in their work, as immaturity and coarseness give way to sophistication and polish. In most media, an audience witnesses this aesthetic evolution take place within the most mature form of that medium.

Between 1930s and the 1950s, for example, the abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko's work evolved from mythical surrealism to multiform abstractions to his signature style of rectilinear forms. Different motivations and inspirations moved Rothko during these two decades, but at every stage of his artistic career, the painter's work could be experienced as painting, as medium on canvas. As flatness and pigment on linen.

Games are so tightly coupled to consumer electronics that technical progress outstrips aesthetic progress in the public imagination.

Likewise, the contemporary American novelist Ben Marcus has explored his unique brand of experimental fiction in three novels, and his style and effect have changed and deepened as his writing career has progressed. Marcus's 1995 novel The Age of Wire and String uses a technical perversion of English that the author coerces into fantastic and nearly inscrutable tales of rural life. The 2002 follow-up Notable American Women refines his semantic surrealism into a more legible narrative, but one in which language itself remains untrustworthy. And in this year's Flame Alphabet, Marcus reaches a new summit, a book in which language kills from the inside out. Once more, an artist births and refines experimental style, but carries out that evolution within the standard form of the art in question: the offset-printed hardback book.

Aesthetic evolution need not move from lesser to greater effect. Since 1999, M. Night Shyamalan has practiced his signature brand of filmmaking, in which supernatural situations end in dramatic plot twists. But between The Sixth Sense (1999) and The Last Airbender (2010), Shyamalan's artistic success faltered even as his films continued to perform well at the box office. Decline notwithstanding, all his films were still printed to celluloid and projected onto anamorphic widescreen cinema screens.

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In painting, literature, and film the public can see an artist's work evolve (or devolve) because that work is accessible to audiences in their native forms. Archivists or scholars might dig into a creator's sketchbooks or retrieve early works, but such museum work is not required for the ordinary viewer or reader to grasp the changes and refinements of work over time. This perception of creative progress is a part of the pleasure of art, whether through the joy of growth or the schadenfreude of decay.

In videogames, it's far less common to see a creator's work evolve in this way. In part, this is because game makers tend to have less longevity than other sorts of artists. In part, it's because games are more highly industrialized even than film, and aesthetic headway is often curtailed by commercial necessity. And in part, it's because games are so tightly coupled to consumer electronics that technical progress outstrips aesthetic progress in the public imagination.

Where there are game makers with a style, it has often evolved over long durations. Will Wright's discovery and later mastery of the software toy simulation, from SimCity to SimEarth to The Sims; or John Carmack and John Romero's revolutionary exploitation of new powers in real-time 2d and 3d graphics in Commander Keen, Doom, and Quake; or Hideo Kojima's development and refinement of the stealth action games of the Metal Gear series, characterized by solitude, initial weakness, cinematic cut-scenes, and self-referential commentary.

These styles evolved over decades, and they did so in the arms of financial success and corporate underwriting. Structurally speaking, they are more like Shyamalan than like Rothko and Marcus, the latter two artists having struggled to find their respective styles outside of the certainty of commercial success.

In independent games, wherein we must hope that aesthetics drive creators more than commercialism, creative evolution often takes place in tentative ways, in forms far less refined and mature than the videogame console that serves as the medium's equivalent to the cinema or the first-run hardback. Experimental titles may take their first form on a PC or a mobile device as humble experiments. If very fortunate, as have been game makers like Jonathan Blow (Braid), Jonathan Mak (Everyday Shooter), or Kyle Gabler and Ron Carmel (World of Goo), those games might find their way to the Nintendo Wii or the Xbox 360 or the PlayStation 3. But today, the artists who work in game development for its beauty before its profitability typically don't get to choose the most public of venues in which to experiment and come of age artistically.

Thatgamecompany's new title Journey is an exception. The game is the third in a three-deal exclusive that the studio's principals signed with Sony right out of grad school at the University of Southern California. Thanks to the Sony exclusive and the oversight of Sony's Santa Monica studio, all three of the games the studio has produced have targeted the PlayStation 3 from the beginning. This is not a remarkable feat for a Rothko or a Marcus--such artists simply pick up the generic media of canvas or page and work with them directly. But the PS3 is tightly controlled and its development kits are expensive. The machine sets a high bar, too--a complex multicore architecture with streamlined co-processors meant to enhance speed and throughput for specialized tasks, especially vector processing for graphical rendering.

Thatgamecompany's work thus offers us an unusual window into the creative evolution of a game maker, one in which the transition from green students to venerable artists took place before our very eyes over a short half-decade on a single and very public videogame platform.

Flow, Flower, Flowest

During graduate school, thatgamecompany's creative director Jenova Chen became obsessed with the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's concept of flow, the psychological feeling of being fully involved in an experience. Csikszentmihalyi's book on the subject was published in 1990, but a definition for the phenomenon is often cribbed from a 1996 Wired interview: "Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost." In musical terms, flow means being in the groove; in athletic terms, we call it being in the zone. Flow is a state of being, one in which a task's difficulty is perfectly balanced against a performer's skill, resulting in a feeling of intense, focused attention.

Chen devoted his MFA thesis to the application of Flow in Games. In his interpretation, flow can be graphed on a two-dimensional axis, challenge on the horizontal axis and ability on the vertical. He then identifies a space surrounding the line that extends from low challenge and ability to high, which he calls the "flow zone." This zone is nestled between anxiety above (too much challenge, insufficient ability) and boredom below (not enough challenge, too much ability). Different players, argues Chen, have different flow zones, representing higher and lower capacities for each.

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Ian Bogost is a writer, game designer, and contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in media studies and a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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