The Video Game as Art

03/17/2010 4:00 AM |

Pacman is dead, but it wasn’t the red ghost that finally caught up with him. A new generation of indie video game artists raised on Atari, NES and so forth is taking the gameplay of vintage arcade staples in new, often absurd and eccentric directions. Video games are no longer the sole province of software developers and big gaming companies, but are increasingly used as vehicles for highly personalized aesthetic experiments. These are some of our favorite experimental video game artists.

Mark Essen (
When the Brooklyn-based programmer, fresh out of Bard’s BFA program, became the youngest artist in the New Museum’s Generational exhibition last year he quickly skyrocketed to the forefront of the burgeoning and suddenly highly-visible indie game designer field. His titles, all of which feature a Pop-y, retro graphic style with chunky pixels and garish colors, include hilarious and addictive parodies like Jetpack Basketball (2009) and Punishment: The Punishing (2008), as well as more bizarre games like Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist (2008). We’re pretty bad at that last one, which is good?

A clip from Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist:

Erik Svedäng (
Though this 24-year-old Swedish game design prodigy and teacher has made some impressive RPG universes with full-fledged 3D graphics—like Flipside of the Divine (2007), a puzzle game based on Aztec mythology—our favorites are the crazy conceptual re-interpretations of arcade classics. Chief among these are Pixel Cave Adventures (2007), which you play inside a virtual reality cave with all four walls serving as screens, and pilot a pixel capable of teleporting around the cube to the end of a maze; and World of Pong (2008), which is a sprawling online gaming environment (like World of Warcraft) where all the players are paddles competing in a giant game of Pong.

A clip from Flipside of the Divine:

Mark Johns (
Like most video game artists, Johns is venturing into software for mobile devices, such as his most recent iPhone app, Das Cube, in which users guide a fiery ball down a tunnel filled with trapezoids of color that, when struck, explode into beautiful light displays and earn you points. Our favorites, though, are his variations on old school classics, like Space Barnacle (2007), which is a surprisingly beautiful sci-fi Super Mario Bros-style adventure—although given the rarity of pauses in gameplay you might miss the pretty landscapes entirely—and the co-production Owl Country (2008), kind of like Duck Hunt-meets-spaceship shooters in the city, in which you pilot an owl and kill pigeons for hours and hours. And who doesn’t hate pigeons?

A clip from Das Cube:

Adam Atomic (
From an iPhone app called Zits & Giggles that involves popping zits without maxing out your pain bar and passing out, to the shockingly addictive action game Canabalt, in which you control a Neo-like character running over rooftops as buildings crumble and helicopters crash, Atomic (who collaborated on the aforementioned Owl Country) excels at simple games that anybody can pick right up and explore. There’s also the poopy game EDGEcrement, which is basically Snake except instead of growing a longer tail you drag an increasingly long trail of shit behind you. It’s like pixilated potty training.

A clip from Canabalt: