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The Interview Principle

Tom Jubert is an independent game developer and narrative designer, based in London. His credits include Subnautica, FTL and The Talos Principle.


What’s wrong with Jonathan Jones?

Nothing wrong with Jonathan Jones, he is just what Alan Watts would call one of the spiky people. He is seeking precision and absoluteness. He wants a world where art is over here and not-art is over there, so that we can get the most out of “art” as both a useful linguistic concept and an experience. He sees Space Invaders on the wrong side and it bothers him. If Space Invaders is art then anything can be art, then nothing has any meaning anymore. We need people in the world who remind us that words and categories are useful tools. But it also seems he is going on some narrow definition of games which excludes highly filmic games like The Walking Dead. I don’t know how a film script can be art, but a film script with some branches is not.

But anyway, he’s open to counter. Here’s his central argument:

Premise 1: A work of art is one person’s reaction to life.

Premise 2: The creator of the game has ceded the responsibility of imposing a personal vision of life on the game.

Conclusion: No one “owns” the game, so there is no artist, and therefore no work of art.

We could take issue with the first premise, but it’s stronger if we accept it and question the second. Jones seems to have an (unsurprisingly) narrow idea of what it is for an audience to experience a work of art. He says, “Look at those masterpieces […] by Picasso and Jackson Pollock, and what you are seeing is a series of personal visions.”

It sounds as if Jones thinks that a painter paints a picture of the world as they see it, and people’s brains receive the picture as painted, while in a game people brains receive some mishmash of how the designer sees the world, jumbled up by code and player agency. For him calling a game art is like asking a child to jumble the pages of Shakespeare and calling that art.

For whatever reason, Jones fails to account for the essential role played by the audience in all works of art, not just games. He fails to accept that in order to appreciate a painting the audience brings all of their psychology to bear in its interpretation. It is always a two-way communication. If it weren’t, we would all have identical aesthetic taste.

So I suggest premise 2 is false, for it presumes that ceding some authorial agency to the audience is equivalent to “ceding the responsibility of imposing a personal vision of life on the game”; yet I have demonstrated that ceding authorial agency is integral to all works of art, video games just do it in a more obvious way.

At the end of the day, I’m with Wittgenstein in believing that all analytic categories as “art” are socially created, i. e. there’s no real answer to what is and isn’t art. What people like Jones are afraid to accept, I think, is that everything can be art, depending on how you look at it.

All this being said, I don’t know that traditional museums are the most appropriate place for exhibiting Space Invaders (as much as I appreciate the gesture), simply because those museums are usually for original works of art. Video games by their nature have no originals. The copy is identical to the original. So what do we need them in museums for?

Are there video games you wouldn’t consider art? If so: Aren’t there just two categories in the world – good art and bad art?

I honestly couldn’t care less about trying to categorise things into art and not-art. I know it’s infinitely more complex than that.

Does the aspect of interactivity & fun make games more or less artistic?

Nope. See above. It makes them differently artistic.

How important is weirdness for art in general and video games in particular?

Super important. If we take weird as meaning out of the ordinary, well, that’s exactly what we come to art for, right? Generally hopefully not for its own sake, but for curiosity’s sake.

I guess all mediums run somewhere on the line of how much weirdness they can take before the rules start breaking down so much that it’s hard to appreciate. It might be that painting on a canvas can take more abstraction, more weirdness than writing a novel or making a game, in virtue of the ways the audiences interact with the product. You can make that weird game that just reacts randomly, but generally to keep engagement you need a clear set of rules for player interaction.

What are some of your favourite strange/avant-garde games?

You know, honestly, I don’t go for the strange stuff so much. My brain is very spiky, analytical. It likes concrete stuff to grab onto. I honestly can’t think of something.

Where are video games today, evolution-wise? What could/should the future of video games look like?

I think it’s still very early days. By comparison to music and film we’re substantially more limited by available technology. If we survive long enough I presume we will see pretty good AI dialog engines, all the VR stuff getting smaller and more omnipresent in regular life, more co-op, more genres, more celebrity, more integration in the cultural fabric, more use of games to talk about life as we know it.

“Swapper” could also be a slang expression for a “young, highly promiscuous woman,” right?

I didn’t know that. I was reading about flappers the other day.

Subversion can be a protagonist in its own right – what are some of the subversive strategies you would like to employ in your next project?

I’ve been toying with making a game about using punishment to run a school, where the central tool at your disposal is also the cause of all your problems. And subverting character tropes. I think that’s the first rule. Pick someone people think they know, then go somewhere else with it. That’s what we’re working on in the Subnautica expansion.

Why did you make an almost disappointingly non-weird entity like a beetle Thumper’s hero?

Huh? Is this a translation thing?


Image source: © Tom Jubert

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