As a medium, abstract art came about at the dawn of the 19th century as a response to the tradition of western art trying to mimic reality. Abstract artists wanted to break down form and function to their most basic and provide a particular “inner resonance” from the viewer. Central to their manifesto was Wassily Kandinsky’s 1912 Concerning the Spiritual in Art, a movement that believed painting was the purest expression of the artist.
“The mutual influence of form and colour now becomes clear. A yellow triangle, a blue circle, a green square, or a green triangle, a yellow circle, a blue square – all these are different and have different spiritual values.”- Kandinsky
At its core, abstract art represents the idea of something in its most basic form and function. With games like Kairo, Thomas Was Alone, Antichamber, Lissitzky’s Revenge and 140 all being based on these principles, it warrants examining what exactly games bring to abstract art as a form of new media. Abstract art relies on a previous understanding of the subject matter and its composition to understand the context, whereas video games, as an interactive media, are able to explain context through interaction with gameplay elements and sound rather than just a still element. An example of this required fore-knowledge would be in Lazar Markovich Lissitzky’s “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge”, one would need to know that this was originally a propaganda image symbolic of the Russian Civil War; the red symbolising a driving wedge of the Bolsheviks and the White movement. Without this foreknowledge, the image feels absent of meaning, but with it, it becomes empowered by the viewer. However one could argue that in a game like Lissitzky’s Revenge this context, or at the very least the associated idea, is explained through gameplay.
A game like Mini Metro makes excellent use of abstract art’s reliability on foreknowledge. Mini Metro by Dinosaur Polo Club makes use of the idea of minimalism and representation, with the entire game designed after a subway system. The aesthetic has very little relationship with the real world, it is only through our pre-determined understanding of subway systems that we are able to interpret the game’s design. Furthermore, through the incorporation of minimalist gameplay, Mini Metro has become a universally understood game.
Kairo takes this idea even further, placing players in a 3D world and leaving it up to them to interpret the meaning. While the game never tells us anything it is a fairly simple world to explore and it opens itself to a lot of interpretation. The game still incorporates universally understood concepts in an extremely minimalist fashion. An example of this is the games use of symbols, doors which lead to new monuments and environmental effects. Kairo doesn’t give players the context that one usually expects when looking at abstract art, but we could argue that it is this lack of context that makes it such a powerful game. Instead of it being the representation of a particular idea it represents our own interpretations of idea’s within the universal language that abstract art utilises. An excellent example of this is Kairo’s use of water at around 3minutes into the video bellow. The water doesn’t look like water, it represents the idea of water through the use of sound, movement and colour.
The primary function of abstraction in video games is the same as in art, to simplify an idea down to its most basic. Looking at games like chess, checkers and Tetris, we can see that it is this simple functionality that has stood the test of time. Basic mechanics which everyone is able to grasp are easily translatable across generations and cultures, not limited to or by human understanding because they use a universal language.
Furthermore, it is human nature to try and bring character and our own exposition into abstract art of any kind. This is expressed even more deeply in a medium like video games, with people bringing even more of their own perceptions to the game. Thomas Was Alone represents the idea of a character and that is what people connect with arguably as the pure “inner resonance” between the developer and the audience. Games can represent complex ideas in the simplest way possible and one could argue that it is because of this that players are able to bring their own interpretation to the abstract ideas. A concept which begs the question, are video games a better way of communicating abstract themes than abstract art?
- Baker, H. (2015) 10 game-changing art manifestos [Blog] Royal Academy of Arts. Retrieved 1 April 2016, from https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/ten-game-changing-manifestos
- Kandinsky, W. (1911) Concerning the Spiritual in Art : And Painting in Particular. translated by Michael T. H. Sadler (2004). Kessinger Publishing.
- Perrin, R. (2013). Kairo. [Video Game]. Microsoft Windows, Linux, Android, & OSX
- Brithal. M. (2012). Thomas was Alone. [Video Game]. Microsoft Windows & OSX
- Demruth (2013). Antichamber. [Video Game]. Microsoft Windows,Linux, Mac OS X
- Totten, C. (2015). Lissitzky Revenge. [Video Game]. Game Jolt.
- Carlsen, J. (2013). 140. [Video Game]. Microsoft Windows,Linux, Mac OS X
- Dinosaur Polo (2015) Mini Metro. [Video Game]. Microsoft Windows,Linux, Mac OS X