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While some art games aggressively push against the boundaries of the common definition of a "video game," most just aggressively push against the boundaries of people's common sense and patience. Does doing nothing other than holding right on a control pad constitute a game? That's a tough question. I would contend that if the action is an interactive metaphor for something greater, then yes, it does. But that doesn't mean anyone who finds it boring has to agree with me.
So it is with some humility — and a bit of unflappable aplomb — that I present these 10 hoity-toity, self-aggrandizing art titles. I would encourage everyone to approach each one with an open mind and to try to see past the conventional cultural loci that games like Resident Evil 4, Super Mario, and Half-Life have established. But if you feel like they are all artsy-fartsy tripe, have at 'em in the comments. Or share some of your own favorites, too.
As a last thought, all of the games are free to play in a web browser, and most take little more than 15 minutes to complete. Anyway, on to the…er…art:
First up on the "holding right is all you do" checklist is Everyday the Same Dream. I purposefully listed this title at the top as an example of the possible interactive metaphors art games may offer. Everyday the Same Dream is easy to interpret as a meditation on the dehumanizing mechanization of modernity and day-to-day mundanity. It's possible to read the control scheme as a metaphor meant to foster this sentiment. Everyday the Same Dream is full of all sorts of this namby-pamby existential stuff — too bad it's missing a multiplayer mode.
Coma is a platformer mixed with elements of a point-and-click adventure that has you playing a boy named Pete. Of all the games on this list, it is probably one of the most conventionally fun to play, but throughout, it hits its fair share of emotional beats. Is the whole thing the lucid dream of a boy in a coma? Is he headed toward wakefulness or death?
This title is easy to boil down as "Braid, Jr." And while it's certainly derivative of designer Jonathan Blow's somewhat-contentious title, it enjoys its own fair share of charm. Company of Myself is another of the more conventional games on this list, but don't be fooled. See it through to the end, and you'll find some surprising twists buried in the mind of its unreliable narrator that are sure to titillate navel gazers like me.
Following in the path defiantly trailblazed by BioShock, Loved brazenly plays with the notions of quest-giving and goal-achieving. Throughout the short platformer, a disembodied voice commands you to perform different actions at key junctures in the game's sole "level." The choice is whether to obey the voice's often-peremptory "love" or carve your own way.
ImmorTall is a short, character-driven piece that plays with the French idea of a bête noire or "black beast" — the literary archetype that describes something conventionally disliked in a story. In this case, it's a towering space monster, and the plot does its literary backflip using a double role reversal. If you open yourself up to the game's short narrative, the ending is somewhat shocking — and moving.
This title is probably my favorite title on the list. It's both immediately playable and deceptively insightful. While most other art games concern themselves with wider influences from prose fiction and film, This Is the Only Level is unabashedly — and somewhat combatively — a game. The designer displays a keen understanding about the underlying silliness of gradated levels and their equally absurd goals. People have assigned a bit of a misnomer to Achievements when they refer to them as "metagames." This is a true metagame: It's a game that exposes the devices underpinning the medium itself. If you like it, check out its sequel, This Is the Only Level Too. (Play the sequel here.)
The Majesty of Colors plays out a lot like a Japanese interactive-fiction game. The only difference is that the creator compresses the experience into a five-minute series of moral/exploratory choices and garnishes them with a startlingly contrastive bit of childhood wonder. Hint: You are the sea creature.
With its reductive sound and visuals, I Can Hold My Breath Forever spins a short yarn centered around feelings of yearning and solitude. Roaming around what is essentially a timed maze, you explore underground water systems and caverns in search of a childhood friend who dove into a local pond many years ago. All in all, it's a lonesome experience that illustrates the point that games can convey as much through their overall presentation as their mechanics and graphics. What I'm trying to say is that it's good because it's poorly illustrated.
Today I Die is another favorite of mine on this list. It's a mixture of an adventure game and an interactive poem. That right, an interactive poem. I wrote it. The onscreen display shows a brief bit of verse with a few words floating in the environment. The player switches out key words in the writing to recreate the environment, and the desperate poetry and environments slowly become more and more joyful as you manipulate them. I really like the musical accompaniment, too.
Gray is another title styled as an interactive metaphor. In the game, you run around as a black character model (the side of peace) amid a frenzied, riotous mob of white character models (the side of war). The goal is to try to convince key members of the opposition to join your side. This is done through a minigame that I can only describe as a weird, hands-across-the-political-aisle allusion that amounts to a battle of oral pulse bullets. If you manage to sufficiently meet an opponent halfway — in the "gray" — they join your side. Once you turn the entire mob black, your character switches sides to white, and the whole cycle starts again with you reconverting the the rioters back to their original stance. The game goes on forever and increases in difficulty with each cycle. Read into that what you like.
Jason Rohrer's Passage in 10 Seconds isn't really an art game — unless you consider parody a valid form of art, which I do. If you've played Jason Rohrer's Passage, and you think it's a bunch of artsy-fartsy hogwash, you'll definitely want to check this one out. Take that you simpering art wimps!