The lights are on
Power Member - Level 10
There's no doubt that independent games have become popular as of late. Retailers/distributors like Steam, GOG, and even the Xbox Live Arcade have contributed to their rise in popularity by putting them out next to mainstream games for all the world to see. There have been many great successes across many different genres, from platformers such as Super Meat Boy, to top-down shooters like Hotline Miami. While many traditional and popular genres have thrived in the indie scene, a new, rather vague genre (if you can even call it that) has arisen from the popularity of indie development- "art games".
For those who may not be quite so familiar with the term, an "art game" usually has characteristics along these lines:
1. A large emphasis on exploration.
2. Unique and/or stylized graphics
3. Lack of a definitive "objective".
4. Many also take place in first-person, presumably for the sake of immersion.
However, it's not easy to truly define an "art game", just as it's hard to define art itself. The above are really just a basic and very general guideline for what many would consider an "art game". That said, the characteristics barely seem to portray the basic definition of a game. What kind of game lacks objectives? Is there a reason to play if there is no objective? It is for this reason that many "art games" have been called into question- one of the most popular cases being Dear Esther.
Now essentially, Dear Esther is a game about walking. You traverse an island, with your ultimate goal being a lighthouse (similar to the popular game Journey, which can also fall into the category of "art game"). As you progress further, you encounter narration in the from of several letters written by the main character to a girl named "Esther", until reaching your goal. That's it. Due to this lack of actual "gameplay", Dear Esther has sparked a bit of controversy. While many critics appreciated its great art and uniqueness, many felt that a game was perhaps not the best creative avenue with which to tell the story. Another example of this is Proteus, which takes place in a pixelated world. Similar to Dear Esther, the unique island that is created every playthrough is meant to be explored; unlike Dear Esther, though, there is no objective aside from interacting with your environment, which makes noises in response, which culminates in one giant song playing at once. Honestly, it's hard to describe what the game is like, so feel free to watch this video is you are interested:
So how does this all relate to the title? Well, for seemingly aimless games, "art games" actually have relatively high prices. For example, let's compare FTL: Faster Than Light, and Gone Home (the game in the first picture).
FTL is a game where you take control of a federation ship that holds vital information for stopping the rebel onslaught. You take control of a crew and set off on your journey. Along the way, you fight ships using a very in-depth combat system, in which you must target essential systems in the enemy ship (weapons, shields) in order to be successful. You also collect parts, which you can use to upgrade your ship, or spend them at a shop for more missiles, drone parts, weapons, or fuel. Pretty complicated, right?
On the other hand, we have Gone Home, the "art game" in this scenario. I haven't personally played this game, but based off its description on Steam, it takes place entirely in one house, and it actually advertises itself as having no puzzles or conflict; rather the emphasis goes upon exploration and discovery. In a way, it's almost the exact opposite of FTL, and a lot different than what we usually think of in terms of games. That said, the two games also share another significant difference: price. On Steam, their prices are as follows:
FTL: Faster Than Light- $9.99
Gone Home- $19.99 (as of this writing the price is discounted 10% at 17.99 as a launch special)
This brought to mind the question: If "art games" allegedly have less content than other games, why do they cost more? To be honest, I don't have a real answer to that. The best I can think of is that what we usually consider to be an "art game" is really more about creative expression than making a game in the usual sense of the word, like a look inside the developer's mind. Because of this, the creators of "art games" may have a higher value and appreciation for them than the average person. Games like Dear Esther and Proteus cost $9.99, while games with hours and hours worth of play, like The Binding of Isaac, cost $4.99 (once again, all prices come from Steam).
Ultimately, I believe it's up to the player to decide worth. If he/she wants a game involving tense action and strategy, FTL may be the way to go; if he/she wants a game where they can relax and contemplate, Dear Esther isn't a bad choice. Like art itself, "art games" are creative expression, and enjoyment and appreciation are entirely up to the observer or player. The way I see it, all that matters is if it's an enjoyable experience, and the more genres we have, the merrier.