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The blog of author Dennis Cooper

In search of video gaming’s elusive avant-garde in the company of 15 auteurs

‘Do Avant-Garde video games? exist? If not yet, what will they look like? Will we know what they are when they happen? For those not too familiar, wikipedia sums it up nicely: “The avant-garde (from French, “advance guard” or “vanguard”, literally “fore-guard”) are people or works that are experimental, radical, or unorthodox with respect to art, culture, or society. It may be characterized by nontraditional, aesthetic innovation and initial unacceptability, and it may offer a critique of the relationship between producer and consumer.”

‘A lot of avant-garde stuff has redefined the question “What is ____?” Such as when the Second Viennese School of Music came up with 12-tone rows and matrices and etc. basically saying “Let’s give every pitch equal importance, we must break the bonds of tonalism and harmony!” so they basically came up with music that looks and sounds like this:

‘And John Cage answered “Music is organized sound” and came up with this. Then Ornette Coleman did something similar in the jazz realm where he asked “What is jazz music?” and his answer was this:

‘And you can point to examples of really thorny, difficult literature as well as film, art, etc. It seems they just don’t care at all whether people will like it or receive it well; all they want to do is push the boundaries of the art form as far as they can be pushed.

‘I wonder if this has happened in video games yet? I imagine there must be some really bizarre, head-scratching games out there that make you question some things but they’re probably buried deep and no one knows where they are. I think that’s an important distinction: These games have to at least be somewhat in the public conscious. Pony Island probably comes closest from what I’ve seen of that game…But it’s still not demanding in the way the above works are demanding.

‘So what would this avant-garde game be? And how mainstream would it be? Everyone who studies music knows Schoenberg and John Cage (similarly Jazz with Ornette Coleman) so I’d say it’s gotta be some hidden talent developer with cult like status (say…Swery or Suda51 or something–that kind of status).

‘Would this game even be a “game”? I mean even now we’re having trouble defining “games”. Lots of people think walking simulators aren’t games, for instance. Would we define game as “interactive medium”?’ — GiantBomb

 

Biggt
Davey Wreden
Jonatan Söderström
Auriea Harvey & Michaël Samyn
Richard Hofmeier
Merritt Kopas
Porpentine
Tetsuya Mizuguchi
Keita Takahashi
Jonathan Mak
Anna Anthropy
Phil Fish
Masaya Matsuura
Alexander “Demruth” Bruce

 

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This is a series of five Game Maker games, all released in 2006, by Matt Aldrige, who also goes by the names TheAnemic or biggt. All games are short, abstract surreal tales, almost randomly thrown together, but offer very surprising gameplay and thoughts for an open-minded player. In an GM Inside interview Aldrige said to have created the games during a period where he was working on a major games project, and was afraid he would not be able to finish it. The La La Land series became a byproduct of that. A sixth game was hinted at, but eventually not released.

La La Land 2 (2006)


gameplay

La La Land 1 (2006)


gameplay

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Davey Wreden isn’t done making you sad. He co-designed The Stanley Parable and directed The Beginner’s Guide, and now he’s heading up a new team with the aim of producing games “that are beautiful, meditative, thoughtful, and sad”. So like the games he’s already worked on, but with fewer jokes.

The Stanley Parable (2013)


gameplay

 

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Jonatan “cactus” Söderström is a Swedish game developer with over 50 games made with Game Maker. He is known for completing games very quickly, and for promoting the idea that games don’t have to be fun. His games can be identified by a characteristic “cactus” style, which all of his creations seem to share.

Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number (2015)


Trailer

Clean Asia! (2007)


gameplay

 

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Auriea Harvey & Michaël Samyn are designers and directors of all Tale of Tales projects. They are also the co-foundesr and co-owners of Tale of Tales BVBA. From the Tale of Tales site: “The purpose of Tale of Tales is to create elegant and emotionally rich interactive entertainment. We explicitly want to cater to people who are not enchanted by most contemporary computer games, or who wouldn’t mind more variety in their gameplay experiences. For this purpose, all of our products feature innovative forms of interaction, engaging poetic narratives and simple controls.”

Sunset (2015)


Trailer

Bientôt l’été (2012)


gameplay

 

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Richard Hofmeier’s Cart Life was originally released in May 2011, and for a good while it drifted along without all that much attention. This was a huge shame, because the retail simulation title is as brilliant as it is deep. You play as an entrepreneur who is looking to start a business, while also making sure other areas of his or her life are kept in order. After sprucing certain areas of the title up and gaining a little more player traction, Hofmeier decided to fire it IGF-ward in 2012 — with incredible results. Not only has the game been nominated for the Seumas McNally Grand Prize, but it’s also up for the Narrative and Nuovo awards.

Cart Life (2013)


Trailer

 

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I first became aware of the multimedia artist & game designer Merritt Kopas through her shrewd skewering of games on the website Nightmare Mode, for which I was also writing at the time. The website has since passed away into cyberspace heaven, the archives of which are here, but Merritt has grown as a designer and game theorist in an inspiring way since we went down our separate paths, making games such as Lim, Consensual Torture Simulator, and Positive Space.

Lim (2012)


gameplay & review

 

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It’s almost impossible to separate the “Twine revolution”—the proliferation of small-scale interactive fiction created by nontraditional game designers—from Porpentine. The Oakland, California-based creator’s alien, poetic work has been a fixture of the Twine scene for years while also serving as a microcosm of all the best parts of it. Porpentine’s work is compelling because its attention to language and detail builds small spaces that feel simultaneously uncanny and warm. Even at their most wildly creative, Porpentine’s games have a core of lived experience to them. Stories of troubled, alienated people, communicated in vibrant and inscrutable aesthetics. It’s a powerful combination.

Bellular Hexatosis (2015)


Trailer

Eczema Angel Orifice (2015)


Trailer

 

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Not long ago, Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the legendary game designer behind musical classics Rez and Lumines, was on vacation with his family in Hawaii. When he looked out the window of his Airbnb, his view was dominated by a lush, green golf course. As he stared outside, he couldn’t help but see very specific shapes in the grass. “I found a tetromino in the golf course,” he says. What Mizuguchi experienced is something known as “the Tetris effect,” a condition where people spend so much time doing a particular activity that it begins to invade their thoughts. It’s named after the classic puzzle game, where falling blocks have been to known to enter players’ dreams if they play too much. Tetris Effect also happens to be the name of Mizuguchi’s next game.

Tetris Effect (2018)


gameplay

Lumines (2005)


gameplay

 

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To understand why Keita Takahashi makes the kinds of games he does, you have to go back to the time he made a goat. While studying fine art and sculpture at Musashino Art University, Takahashi wanted to create things that served a purpose beyond just being looked at. One day, when at a loss for ideas, he decided to sculpt a goat-shaped vase. Flowers and soil went in the goat’s back and excess water drained from its udders. “Then I did a presentation of my goat to the other students and the professor, and they laughed, because it was so stupid,” Takahashi said at an interview during BitSummit, the annual independent games festival held this year in Kyoto, from June 1-2. “That’s the moment I knew what I should do: Make something that makes people smile.”

Hohokum (2014)


Trailer

Noby Noby Boy (2009)


gameplay

 

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Any discussion of interactive music scores for games would be incomplete without Jonathan Mak. His self-produced title Everyday Shooter used classic top-down space combat as a musical experience: not only do sound effects in the game act as musical elements, but even the flow of the game itself fits into a generated song structure. Mak even imagined the title as an album. Playing through it, once you get into the groove of the action, the roles of gamer and listener merge into a single flow. (See video, at end.) Another nice feature – breaking from cliche, it’s a music game that employs guitar lacks in place of, say, a pounding trance soundtrack.

Sound Shapes (2012)


gameplay

Everyday Shooter (2008)


Trailer

 

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Anna Anthropy is a game developer, critic and author of Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Drop-outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form, described as “equal parts auto-biography, video game history and, call to arms and manifesto for the do-it-yourself video game scene”.

ohmygod are you alright? (2015)


Trailer

dys4ia (2012)


gameplay

 

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A stand-out feature of Jonathan Blow’s recent game design past, that he has not devoted a lot of time to focussing on in his talks, is how both Braid’s and The Witness’ core game content were in place years before the games came out, such that it was possible to play through the entire game at a very early stage in development. In both cases puzzles have still been added, tweaked and cut from the games right up to release but it has allowed Blow to spend years of development time just on the finer honing and polishing of the games rather than mainly focussing on the creation of content in the first place and having a shorter beta phase, which is what many game development teams are more used to.

The Witness (2016)


gameplay

Braid (2008)


gameplay

 

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Phil Fish, the creator of celebrated indie video game Fez, is notorious for voicing angry, controversial opinions about the state of video games and their development. Today, however, he seems to have ragequit on the entire video gaming community, and has taken the sequel to Fez down with him. On his Twitter account and on developer Polytron’s website, Fish has announced that Fez II has been canceled. Polygon and Joystiq both independently confirmed with Fish that it’s not a joke: the game is no more. Developer Polytron also confirmed the cancellation in a tweet to its followers, writing “we apologize for the disappointment.”

Fez (2012)


gameplay

 

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Masaya Matsuura, born June 16, 1961 is a video game designer and musician based in Tokyo, Japan. Matsuura been credited with popularizing the modern rhythm-based music video game at his studio NanaOn-Sha. Matsuura is not happy with the state of game audio today, complaining that music in many games is simply background filler, and while the quality has improved its role “is still like it is in movies.” He mentioned that he had previously been quite negative about the cinematic aspirations of some modern games, but that now he feels that like everything, it can have a place.

Vib Ribbon (1999)


gameplay

Rib-Ripple (2004)


gameplay

 

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Alexander “Demruth” Bruce is the developer behind the critically acclaimed game Anti-Chamber. Currently it is not know whether he plans return to game development. He has stated only that he is taking a break to concentrate on health and fitness.

Antichamber (2013)


gameplay

 

 

*

p.s. Hey. ** Quinn R, Hi, Quinn. Nice to see you. Ah, then you know the basic LA drill. You still thinking of moving there? Okay, thank you about the Korine. You’ve pretty much gotten through my defences. Defensiveness re: art is never the correct attitude, let’s face it. Okay, I’ll check it out. I think a friend has a download. Blake Butler’s a pal, and he always speaks really highly of Clegg as an agent. And his client list speaks for itself, as they say. I hope he takes you when the time comes. Ah, you weighed in on Dale’s outburst. I’m curious to read that. Everyone, Excellent writer Quinn R(oberts) recently wrote a thing about Dale Peck’s notorious take-down of Pete Buttigieg over at LA Review of Books if you’re curious to read his take. Here. Also obviously looking forward to your Lana Del Rey piece too. Great you’re writing for LARoB. It’s a terrific site. I try to read pretty much everything they post. Give a heads up, if you remember, when your Foglifter Journal work goes up or out or whatever it does too. Oh, man, that’s rough: the caregiving and the stuff with your parents. If it’s relevant at all, I had the same thing with my parents. They were absolutely against my intention from a very young age to be a writer. I would say, over and over, ‘Look, I know myself, and this is my special talent, if I have one, and this what will give me a happy life, and people seem to like my writing so far, and I can do this, trust me,’ etc., and they just couldn’t embrace it. They, their friends, etc. weren’t artists or interested in the arts whatsoever. Even when I started getting success, they still didn’t get it or show any interest. That was rough, but you trust your friends and yourself and the fact that total strangers are supporting and liking your writing, and that’s your guide. Or that’s my two-cents as someone at least vaguely experienced with parental prejudices and lack of knowledge-based overconfidence. From what I’ve read, your talent is inarguable. Don’t lose confidence and you’ll be just fine, more than fine. Fall/winter plans? I would love to finish a novel I started about six years ago and only recently returned to. Some traveling for PGL screenings in Europe. The next film is written, so now it’ll be all about fundraising, writing grant proposals, and lots of tedious stuff. I want to go to Japan. I need to figure that out. And your fall/winter? Thanks for the offer to do something re: our new film. It’ll be a while until we shoot it. I would say next summer at the earliest, but, yeah, we might just take you up on that kind offer. Would be cool. You have a great weekend yourself! ** David Ehrenstein, I could probably count the great writers who weren’t/aren’t real pieces of work on my left hand, ha ha. ** Tosh Berman, Hi, Tosh! I agree on both fronts. You good? What’s up? ** Steve Erickson, Yours is definitely the most positive response I’ve read to the new Sleater Kinney so far. ** Armando, Hi. Well, well, well, awesome that GbV pulled you in. ‘Clown Prince Of The Menthol Trailer’ is killer, yes. That was my second GbV purchase after the same-time EP ‘Fast Japanese Spin Cycle’ which is still one of my favorites. You’re not the first to say I look like Pollard a little. I think it’s the hair. I don’t know him personally, no. I met him once, made a total awestruck fool of myself, and that’s it so far. Sure, I remember when the Zodiac guy was doing his thing. There were a bunch of those guys doing their things at the same back then. It was like mass shootings are now. Take care. ** Polter, Polter! Oh my goodness, it has been forever! I was thinking about you the other day and wondering how you are. How wild and great to see you! Are you still in Oslo? One reason I was thinking about you is because I’m coming to Oslo in early October, exact date still to be determined, to host a screening of Zac Farley’s and my film ‘Permanent Green Light’. If you’re there, it would be so great to see you for real. Hm, obviously great and pretty unanswerable questions about the getting older condemnation. I haven’t found lies to be any less obviously lies and less odious as the years pass, maybe the opposite. I guess you do incorporate the world or others into knowing who you are and how to interface with life more. But it doesn’t feel wrong. To me. But it also doesn’t feel like ‘wisdom’, which is how most people seem to tag themselves as they age as a way to gain superiority over those still young. That’s heinous and, well, a lie. There you go. I think it does sort itself out. I can only use myself as a guinea pig, but, yeah, excitement and weirdness and the high of the unexpected is still around and in play. I’ve been stuck in Paris all summer like you. And unlike everyone I know. And it is creating this loneliness problem, but everything is supposedly interesting, I guess. So, wow, really so, so nice to get to talk with you again! So, might you still be in Oslo in early October? Love, me. ** Misanthrope, Done deal. London. Whoop! It looks like I’ll get there in November. A little too late to bump into you. Sounds like a fun weekend you’ve got going on there. Luxuriate, buddy. ** Okay. This weekend’s post is for gamers who want to know about some further out games, non-gamers who are interested in what the form is capable of, anti-gamers who mistakenly think gaming is dumbass, people who don’t have an opinion about video games but are interested in experimentation, none of the above people with a natural curiosity, in other words theoretically all of you. See you on Monday.

9 Comments

  1. Hi!!

    You’re working on a new novel? An old-new one, I guess I should rather say, if it’s been in the making for years now. That sounds so amazing! How does it feel? Writing something longer again that isn’t a movie script? I’d really love to ask you about it in detail but maybe you’re like me and you don’t like talking about exactly what you’re working on ’til it’s finished and ready to be officially born. (And this is why I find it hard to talk about my projects at all – I rarely ever finish anything, haha.)

    I can only imagine how difficult everything must be around the TV series right now… I’m glad to hear it’s making its small steps, though. How’s the French translation of your film script coming along?

    I’m still feeding off of the energy the performance gave me. Or not even just the performance itself but the whole experience – getting to see and know all these exciting and inspiring people, getting stage-ready together… To be perfectly honest, the core of the performance wasn’t what I would do if I was on my own. It was an idea Máté (my partner) has been nurturing for a while and when this opportunity arose, s/he asked me if I felt like joining. So, though it was huge fun, I don’t entirely feel like it was my project, it wasn’t very “me-like”. That said, I can absolutely imagine us collaborating again in the future but I’d like to realize some of my own ideas too next time, to create my own atmosphere and experiment further with that. I think I loved the whole thing so much because I finally felt like there was a space that could contain my freaky, non-defined gender-bending impulses and I would definitely like to take steps towards that – both on a personal and on an artistic or public level. (We still don’t have any video material about the thing but I’m dying to see it too so I’ll ask the band again today and maybe I’ll be able to share something here next time around!)

    And just to jump back to you seeing The Stooges live for a moment… fuck! Once again, I have the feeling that I was born too late, haha. It must’ve been something that stays with you!

    Have a great, great weekend, Dennis!! Much love!

  2. I wrote for LARB ONCE! I guess they didn’t like it because they’ve utterly ignored my subsequent pitches.

    Mu long-aborning piece on Mark Dery’s superb Edward Gorey bio is finally going on like at “Gay City News” on Monday.

    Glad to hear you’re writing a new novel, Dennis. I’m still searhing for a berth for “Raised By Hand Puppets”

  3. They were never as experimental or avant-garde as many of the people mentioned in today’s post, but one thing I enjoyed about Looking Glass Studios was that they were a company that really spent a lot of time looking at the theoretical/aesthetic aspects of gaming, which was unusual for a big developer. Which might explain why they sadly went out of business after 10 years (though the gaming industry is so fickle, one could say lasting 10 years in itself isn’t too shabby). Yeah, I consider myself a gamer, and even work it into my own fiction a lot: my 2nd collection had a story based heavily on an experimental game called RITUAL QUEST by Kyte Lockett, who used to be a regular on here back in the day.

  4. Here’s a very useful resource: a lengthy list of avant-garde films which are available to view on-line. It’s https://letterboxd.com/gump/list/online/detail/. Speaking of which, I’m seeing Peggy Ahwesh’s MARTINA’S PLAYHOUSE and Su Friedrich’s SINK OR SWIM at Anthology tonight.

    The dentist called me back today and said that he can see me Tuesday if I can call his office Monday and make an appointment with his receptionist. That ended well.

    There’s a music video director I’m trying to interview. I keep getting a runaround, and I don’t know if he really is very busy and unable to decide if/when he can talk to me. When I call his production company, his assistant is very nice to me and says he’s in the middle of shooting or editing a video and that she’ll E-mail me back in the next few days about his availability, but she never actually does. The cycle continues. I have no idea what his life is like, and he’d be doing myself and Studio Daily a favor by talking to us, but a straight answer would be refreshing at this point.

  5. Hey Dennis, I’m back from the mysterious east. Philadelphia, that is. You probably remember I complain about all the prosaic games that I see, so I’m really looking forward to checking out today’s gallery. I only know Jonathan Blow/Braid from the Indie Games doc (but probably everyone does, duh). La La Land is very interesting, and I’d say Davey Wreden is worth a marriage proposal or two.

    Great to see Kevin’s Jack Spicer article yesterday. I didn’t know he was such a character (Spicer, that is; we know Kevin was a character!) Will try to check out his work and bio soon.

    Mostly getting unpacked and organized here. Will be at Mark Dresser’s solo concert/vegan dinner tonight.

    Bill

  6. I’m no kind of a gamer but right now there’s an exhibition on at the V&A Dundee that I think must be pretty good if you’re into that scene. Cannot confirm how avant-garde or auteur-led any of it will be, mind you.

    This is me back in Leeds for a short while. On Wednesday I’m off with my brother Nick to see Leeds United vs Brentford at Elland Road, which is my first chance to see the enigmatic managerial genius of Marcelo Biela sat pitchside on his upturned bucket and I’m looking forward to it a great deal. Then on Saturday Nick’s getting married up in the Lake District. Probably fine and enjoyable, we’ll see how it goes.

    While I’m down here I’ll be putting together The Call zine issue #3 that is shaping up to be quite the monster. It has a rock festival lineup of art, illustration, writing and poetry, definitely the most ambitious and wide-ranging installment so far. We go to press on September 6th so I still have a bit of time to do the thing justice.

  7. Hi Dennis. This post is great. I’m a mostly-non-gamer-who-finds-the-form-potentially-interesting, so this is right up my alley!

    I have a question: would you/this blog be open to hosting the “online premiere” of the movie I just finished? The movie is a very literal adaptation of this odd little book Jarett Kobek wrote in 2012 called “If You Won’t Read, Then Why Should I Write?” We just held the live premiere last night at the Poetic Research Bureau, which will probably be the only live screening I do (unless someone asks to screen it, but I’m not going to be submitting it to festivals or anything). If you’re into it, I’ll start gathering the usual materials for such a post and send it your way. Let me know! Thanks.

  8. Dennis, Good day today. I haven’t really ever thought of videogames in this context. I always think of what’s in front of me and is it fun?

    Well, we’ve obviously got to get to Paris someday as a triple threat, me, LPS, and Kayla. We’ll time it for when you’re a little less busy. Of course, you ever get back to NYC for something, we’d traipse on up there. They really like you. Oh, and they really like Bernard too. And Steve.

    You know what? Yesterday was one of those parties that turn out even better than expected. So much so that I was pretty down all day because my boring errand-running day today was such a letdown. I’m fine now. Just was out of it most of the day. Good food, good people, cute, funny kids that I chased around the place for a good hour before they left. Funny when you haven’t seen a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old in about a year and they remember your name and call you “Uncle George.” Kind of sweet, you know.

    They really liked it when I tried to sit in their car seats. They wanted me to try and sit on the floor in front of their car seats, and I was like, “No way, it’ll squish my butt.” For some reason, they found that hilarious.

    Their mom texted me about 10 minutes after they left and said the kids were out like lights. Job well done, Misa. 😉

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