The Happy Medium

A pretty calm dinosaur, considering the circumstances

Pixeljam make art in the tradition of Nintendo guru Shigeru Miyamoto and filmmakers the Coen Brothers.

Like Miyamoto, they have a reverent, childish imagination. Their simple obsessions blossom into tight, pure game designs. And like the Coen’s characters, Pixeljam’s protagonists (the hungry Ratmaze Rat, the domestic Gamma Bros., or the Romantic, pastoral Dino of Dino Run) are preoccupied with the pursuit of the simple life, but struggle to cope with the presence of evil.

That they manage to wring out such emotional depth from blocky pixels and fat-free design is shocking. That they seem genuinely humble and unaware of their genius is even more so. Rich Grilloti (art) and Miles Tilmann (programming, sound), the two masterminds behind Pixeljam, took some time to answer some of my questions via email.

THM: Choose three video games to represent the medium as an art form to an outsider.

Tilmann: What a tough first question!  I really have to dig deep and try to remember the games that made an impression on me beyond mere entertainment. I would say Karateka was one of those games, and perhaps Passage by Jason Rohrer would be an obvious choice, although I’m stuck trying to think of a third. I’ve played a lot of amazing games, but I’m not sure if I would consider any of them “art”.

With Dino Run, it seems like you were pushing gameplay as a narrative tool. The act of playing is what progresses the game and its themes. It doesn’t rely on explanatory text or cutscenes.

Grillotti: I don’t think there was ever a thought about cutscenes for this game. I would however like to have nice, big, pixel-y cutscenes for some future games. An adventure game, or an RPG, perhaps.

Tilmann: To make an immersive prehistoric environment I think it was necessary to remove any trace of humans, including typical human ways of conveying information like cutscenes and narrative. Although I don’t think we did this on purpose. We just didn’t have tons of time and budget for the game and had to present it as simply as possible, which for this type of game, works out to its advantage.

Your games are very—gameplay seems to flow from the graphics. Are these organic designs a result of your working process?

Tilmann: I think it’s because Rich and I are close friends and I feel like I understand what he wants to see when he gives me the graphics and animations. Of course, I never have the time and energy to make exactly what he wants, but it usually comes out close enough to satisfy both of us. I can imagine in a larger development environment where the programmers are not terribly familiar with the personalities the artists, or even friends for that matter, that the gameplay would suffer because of that personal disconnect.

The ambient effects lend a lot to the surreality of an idyllic world ending in Dino Run. What was the feeling you were aiming for?

Tilmann: That’s probably a question for both [third Pixeljam member] Mark DeNardo and myself. We work on the music and sound together. Mark is really good at coming up with very organic and sometimes otherworldly sounds using a Gameboy, and I neurotically comb through 30-40 minutes of his improvisations to find the perfect sound for a stegosaurus moan, or a distant bird about to be squashed by a boulder.

You were recognized at the Independent Games Festival Awards last year. What were your impressions of the other games? Are you looking forward to this year’s IGF?

Grillotti: From this year I liked Crayon Physics Deluxe a whole lot. I would like to go next year, sure. We’ll enter Dino Run and see what happens.

Tilmann: I just noticed a few days ago that the Best Web Browser Game category has been removed, so it will be interesting to see how flash games can actually compete with the big boys. It’s somewhat discouraging, but at the same time I think it will be good for the flash game community, as it will encourage them to get their act together and stop making crappy addictive games just to collect advertising revenue.

What kind of alternate business models do you think would help the flash game community?

Tilmann: I’m not sure what type of model would help the community financially, but if we want to talk about making the world a better place to live, or at least enabling some sort of social evolution, we need to move away from the current model of:

1) Make game as banal and addictive as possible.
2) Drown game in ads that appeal to the lowest reptilian faculties of the brain.
3) Make money, go back to step 1).

It’s somewhat painful for me to see our game spread to sites that are obviously pathetic attempts to cash in, instead of helping spread a form of media that can affect positive social change if utilized correctly. I think most people would agree that gaming is still in its infancy, so I think we’ll just have to be patient for now.

A Pixeljam RPG or puzzle game: what would they be?

Grillotti: We have some ideas for a Pixeljam RPG involving a wizard-type character…

Tilmann: We are also brainstorming a puzzle game that might be one of our next projects, but I won’t give away anything else.

The Dino Run character has very natural, instinctual expressions no matter how dire his situation—probably how a real dinosaur would have looked during disaster. Despite this, he creates a deep connection with the player, even instilling deep terror when he is near death.

Grillotti: Yeah, he’s a pretty calm dinosaur, considering the circumstances.

Tilmann: I would imagine that huge reptiles would stay pretty focused regardless of what’s going on. We’d like to keep the characters realistic but lovable at the same time. It’s a tough balance.

How do you get so much expression and empathy out of pixels?

Grillotti: I’m amazed how it actually works out sometimes, really. I think timing is a pretty important aspect. And trial and error is certainly a part of it. One frame at a time, pixel by pixel. And I think I put myself in the position of what’s going on for the character, the responses and reactions just come naturally to mind, and then I am off pushing pixels around to animate it.

A lot of traditional art critics are seem scared of the video-game medium because they’ve spent decades analyzing mostly static works. What do you think interactivity brings to art?

Grillotti: Another dimension for creativity to work through. I don’t know much about what critics are saying about games in the context of art.  I do think some games and game experiences are certainly art to me.

What kind of messages can we get from it that we can’t from old-fashioned static art?

Grillotti: Depends what messages the designers are trying to express, if any. In a game, it can be an effective way to engage people by drawing them into identification with a character, get emotions and bodily responses involved. The creative possibilities are really unlimited. But the range of what can be interactive art is vast and mediums are really merging. Cinema, games, music, art, communication of thoughts, ideas, and concepts in general; it’s evolving.

Tilmann: I think it’s really important to send a positive message once you’ve made a deep connection with the player. It seems irresponsible not to, considering that video games have more or less captured the imagination of most young people around the world. I’m not sure where Dino Run fits into this, but I’d like to think that the wall of doom is a metaphor for a possible future that nobody really wants, so we’d better start improving (and evolving) ourselves.

I had a friend in grade school during the 90s named Robert Hubbard. Do you think he was secretly C64 composer Rob Hubbard?

Tilmann: [Rob Hubbard] was born in 1956, so I’m doubting it.

Was your time at Florida State University valuable?

Grillotti: Sure it was valuable. I began to question what art was there, and that led to a lot of exploring. I did manage to create a particular area of interest of my own. I became interested in different forms of energy and the aspect of spontaneous creation, and basically wanted to get familiar with it through the creative process. So, it became a focus and I worked in many mediums, and I also wound up doing abstract pixel animations from that (under the domain of pixeljam.com). Eventually I wound up playing with character forms and looking for the most minimal pixel art I could make, where it still looked like the object I was trying to create. I found a very minimal balance I really liked that I hadn’t quite seen before. Miles and I were roommates at the time, and he was interested in trying to program simple games in Flash, so we decided to try to make a game with the stuff I was making.

What kinds of games do you think your favourite classic artists would have made?

Grillotti: I have no idea! I bet Dali would have made some very interesting “games” (interactive art) if it was an option. Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, cavemen that made cave paintings…

Tilmann: Good question. I imagine that some of those artists would not necessarily make what we would call a game, but perhaps more like a tool, or an experience. The word “game” is somewhat loaded I think. I know that in the future we would like to make some “art toys” that people get in touch with their creativity, in the same way that Lego, Etch-A-Sketch and Light Bright did for our generation. I’m pretty excited about that prospect.