can games be art?

powder talks to toybox labs about the evolution of gaming

interview by louise carter

For the cynical, it’s easy to believe that technology will bring about the demise of all human creative expression. Books, for instance, are fast becoming an anachronism, while the music industry is struggling to convince people that they should pay for something that they can get for free. Technology has made creativity easier to access, but the payoff is that it’s become devalued to the point of near-irrelevance.

But not only is this point of view pessimistic, it’s unimaginative. Art has always been a reactive process – it responds to obstacles and restrictions in order to transcend them. To say that there’s no point in making anything because the way that we consume art has changed is to miss the point entirely.

The truth is, it’s never been a more exciting time to be creative. Technology has evolved to a place where we’re able to make things that have literally never existed before – opening up a whole new world of artistic possibility.

And when art becomes freed from the question of profitability, interesting things start to happen. To use the music industry as an example, no longer are gigantic record companies getting to dictate what kinds of music is produced and distributed – these days, a person can make a record in a shed in rural Australia (which is exactly what Gotye did with Making Mirrors) and go on to sell a stack of albums anyway.

Furthermore, advances in technology are making it possible to create entirely new forms of art. And most thrillingly of all, art is becoming interactive – allowing the user to directly contribute to the experience.

Making Art Games

ToyBox Labs is an Australian independent game producer operating out of Newtown, Sydney – a flourishing hotbed of creativity where underground musicians, writers, artists and game developers are helping to shape the future of art as we know it.

The company is a two-person operation consisting of Tamara Schembri and Peter Budziszewski. Tamara has a background in linguistics and visual arts, while Pete is an ex LA Noire developer who has decided to set out on his own as an independent game maker.

Their first release was flowmo – an art game specifically designed for iPad. The basic premise of flowmo was to plunge the player into a state of ‘flow’ – i.e. complete, blissful absorption. What’s fascinating about flowmo is that it is so different to an ordinary game, in that there are no rules. The user is free to do whatever they want – they can touch the screen as much or as little as they like – and these interactions help to create an experience that is completely unique and emotionally involving.

powder caught up with Tamara from ToyBox Labs to find out more about flowmo, and the future of gaming…

Carter: What was the genesis of the idea for flowmo?
Tamara Schembri: The truth is, flowmo was not exactly planned. It sort of just happened.

Originally, we were planning to make a particle manipulation app. Just something pretty basic that looked pretty and was fun to play with. This sensible start evolved into something mind-blowingly complex pretty quickly.

First, Pete decided that it would be cool to choreograph visual setpieces in time with the music – sort of like a pre-arranged music visualizer.

Then, it occurred to me that it might be possible to arrange the particles in a way that would lead people to interpret them as planets, and dust orbiting around them.

Ultimately this stroke of inspiration evolved into telling an entire narrative – from the creation of the universe at the Big Bang, the evolution of life and emergence of civilization, and finally the end of the universe.

And, in keeping with the original idea, it’s all precisely choreographed, down to the second, and set to music. So the mood of the music fits the narrative at any given time – there’s this feeling of becoming one with the music and the experience.

So what is flowmo about, exactly?
It’s a big story – the story of the universe itself – and the way it’s presented, along with the music, is designed to make you feel a sense of emotional connection with the universe – a sense of wonder and awe.

The other part is in the interactions – they’re designed to be optional, so you can sit back and watch if you like – but rewarding, so hopefully you shouldn’t want to. flowmo is designed to be a very tactile experience – we tried to make it feel like you were reaching in to touch the universe – messing with the process of creation – almost a God-like feeling.

How would you describe the process of creating flowmo?
It was an absolute nightmare! (Laughs). From concept to completion, we took six weeks to put flowmo together, which is ridiculously short for any game, let alone something so ambitious. We were just working nonstop the entire time.

flowmo was painstakingly hard to design – like herding cats. It was really hard to get the particles to behave the way we wanted, and it wasn’t really clear that the idea was going to succeed. I had a vision, but up until the very last week, flowmo didn’t really look anything like it – frankly it looked like shit. So it was very scary – it looked pretty likely that we’d fail miserably.

How closely does the finished version of flowmo match your original idea for the game?
Visually, the finished product looks quite different to what I’d imagined.

But in terms of the tone we were aiming for, I think the final product is exactly what we were trying to achieve. The music is instrumental in creating the magical feeling of childlike wonder and setting the emotional tone of the game, and if anything that aspect works better than I’d hoped.

The beginning and end of the game are probably the parts which best fit the original vision for flowmo. In both cases there’s this harmony between the music, visuals and narrative: the music sets the emotional tone which prompts you on how to interpret the events on screen.

The opening music combined with the trippy visuals really helps ease the player into the right kind of mindset. The ending also really nailed what we were trying to do – the universe slowly winds down and there’s this poignant bittersweet music which reflects a sadness that the experience is over – yet with a note of joyfulness and hopefulness.

Have you been surprised by people's reactions to flowmo?
People’s reactions have fallen into two camps really: they either love it, or hate it. Some people were simply obsessed with it, playing it over and over, and were really inspired by the whole experience. Others hated it – they complained that there was nothing to do, which is the hazard of allowing the player to control their own experience without guiding them onto a particular path.

Our reviews have all been either 5-star or 1-star, and we take that as a compliment: such a polarizing effect is a sign that you’ve managed to pull off something really different, and which has a strong impression on people either way.

What kind of art inspires you?
It’s actually really hard for me to answer this because although of course there are a lot of inspirations and influences – it’s not something that’s easy to look at analytically. Ultimately, if a work of art, literature or music really affects you, it’s like a fusion of souls – and that’s not easy to put into words.

In general, I’m inspired by anything that tries to do something different – that tries to fuse different genres or modalities, or that gives you a new perspective on something. I’m a sucker for originality and creativity.

What’s the guiding principle behind ToyBox Labs?
Our overriding game design philosophy is that we want to create experiences that appeal to people’s childlike sense of play. We want players to be able to mess around in a virtual sandbox without being forced onto a particular path, or pushed into trying to achieve a particular goal. We’re interested in enabling relaxing, non-goal oriented, free-form play, and to allow our players to lose themselves in a virtual world. We don’t want to disrupt that immersion by having frustrating barriers to progression – you’ll always be able to play on your own terms.

We’ll be putting together a wide variety of experiences to that end – some of them will be more game-like, and some more toy-like.

We’ll also be experimenting a lot more with narrative in the coming year. Game narratives tend to follow a few tired tropes, mostly borrowed from action movies and sci-fi. We want to tell stories that a wider range of people – and especially women – can relate to. We’ll be trialling a short form slice-of-life narrative format, as well as some oddball and surreal narrative forms.

Your new game, BASH! was released recently. How has it been received?
BASH! is a sandbox driving game for iPhone and iPad which was released a few weeks ago. It follows our free-form ethos – there are no goals, no races, no objectives whatsoever: just a choice of cars and an open world environment to drive around in and explore. It’s just like an interactive road trip. We’ve been really pleased with the reception – many thousands of people from over 80 countries have been happily messing around with our little driving toy.

As independent game makers, you have the ability to tailor your games to suit your fans - it's interactive. This must be an exciting process for you?
flowmo was released to the public fully formed – but BASH! is the first game where we’re really taking advantage of the dynamic. It’s an early access game, which means it’s been released at a very early stage, and will be developed and improved in the public eye. Players who get involved in the community will be able to shape the game’s future – we want to empower the players, and make the game that they want to play. It’s a really exciting process.

The first opportunity to vote on what’ll be in the next BASH! update is open now.

Tell us about your involvement with The Interactive Canvas?
The Interactive Canvas is a book that champions the idea that games have artistic merit. This book will include interviews with game developers, as well as featuring art from many popular new games (including Dear Esther and Proteus). ToyBox Labs will be talking about the inspiration and creative ideas behind flowmo.

People are increasingly looking for deeper experiences in their games. Titles such as Journey have been unprecedentedly successful for an art game, showing that there’s a growing hunger for this type of game. And yet, there’s very little scope in the games media to delve into the deeper themes presented by games like these – the format simply wasn’t set up for that. So there’s a need for projects like The Interactive Canvas to bridge that gap, and move closer to a more mature medium.

The Interactive Canvas is going to be published in December 2014 by No Starch Press. Visit Digitally Downloaded for details.

Do you have plans to create a music visualiser app?
Audiovisual Effects is our new iPhone and iPad app which is due to be released in the coming weeks. You can play any song from your iTunes library and watch the patterns driven by the beat – but unlike other visualisers, you can reach in to touch and change the patterns. The interaction is very fluid and reactive and it’s a big part of the experience. And, just as with BASH! this is a simple first version which we’ll be adding to and improving based on players’ feedback. Among other things, we’ll be adding lots more patterns and interactions in the near future.

Tamara, thanks for speaking to powder! We look forward to seeing what ToyBox Labs comes up with next.

BASH! and flowmo are available for download now – visit the ToyBox Labs website for more info.

more by louise carter