The indie hack-and-slash action-adventure game Death’s Door is an experience about which I have a very mixed opinion. And in general, when I have a mixed opinion of a game and the bits I like are cleanly separable from the bits I don’t, I like to organize my review of it into a dedicated pro and con list.
Now, each of the previous three games I’ve covered with one of these ‘pro and con’ lists is a game I ended up recommending, for which I concluded that the good outweighs the bad (whether by a lot, like with Sekiro, or by a little, like with Crypt of the NecroDancer). This is the first time where that’s not quite the case. It is a close call, but I do think the bad slightly outweighs the good this time around. Nevertheless, I think you’ll initially be confused about me saying that, as I’ve got a lot of very nice things to say about Death’s Door.
Any analysis of the relationship between the player-character and their environment in Factorio must begin with an acknowledgement that Factorio is a game that does considerably more to accurately depict the environmental impact of human industrial development than the vast majority of its peers in the simulation, management, strategy, and puzzle genres.
In Stardew Valley, for instance, not only do forests rapidly regrow and lakes never deplete of fish, but quarries, mines, and caves also replenish with stone and ore from day to day. Similarly, while Infinifactory does periodically foreground topics like mining, exploitation, and waste in its story and puzzle design—it nevertheless provides an infinite supply of inputs that can be accelerated or decelerated at will, even when those inputs are living creatures. Even games like Terraria and Minecraft, which go so far as to represent resource acquisition as a zero sum game, nevertheless depict all processing, combining, and consuming of those resources as a pollution-free, byproduct-free non-zero sum game.
By contrast, in Factorio, resources are finite; resources don’t always combine cleanly into singular products; pollution results from production; and pollution has consequences for both the world and the player. Nevertheless, despite its demonstrable steps in the right direction, Factorio preserves a great many of the negative practical and psychological trends embodied by such optimization- and development-focused titles. In fact, it is precisely because Factorio does so much to emphasize the topics of resource scarcity and pollution that its weaknesses in the realm of environmentalism shine so brightly.
Pikmin was one of the last few entirely original game concepts produced for Nintendo by Shigeru Miyamoto (the creator of Donkey Kong, Mario, Star Fox, The Legend of Zelda, and more), and it is certainly overshadowed by the worldwide phenomena of his earlier creations. Still, I feel that the original Pikmin is a tremendous game, well worth discussing, and is a very unique approach to the otherwise mostly warfare-focused genre of real-time strategy.
Dedicated readers of this series will probably find the title of this article oddly familiar. That is because it is almost identical to the title of an article I wrote previously about Valve’s Portal franchise. I couldn’t help but notice the similar thesis here, where I am saying that the campaign of a sequel to a distinctive and well-known title is weaker than the original, against the critical consensus, and on the basis of both tone and design. But in this case, I feel that the quality difference is much more pronounced. Whereas I consider Pikmin to be an excellent game deserving of classic status (like both Portal and Portal 2), I find Pikmin 2 to be a stale, stilted, and even at times boring game to play.
The nature of this article is such that it requires spoiling plot details of Pikmin and Pikmin 2, so you should only continue reading after this paragraph if you do not mind spoilers or have already played the games.
Game designers who take seriously the idea that they are creating works of potential artistic significance operate at a great risk to their peace of mind. Regardless of the quality of their efforts, if their works are successful, they can expect to be bombarded with accusations that they are over-serious, over-dramatic, pretentious, overly political, egotistical, fatuous, and snooty. While players may be mostly united in the proclamation that games can be art, they often behave as though they are allergic to what it would mean for the world to accept that postulate: the production (and later the analysis) of works that are at least as challenging in subject matter as they are in mechanics.
One frequent target for that manner of criticism is Jonathan Blow, the lead designer and partial programmer of The Witness, which was made with a small team under the developer name ‘Thekla.’ The Witness is a game in which the player wanders an uninhabited, brightly colored island, slowly uncovering its landscape and details by tracing lines on the faces of circuitry panels installed throughout.
On first glance, The Witness is a quasi-conventional title in which the player solves visual logic puzzles in order to ascend and explore a conspicuously placed mountain. Beyond that first impression, however, it slowly becomes clear that The Witness is a work overflowing with visual trickery, peppered with recordings of fiction and philosophy, offering a coherent-yet-concealed story concept, and harboring some of the most astonishing secrets hidden in plain sight in any piece of popular media ever made. These latter elements, much like the narrative details of Blow’s prior game Braid, have garnered a fair amount of the heavy-handed dismissal described in the paragraph above.
Most players agree that games can be art, yet act in ways that betray the fact that they do not personally approach games as art. For such players, it is as though the word ‘art’ is merely a badge that gets to be worn by things people particularly like. They see that some people seem to like novels quite a bit, and that those therefore get to be art. Well, they want to make it clear that others now like games a great deal, so of course they want games to be allowed to wear the badge too. I am certainly of the opinion that games can be art, but from my perspective the word ‘art’ does not refer to a vague and insubstantial category of preferred works.
In this article, I would like to zero in on this topic of games as art. My test case for this purpose will be the design-based puzzle game Infinifactory. This example is a very conscious choice on my part, as Infinifactory is one of the many games that I consider to be poised between conceptions of games as art and conceptions of games as not art. If that sounds strange or you’re already making assumptions about where I’m going with this, don’t worry: I’ll explain myself with considerable specificity in the sections that follow.
This article will have four primary parts. First, I will present a working definition of art that I consider to be both flexible and rigid enough to be tenable. Second, I will apply that definition to games in general. Third, I will justify my claim that players often approach games as though they are not art. Then fourth and finally, I will describe how one may conceive of Infinifactory as a work of art. In doing all of this in a systematic fashion, I aim to foster a more specific and concrete discussion of this topic than most of the extant debates and articles produced about it over the past few decades have engendered, as a small contribution to spreading the formalist revolution in the study of games to a wider audience.