In 1978, Brian Eno released the album Ambient 1: Music for Airports. It remains a landmark in the world of ambient music, a genre which said was, “as ignorable as it was interesting” and which was intended to “induce calm and a space to think.” The music was quiet, and deceptively simple. It was hyper minimalist, which in a contradictory way, made it incredibly expansive, leaving room for the listener to explore.
Artist James Turrell accomplishes a similar feat with his “Skyspaces,” which he describes as, “ specifically proportioned chamber with an aperture in the ceiling open to the sky. Skyspaces can be autonomous structures or integrated into existing architecture. The aperture can be round, ovular or square.” Step into a Skypace, and you find yourself in a controlled environment which emphasizes color and light. As in Eno’s music, it is seemingly simplistic, but once experienced directly seems to open ever wider.
On the whole, one does not find these types of environments in video games. Most video games avoid the abstract. They tend to engage in linear storytelling with a distinct plot and character. There are, however, notable exceptions. The first game to truly qualify as an “art game” was 1982’s Moondust, designed by Jason Lanier for the Commodore 64.
Described in an early review by Phil Wiswell as, “a piece of interactive art and music whose graphics and sounds are mesmerizing,” the game put you in control of a space walker and six ships. Your goal was to cover a bullseye on the screen with “moonjuice.” This was done by dropping a seed, and then flying over it with the ships, creating trails of light and color on the screen. Moving the joystick moved not only the space walker, but also the six ships on screen, and you had to avoid running into the ships as you moved. The game’s score morphs as the trails of moonjuice spread, controlled by a generative algorithm.
The game had four different modes: Beginner, Evasive, Freestyle, and Spinsanity. In the Evasive mode, the seeds dropped actively attempt to avoid the ships, making it more difficult to create trails. Freestyle mode removes the effects of momentum from your space walker, and spinsanity sends the ships moving in a spiral pattern.
Like Eno’s Music for Airports or Turrell’s Skyspaces, Moondust is not overly complex on the surface. However, this seeming simplicity is a facade, hiding remarkable depths. It’s hypnotic visually and aurally, and is a genuinely different experience with each encounter.
While not a household name like Pac-Man, Super Mario, or Sonic, the game went a long way towards advancing the idea that a video game could simultaneously be a work of art.
Until Next Time, I remain…
Just Another Geek in the Geek Kingdom