Arthouse Games
Critique: Stars Over Half Moon Bay
by jcr13Thursday, March 20, 2008 [11:10 am] Shall I project a world? If not project then at least flash some arrow on the dome to skitter among constellations and trace out your Dragon, Whale, Southern Cross. Anything might help.
--Mrs Oedipa Mass from Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49

On its face, Rod Humble's latest artgame, Stars Over Half Moon Bay, is a simple game about stargazing. This departs substantially from The Marriage, which on its face was about nothing at all, save the motions and transformations of geometric primitives. Of course, with that game, we had the title to guide us.

In the case of Stars, neither the title nor the sub-title ("the gentle bite of ouroboros") helps us drill down past the surface interpretation. We must look to the artist's background statement to learn that this is a work concerning "the relationship between observation, symbolism, exactitude and the creative process."

Does a work that needs a title for proper interpretation fail on some level? What if the title is an integral part of the work (like an all-black canvas entitled My Heart, for example)? What if we need to go beyond the title and into some kind of creator's statement to derive meaning? Should a statement be seen as an integral part of a work? If so, we might be treading awfully close to the brim of the concept-art rabbit hole.

For the time being, I'm willing to cut artgames some slack on this sticking point---the medium is young and we still don't quite know what we're doing. Every example work is essentially an avant-garde experiment, and if an experiment requires a bit of explanation to make it meaningful, so be it.

When we're dealing with a work of art that is full of metaphor and other types of symbolism, what is a creator's statement but a star chart? It shows us where to look and gives us hints about the patterns that might be lurking. When we gaze at the night sky and see pictures, we are finding patterns where none in fact exist. We can't help but do this, because our minds desperately search for meaning everywhere---even in the meaningless. Furthermore, once someone else points out a pattern to us, we can't help but re-observe it ever after. When our minds latch on, they don't let go. Thus, analyses of art symbolism and constellation charts share another thing in common: they are both contagious.

Examples of what might be called "pattern capture" (our inability to ignore a pattern once we notice it) abound in the perceptual psychology literature, but I want to present two pictures here because I find them endlessly interesting. If either of these are familiar to you, please skip ahead.

First, we have a corporate logo that most of us in the Western world encounter weekly, if not daily:

I watched this logo drive past for 29 years before I finally noticed the symbol hiding among the letters. Can you see it? If not, click the image for a hint. After absorbing the hint, try not noticing the hidden symbol next time you see one of these trucks drive past. After you've had the pattern revealed to you once, you'll see it forever.

The second image is a picture of a common farm animal. Can you see it? Again, click for a hint:

Of course, in each of these pictures, there is a real pattern---we just need to be taught to see it. The point is that the same pattern capture phenomenon occurs when no true pattern exists: for the Big Dipper, for some conspiracy theories, and perhaps even for the creative process itself. And here is where we come to the thesis of Stars.

Creativity is not about pulling a completely new idea out of thin air, but instead about the process of making connections where none were noticed before---indeed, perhaps even where none truly exist at all. Metaphors serve as an obvious example of creative connections. When Issac Brock says, "my brain's the burger and my heart's the coal," he's forging a connection that does not exist in hard reality. His brain has nothing to do with a burger, and his heart has no connection with a coal. He's saying, "Draw a line from this one object to this other, normally unrelated object. Now think about that."

A metaphor is unlike our "true connection" examples from above. In those examples, the patterns were grounded in causal connections (a photograph of a real cow, or a logo designed intentionally to contain an arrow symbol). The similarities between brains and burgers, on the other hand, are purely coincidental, but that doesn't prevent us from finding useful meaning there.

Moving on to more complex creative products, like paintings, films, or even games, it's clear that making connections is still important, but now in terms of bringing disparate components together and adjusting them to work in harmony. As our creations become more complex, conveying our original vision becomes more and more difficult.

Imperfect tools are partly to blame, and Stars is an intentionally imperfect "star picture" tool for this reason. Try envisioning a specific star picture, and then try to realize that picture in a game of Stars. You'll find that the results rarely live up to your original vision---somewhat lop-sided, a star or two a bit out of place, and a star or two missing completely. (My muted postal horn pictured above was the best I could muster after three miserable attempts.)

Time is also partly to blame. We have deadlines for our professional creations and even for our personal creations, be they self-imposed or natural. Furthermore, realities of production often force us to serialize the creation process---we must record the voice actors before we can draw the mouth animations. Stars gives you a limited time for laying your pattern, as the clouds rise up to obscure your view of the sky, and forces you to finish placing the lower stars before you place the upper ones. Additionally, because the clouds are uneven, you must commit the right side of your pattern before you commit corresponding points on the left side.

Once all the parts of our creation are in place, we still have the opportunity for adjusting the components, but that opportunity is often limited by dependencies between components. In a painting, for example, we can't tweak the shading on an individual object if the tweak contradicts the lighting present in the rest of the scene. Stars allows limited post-placement tweaking: while the clouds descend mid-game, you can bump your stars vertically.

The game is effectively drawing a meta-constellation of it's own. It's saying, "Draw a line between the creative process and star pattern hunting on a night when briskly-moving clouds threaten your view. Now think about that." Is this game a good metaphor for the creative process? That question is part of the point, I think.

Stars Over Half Moon Bay is a complex, perhaps even self-referential work. It's a risky endeavor that's perched right on the fence between success and failure. And it's exactly what we need to see from an artist like Rod Humble at this point in the artgame timeline.


[Submit Comment]
by PatrickThursday, March 20, 2008 [5:17 pm]

Great qualifier, I appreciated that. :)

I guess it's a zen thing, if everything is meaningless then you might as well create meaning; there is no meaning but there is also not no meaning. You do run the risk of getting flamed by assholes who think it's wrong for people to make things they don't like.


by Mark NelsonSaturday, May 3, 2008 [4:23 pm]

I tend to be okay with needing creators' statements if, after reading them, I can still get something additional out of the work. What I don't find engaging is when it feels like the creative statement is an interesting proposal for a game but there doesn't seem to be a game attached to it that could qualify as even a partially successful realization of the proposal. But by that measure, I think this game qualifies as fairly interesting; and definitely moreso than The Marriage did.

I'm more familiar with the debate in avant-garde music, which I think has some parallels. You can come up with a cool concept for an album---say, Nurse With Wound's Shipwreck radio project made entirely of sounds recorded on an isolated island and manipulations of those sounds---but what you end up doing with the concept matters too. In this case, I personally think the NWW album is quite successful; but I could easily imagine an album based on the same premise that would be incredibly boring and uninteresting, and the creator's statement wouldn't save it in that case.


by Darius KazemiThursday, August 14, 2008 [12:00 am]

I am glad I was not the only one to think of Crying of Lot 49 when I saw this game!


by SteveFriday, September 19, 2008 [10:20 am]

I find your work interesting and innovative. To be brief, these works are, to me, interactive art. They are not games.

Thanks for listening.


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