The Terminal Art Form: Artists on the Subtleties of Video Game Design
Artists and game designers Bennett Foddy and Nathalie Lawhead give us an insider’s perspective on their approaches to making (and subverting) video games.
Bennett Foddy, Nathalie Lawhead
Jan 23, 2023
Whether you are fighting extraterrestrial invaders, hungrily devouring pellets while avoiding ghosts, creating a new city from scratch, or taking on the Sisyphean task of climbing a mountain of rocks and garbage while stuck in a cauldron, video games offer you a unique opportunity to directly interact with a world designed by someone else, unencumbered by pesky complications like, say, physics or mortality. Yet despite (or, perhaps, because of) the staggering complexity of putting these worlds together, many of us never think about the wild variety of decisions and disruptions that can go into even the simplest video game, from “Which button means ‘jump’?” to “What if there’s no way to win?”
On the occasion of our exhibition Never Alone: Video Games and Other Interactive Design (and in anticipation of our January 26 Member Roundtable on “Video Games and Design”), we asked Bennett Foddy and Nathalie Lawhead, game designers who have both taken the medium well beyond “shoot that alien,” to consider the following question:
The work of a game designer is invisible to most of the public. What is one thing people would be surprised to learn about making video games?
The task of making video games has a way of demanding a huge variety of work; most of all when the game designer is working alone, or with a small group of collaborators. Of course I’ve written code, made 2D and 3D visual art, sound design, music, and writing—that much is clearly visible in the work. But the work has also called on me to learn to build web servers, to record myself doing accents, to solder and to sing and to make things vibrate just so. I’ve hit a friend repeatedly in the stomach to record the perfect, unrehearsed exclamation of pain, designed a pattern for sewing mediocre pajamas, performed a breaststroke while balancing with my stomach on a stool, and trained an AI to write museum placards. And this is not peculiar to me—I’ve known friends to use model railway scenery in their work, already-chewed gum, dance charts, medieval calligraphy, live human beings, even entire, original feature-length films. It is, in other words, the perfect medium for a jack-of-all-trades.
A screen grab from Bennett Foddy’s Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy (2017)
Ignoring the objections of my colleagues, I’ve sometimes called videogames the “terminal art form”—terminal because they will ultimately subsume every other creative form. Games are made of drawings and code and writing and music and rules, but also literally anything else. If games can be anything, anything can be a game.
—Bennett Foddy, artist and game designer
A screen grab from Nathalie Lawhead’s Everything is Going to be OK (2017)
“Games...are a complicated language for exploring emotion, in which all the other art forms come together to support that.”
Video games are all about the subtle art of interaction. They are about our relationship to input, feedback, and exploring a language for which there are no words. It’s the art of participation.
Interaction becomes like colors for a canvas. Games are about exploring the emotional impact of consequence, failure, victory—they become something of an introspection for the player. Interaction lets us design for emotion in a way that is especially pronounced in games because the player is no longer just a viewer of the art, they have to be part of it. Beneath all the bells and whistles of graphics, art, animation, music, there is that carefully plotted-out, interactive structure that defines games.
Playing a game is more than just an experience to “beat.” If you’ve ever been engrossed in a game, you come to realize just how much that interactive pattern is like a conversation between the player and game.
Game design is a broad possibility space for artists because games are so much more than just a reward system built around overcoming obstacles, or the binary state between losing and winning. They are a complicated language for exploring emotion, in which all the other art forms come together to support that.
—Nathalie Lawhead, artist and game designer
Everything is Going to be OK
Bennett Foddy is an independent game designer working in New York City, and teaching game design at the NYU Game Center, where he is a member of the faculty. Until 2013, he worked as a philosopher at Oxford and Princeton universities, and some time before that, in the distant past, he played bass guitar for Cut Copy.
Nathalie Lawhead is a non-binary net-artist, software creator, and game designer. They are known for experimental art that challenges the way we live and work in our digital era. Their art exists in the controversial intersection between art and games. Lawhead’s work is featured in places like the Rhizome ArtBase and in the video game collection of The Museum of Modern Art. They have won a number of awards and acclaim for their work.
Never Alone: Video Games and Other Interactive Design, organized by Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator, Paul Galloway, Collection Specialist, and Anna Burckhardt and Amanda Forment, Curatorial Assistants, Department of Architecture and Design, is on view at MoMA September 10, 2022–July 16, 2023.
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