Interactive Art

I first played Transistor about five years ago. If I remember right, it was on sale on Steam so I grabbed it, having heard great things about it. Playing it on my laptop was not ideal, the controls didn’t quite work on a keyboard and gameplay felt awkward. Not the game itself, mind you, rather my interaction with it. After a while, I grabbed a PS4 controller and hooked it up to my laptop and, let me tell you, the game was fantastic. Gameplay felt super smooth, with the triggers on the PS4 controller letting me bring up commands far easier and quicker than finding the right key on my keyboard. The game itself was fantastic, no matter the controller, but, for me, playing on a controller made it all feel more immediate and the game more present.

Games with clunky controls are usually frustrating, since it makes actually playing the game difficult. As games made the jump to 3D the question of how to navigate that space became a big hurdle. It may seem obvious now, with wasd+mouse on PC and twin-sticks on consoles, but many games tried (and failed) to make it work. The ones that really aced it (Super Mario 64!) became icons of game design. But think about when it didn’t work, as too many discount PS1 titles did; it doesn’t matter how cool your game world or systems are if you can’t interact with it without frustration.

This isn’t just with games, obviously. Imagine reading a book with an unreadable font or in painfully small text. Or the experience of watching a movie with half the screen covered. Or one of the final episodes of a TV show that’s really gone off the rails in its last couple of seasons where it’s almost too dark to make sense of what’s going on. It’s hard to focus on the actual quality of the story when just trying to pay attention to it is difficult. Surely whoever made whatever it is you’re watching/reading/playing wanted it to be watched/read/played in the ideal matter. That’s the intentionality of it, isn’t it? Inception’s meant to be watched on a screen, not paged through as a slideshow.

I think about this a lot when it comes to art. Y’know, art art, the sort you see in a museum art. But not just paintings and sculpture, but the weirder experimental stuff. Much of what you get when you go in that direction tends to be meta, self-reflective commentary like duct-taping a banana to the wall at Art Basel. And there’s a lot to unpack in the wave of contemporary experimental/post-modern art and how it focuses less on the subject depicted and more on the relation between the viewer and the piece. As it relates to here, though, a lot of it is about how you interact with the art.

Take Bruce Nauman’s Double Steel Cage Piece. I had the chance to see it at an exhibition in the city and I love and hate it. It just looks like two cages when you look at it, yes, but you’re not supposed to just look at it. You go into the cage, or rather the space between the cages, and shimmy your way around. It’s a particularly claustrophobic experience, which feels odd despite being able to see the room around you. It wasn’t fun, and I love it for that.

But seeing a picture of it doesn’t do it justice, no more than seeing a screenshot of Thomas Was Alone conveys how amazing the game is. I can write off a lot of Yoko Ono’s art as being over-the-top nonsense, but it was only after seeing an inscription with the White Chess Set that it clicked for me: “Chess set for playing as long as you can remember where all your pieces are.” The point isn’t just to look at the chess set but to actually play it. We have, and this feels weird to say, celebrated a screenshot of a game instead of the game itself.

Ultimately, art is subjective. You may find video games drivel (they’re not), you may find a banana duct-taped to the wall stupid (I think it’s brilliantly stupid). But a big part of art is approaching it as it’s meant to be, so playing a game in a way that works for you and actually experiencing an art piece as it’s meant to be experienced.

Note: Of course, all this is predicated on actually being able to access and experience the art in question. But that’s a rant essay for another day.

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