Group members: Shana Hadi, Khuyen Le, Pablo Ocampo, Ryan Tan, Junming Wang
We aimed to create a narrative-based walking simulator that challenges the standard way to experience an abstract art painting, in which the player navigates the world of the canvas. Inspired by art movements such as Abstract Expressionism and De Stijl, we hope to emphasize the experience of being within a space and moving within it, versus trying to speed-through the sensory experience and finish the game. The soothing soundtrack and narrative fragments that cohere the game encourages player self-reflection and reexamination of types of space as they journey through the painting as a tiny blob. Ultimately, we intend to design a game that art enthusiasts and casual gamers alike would regard as a novel, digital way to explore an abstract painting and the meditative emotions the original painting and our game hope to evoke.
Before arriving at this vision, we ideated a variety of different game ideas, completely unrelated to our final decision. These can be pictured in our brainstorming mural:
Once we narrowed our direction down to something relating to abstract art, our initial thoughts about what the actual gameplay could look like can be seen in the following mural:
Some of our early ideas involved looking at the innate elements of a piece of abstract art and deconstructing these in fun ways that could allow the player to interact with it in small minigames, such as recreating a Pollock style piece by squashing paint bugs running around on a canvas or skating in a Kandinsky skatepark. The final direction we chose did not strictly adopt the independent mini-games quality of our early ideas, but was very much influenced by the notion of deconstructing a painting’s elements, and reinterpreting them in playable ways to tell a compelling story.
Decisions on Formal Elements and Values
Our game is aimed at a casual audience who is more interested in exploring new ways to interact with art over testing their twitch-skill chops. The game will also appeal to walking sim and puzzle fans alike for how it encourages you to linger and consider environments in new ways.
A level is completed when the blob successfully navigates out of a painting through a tear in the canvas. We chose this objective to highlight the themes of loneliness and belonging: though the blob may want to stay in the painting as its home, exploring the world shows that it isn’t “right” for the blob, so leaving is the best thing to do.
Rules and Procedure
Each world has its own progression to reflect the blob’s journey in finding its home and itself.
The first world has the blob chaotically whisked around by cosmic forces. We wanted to capture the existential feeling of a blob being formed basically by accident, like Rothko’s oil paints were waves pushing it around indifferently.
The second world is an isolating social world: the amorphous blob isn’t welcome to stay with Kandinsky’s perfect, celestial circles. The third world is an assimilating social world: although the blob is invited to integrate in the rigid De Stijl world, it must conform to the rectangle’s fixed conceptions of it: red, yellow, or blue.
Types of Fun
To highlight our themes of loneliness, self-discovery, and belonging, we wanted the player-blob to overcome each level as they explore potential answers to these existential questions. This pushed us to think of paintings as levels and to think about how abstract worlds could “come to life” as obstacles for the player.
Since abstract art is at the center of our vision, we wanted our game to evoke the same sense-pleasure that a painting would. We couldn’t replicate the visceral experience of taking in a painting in-person, so we instead opted for making the players come to life in their own right. Animations, dialogue, and physics are layered on top of iconic paintings to evoke the journey of a museum-goer’s eye, but told from within the painting rather than from the outside.
We hoped that players would identify with the blob character who is finding their way through several abstract art paintings and learning from their journey. This is discussed further in depth below.
Onboarding and Balance
To introduce the player into the game, our first level is designed over wide open areas that invite player exploration over having to reach the goal right away. The zones establish that the worlds are primarily interactive through simple physics that affect the player. This prepares the player for later levels, which incorporate more complex obstacles, like moving objects and status effects.
A splotch of dirt somehow finds itself on Mark Rothko’s “Mauve Intersection” at a museum. Perhaps it’s a speck of dust that a gust of wind dragged along, or perhaps one of the museum patrons accidentally got it on the piece. The player doesn’t know exactly how the splotch got there, but even more unfortunately, neither does the splotch. In fact, the splotch suspects it is itself part of the painting. Something seems off, however. The Rothko is unwelcoming and questions the splotch’s presence within it. Despite, or perhaps because of, the austere beauty of the artistic landscape, the splotch begins to realize that it may not belong there. It wanders around the painting looking for its place within it, which is represented in the gameplay by the maze the player goes through, exploring different sections of the painting. Eventually, the splotch gives up, concluding it doesn’t belong with Rothko at all, and escapes through a fissure in the canvas.
The splotch now finds itself in a different painting: “Several Circles” by Wasily Kandinsky. Maybe this is where it belongs. Unlike the Rothko, here there do seem to be beings more similar to the splotch. Agentic entities, like the splotch, except for one key distinction: they are perfect circles. This painting is filled with these beautiful shapes of different colors, whose graceful existence alone can be called art. The same cannot be said of the splotch and the circles realize this; they brand the splotch as a disruption to the elegance. This shunning is represented in the gameplay by the way the circles interact with the splotch, pushing it around and bullying it until eventually they also cast it out of the Kandinsky.
The splotch tries one last time to find its place, this time Theo van Doesburg’s “Composition VII (The Three Graces).” Here, the splotch is greeted by a severe group of quadrilaterals that, to its surprise and delight, are willing to accept it–as long as it becomes like them. They give the splotch a test: it must change itself to become like them, and find a place for itself in the painting. This is represented in the painting by the splotch trying to maneuver around the rectangles and adopting and clumsily adopting their qualities. The splotch, however, is unable to fulfill this task, and just like with the other pieces, it is labelled an outcast and expelled.
Disillusioned with rejection, the splotch comes to terms with the fact that it may never be part of the museum’s exhibits. The splotch struggles with its own identity of shapelessness, colorlessness, and most of all lack of purpose. That is, until it hears a painting that seems to captivate the museum’s patrons. The blob doesn’t quite understand why, since the painting appears to be just a blank canvas, so it decides to go explore inside it. Here, there are no confusing mazes, or hostile circles, or rigid rectangles. It is by itself and the blank canvas is no more; it now contains a single splotch in the middle, and the splotch realizes this is where it belongs. People love the new piece.
Playtesting and Iteration History
Over our month-long design process, we playtested our game countless times among ourselves, and 6 times with other designers and friends. We developed our MVP through several stages: 1) concept ideation, 2) testable core, 3) refined core, and 4) final prototype.
Iteration 1: Concept Ideation
In our first playtest and pitch to peers in our class, we aimed to test several key assumptions to ensure the novelty and viability of our game. The moderator shared a zoomed-in image of level 1, Rothko’s “Mauve Intersection,” and asked two playtesters, a working professional female student and an undergraduate male student, to imagine themselves moving through the painting as a blob, and to verbally explain where they would go at each section. The moderator would respond verbally with user feedback, such as “you hit a wall” or “you feel yourself being sucked into a vortex” as they adjusted the zoomed-in screen to follow the playtester’s path.
1) Does the player enjoy exploring the world of each abstract painting, and what would they take away from finishing this game? Our initial concept of the game involved a blob character who would travel the abstract art, which would be converted into a platformer world with unique art-inspired challenges, such as zoned areas with different hue-based mechanics, or shapes that would move and talk or attack the blob. Many people, and our intended players, cannot currently visit museums in-person due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and we wondered if we could bring aspects of the art-viewing experience to players from their homes. We hoped that through the avatar of the blob, the player could experience the artwork from a zoomed-in perspective which could challenge their initial perceptions of “seeing” a whole painting from a museum wall.
2) What kind of fun does this game offer? Through a digital reinvention of “seeing” an abstract painting, we intended to evoke similar Sensory experiences from viewing the abstract painting in real-life, and to question how viewers normally experience paintings, versus when they are navigating the world of a painting and responding to art-inspired Challenges. We did not initially intend for the blob to have a deep backstory, but we did wonder if a Narrative would help players find the game more enjoyable.
Feedback and changes:
- Players overall found the game idea compelling, and were intrigued by the concept of bringing a museum experience into their screens. They enjoyed exploring the different zones of the painting and figuring out what each color area signified, such as the red portal that would teleport players from the top right corner to the bottom left corner. One player noted that they appreciated having a digital art experience without leaving their room, and thought this was a great way to have someone think more about abstract art by dwelling on the space as part of the game instead of moving quickly through a museum wall. However, players did not identify very strongly with the static blob character, and were unsure why this blob decided to travel to this painting and their motivation for continuing to play the game.
- While players found navigating the world a surreal experience that invited them to consider the artwork in greater depth as we had hoped, the lack of controls (during the playtest) and the unintuitive invisible walls led to their frustration. While both playtesters eventually reached the ending destination within 10 minutes, one noted that “this game’s pretty painful” in regards to the pink zone with the mechanic of reversing controls, and that “if it’s taken me too much longer it would’ve been too frustrating.” We addressed this issue by making the different zones (which had altered mechanics) more consistent across colors, such as all white zones have free mobility. We also removed a few invisible walls so that players could reach the destinations with more intuitive movements, such as the yellow-green section between the lower left orange section and the white zone which was once a walled tunnel. Likewise, we added a level 2 that built upon the mechanics of level 1 so that players would feel that the navigation skills that they learned from the first level would still apply as they progressed in the game.
Iteration 2: Testable Core
We coded up our game using Unity to give players personal control over the blob’s movement, and added classical music such as Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédie” to shape the sensory ambience. The blob can “leave” the current painting by navigating to a purple diamond, specially designed to maximize the blob’s route through a variety of challenges.
For the initial testable core, we built out two levels, and playtested with two undergraduate male students who were unfamiliar with abstract art to see how they would experience the world without prior knowledge.
Feedback and changes:
- Players appreciated the addition of the purple diamond (which was visible from the starting point of level 1), so that when they entered the level, they understood immediately that the goal was to explore the map and use different mechanics to get to the marked destination. However, players were unsure why they were navigating the paintings in the first place, as even though “it’s fun. It’s a lot of fun,” the transition to the next level did not adequately reward the player for their efforts. ln the next iteration we strengthened our blob’s backstory and added a frame narrative in which the blob is navigating a series of abstract art paintings to find their home, which added cohesion between levels and helped explain the blob’s motivation for the journey.
- Players thought that for level 1, the onboarding could have been much easier, with a gradual introduction to the left, right, top, and down controls, as well as the different “physics” of each zone. For example, players at first thought the red splotch in the top right corner of level 1, which teleported you to another zone, was dangerous, even though it is just another pathway to the goal. There were also a few minor unexpected behaviors with the controls and our zone rules. We remedied this by adjusting our Unity scripts to improve player controls, and tweaked the “physics” of certain zones, such as the pink area, so that the “up means down” control reversal only applied to up-down instead of the left-right, which allowed players to enter the pink area from the left without interpreting the switch in controls as “hitting a wall.”
- Players interpreted a significant change in difficulty between level 1 and level 2, as the level 2 had smaller shapes that would drastically (but unintuitively) react to the blob, such as a black orb that would send the blob dramatically spiralling into its center mass. This level could be quickly solved by just going through the white painted areas. To rectify this issue, we changed our level design so that instead of our original level 2 abstract painting with a lot of whitespace, we instead designed a new level with Rothko’s “Several Circles” that had a smattering of circles that could offer a new gameplay challenge beyond exploration.
- One player noted the educational potential of this game for introducing abstract art to a younger audience, combined with the themes of self-discovery and finding yourself through examining paintings, and we were intrigued by this possibility and deliberately sought to recruit a younger playtester for the next iteration.
Iteration 3: Refined Core
In response to playtesting and teaching staff feedback, we made several key changes, including strengthening the overarching narrative and completely redesigning level 2 to support our blob’s character development and our player’s sense of progression as they developed greater familiarity with the world and controls, and greater investment in the blob’s ultimate fate. We asked an undergraduate male student and a thirteen-year-old female art enthusiast to playtest, as we wanted to see how these two age-groups would differ in experience and impression of the game.
Feedback and changes:
- Overall, players appreciated the better controls and more streamlined gameplay, and noted that the narrative snippets before and after each level added “meaning” to their gameplay as they felt they were helping the blob (and themselves) discover a new world. However, they would have appreciated more structure and hints on how to arrive at the destination, as it is “a little bit too abstract.” We addressed this by adding in-level dialogue by the other shapes. They would hint to the blob the next place to travel, maintain the narrative momentum, and contribute to the painting’s personality, such as the color zones in level 1 that would speak in unison (inspired by Rothko’s artistic belief that broad swathes of deep, rich colors could trigger viewer emotions), as well as the circles that would sing in level 2 (inspired by the artist’s kinesthesia and philosophical belief that each color and shape had a musical equivalent).
- The younger playtester appreciated the narrative element and the blob’s journey, and said “it’s cool. It’s like another way to look at art without going to the museum,” and how she “vibed with the blob” and liked wandering the paintings and learning as she explored the world. Over the 3 levels, she became invested in the narrative, but did not like the more bittersweet version of the ending (where the blob’s consciousness fades away), and thought the blob (and the player) should get a better emotional pay-off after the journey. We addressed this by adjusting our game’s ending to be more open-ended, so that while the last scene involves the blob’s despondency as they realize they do not fit in the other paintings, the blob also learns to appreciate how itself, and it alone, can be art — because what is abstract art, if not dependent on the viewer?
Iteration 4: Final Prototype
Please navigate here to play the final prototype of our game! Thank you for playing! 🙂
Throughout playtesting, we kept returning to the question of how we wanted the player to interact with abstract art, and always left with more questions than answers. This version lets you zoom into living paintings by voyaging around the canvas, but there’s still many other exciting ways to explore abstract art. Minor tweaks, like lives and enemies, dash movement, or a “paint” mechanic could push abstract art as a fun challenge in new directions. Some of our radically different level designs include a geometric bullet hell where you pay attention to compositional elements as individual bullets and a threatening whole.
Alternatively, we also appreciate how visual art invites you to “linger,” just as walking simulators do. With greater technical know-how, we could imagine this game as a 3D walking simulator in VR, where shapes, colors, and compositions surround you to evoke sense-pleasure over challenge.