GameScenes is conducting a series of interviews with artists, critics, curators, gallery owners operating in the field of Game Art, as part of our ongoing investigation of the social history of this fascinating artworld. Our goal is to illustrate the genesis and evolution of a phenomenon that changed the way game-based art is being created, experienced, and discussed today.
The conversation between Wes W.Wilson and Mathias Jansson took place in the Summer of 2011, via email.
Wes W. Wilson is an american artist with a MFA from School of the Art Institute of Chicago who works as an artist and web designer (both as practictioneer and as an instructor). In his works, Wilson explores invisible human systems and games that force us to rethink the very notion on "artistic experience". In 2011, Wilson's game “Window Cleaner” was selected by Auriea Harvey & Michaël Samyn aka Tale of Tales to be included in the Notgames Fest in Cologne.
("That is not an image of Wes W. Wilson - rather, a lookalike")
Wilson: Well, to begin with "Window Cleaner" is actually the second game I have created with my interest in certain specific kinds of gestural economies, or movements of repetition for maintenance labor. The first game in this series was "Mower" (2009), which I originally made as an art gallery videogame and then later adapted for the iPhone with the help of my friend Jack Stenner.
When I made "Mower", I was living in Florida and Ireland, where there is a lot of lawn space with grass that has to be maintained. There have been times where in my daily commute I’d see people mowing one of the lawns every day. In fact, a lot of neighborhoods give fines of up to hundreds of dollars if they catch you with your front grass too long! Likewise when I moved to Chicago I saw firsthand the people who go up on lifts or belay down ropes to clean the windows. I like these gestures because they never really end. The grass keeps growing and the windows keep getting grimy. And they are very visible.
Although I am also interested in the maintenance of invisible human systems like electricity and waterworks, I don’t think I would make a game about that because they require such enormously complex input to regulate and maintain. Plus SimCity has already made a very nice game out of that! I like simple motions. Even though they maybe aren’t very exciting to perform in real life or in my games, they are still very interesting.
Wes Wilson, Air Combat, interactive game, 2010 (still image)
GameScenes: In “Air Combat” you created an interactive self-playing modded PlayStation console with the 1995 video game Air Combat, developed by Namco in Japan. While "Mower" and "Window Cleaning" focus on apparently trivial activities, Air Combat is by definition spectacular - very few individuals have ever flew a plane, while almost everybody has some degree of experience with mowing the law and cleaning a window...
Wilson: I really love this game. Both the gameplay and the visuals are fantastic, even though they are dated. I’ve beaten it several times, and I’ve played some of the sequels. It’s a pretty demanding game, and it provides a lot of stimulus with enemies fighting you and ammo, fuel, and your position in the air and over the map to think about. You always pay attention to surviving and completing objectives, but actually the visuals and flying are very beautiful by them self. I used this game because I wanted to make a piece about endless flying, but I was worried about using flight simulators. I have a friend who plays Microsoft Flight Simulator in real time, and picks the longest flights, like New York to Tokyo. All that is needed from the game is to take off and land, and occasionally steer in the middle part during the more than 12 hour flight if you for some reason turn off autopilot. That middle part, the steering and looking around, is all that I used from the original Air Combat game, and I deleted all of the enemies and fuel gauge and music and everything else. The result is just an airplane moving slowly over oceans and continents, with clouds passing by. I also made it so that you can’t move up or down so that the viewer can’t crash into the ground.
GameScenes: What is the different between the original videogame Air Combat and your installation?
Wilson: I could have easily programmed a new flying game from scratch for this installation using the Unity engine, but I chose to hack the existing game Air Combat because the work was not supposed to be about what I created but I removed. In the existing game you play to blow up the bad planes and bomb targets on the ground. This kind of military industrial gameplay is lot of fun and can feel very rewarding for a while because you get constant feedback and information about how well you are doing. But because of the fast pace it is not very thoughtful. My mod leaves just the fighter jet and the world it is in.
A fun side note is that weeks after the show closed I happened to talk to someone who had seen it who claimed that they had played it for almost ten minutes because they had always wanted to play this game when it came out many years ago but even on “easy” mode they still got killed too quickly to really get a feel for flying around!
Wes Wilson, Air Conditioned Tower, interactive game, 2009
GameScenes: In "Air Conditioned Tower", an interactive 3D art game, you are able tocreate a somber, almost eerie experience using somber color and geometric shapes.
Wilson: I was trying to make a dream space where the player is wandering around a mostly empty office building made of glass which through visuals and audio should feel very cold. There is another portion of that same mod which takes the player out into the desert, which is supposed to feel very hot and dangerous, although both are almost entirely lifeless, with only 2 or 3 living things in each area.
"Air Conditioned Tower" was mostly a Half-Life mod which I made mostly focusing on tone and atmosphere. I made it prior to the Window Cleaner game, and I used Half-Life because I thought that the engine and included assets would work well for creating the kind of dreamlike environment I was going for, and indeed the mod looked very pretty when I was done, both with the desert levels and the glass tower levels.
However, it didn’t really feel like a success to me because the controls of Half-Life, which is an FPS, are designed to be amazingly fast so that you can shoot lots of zombies and aliens, and I had trouble getting the limited kind of feel that I was going for. I’m really fascinated with how games limit your input. For example, I think what really made the Wii version of Resident Evil 4 great was how the extremely restrictive controls added to the overall suspense of the game. Games like Canabalt, which only uses one button and yet achieves such a nice feel, amaze me.
GameScenes: What have videogames meant to you as an artists and what kind of videogames inspires you in your work?
Wilson: I am actually very interested in the overlap between games and art, with work by art collectives like Blast Theory and artists like Wafaa Bilal. Mainstream games ask for and receive a very high level of time commitment, which can be very enjoyable but disappointing to me when I put down a game after several hours of play and realize that I have nothing important to think about about other than motions my avatar was performing and perhaps what I was killing. On the other hand, art typically has to be rapidly consumable, typically in just a few minutes or even seconds.
My favorite art fits into that short amount of time so much story or concept that it gives me enough interesting things to think about and digest that it takes longer to do so than it took to experience the piece. A lot of indie games are working towards this goal as well, putting a lot of art into a shorter experience. The Portal games from Valve had some of the most amazing characters and atmosphere I’ve seen in a game. Even a one-liner joke game like You Have To Burn The Rope can be very influential on my art practice.
Link: Wes W. Wilson
Text: Mathias Jansson
Related: Wes W. Wilson one and two
Must Read: Wilson's 2010 paper, "Behind The Pixels: Invisibility, Whiteness, and Race in Video Games"
Interview series: Game Art: Contemporary Practitioners
Images and videos courtesy of the artist