There’s a YouTube playlist I quite like called “Art Games Have Always Existed.” I only have one problem with it: “Always” is a big word. It’s the foundational premise of this blog that all games are art and it’s high time we started treating them all like it, but the “art game” is something entirely more specific and deliberate of a category. I wanna speak narrowly about digital art games right now. Unless the first video game was a digital art game, and whether it’s Darwin  or Spacewar  any other early entry you care to name, it pretty definitively was not, art video games have definitionally not existed for as long as video games have. Now, that is a pedantic tautology. But what’s interesting to me, actually, is for how long art games did not yet exist.
Does the word “always” in “Art Games Have Always Existed” rely on the commonplace intuition that games before the 80s don’t really count? Unless there’s something I’m missing, and I truly hope that I am so please send in those corrections, there’s nothing that qualifies as an art game before either 1) Conway’s Game Of Life , which has always seemed to me more akin to a spirograph, a toy that generates art according to its mathematic confines. It certainly has consonance with the later understanding of the “art game” in its more meditative mode, but it was designed not self-consciously as capital-a Art but more as a mathematical exercise… which, circularly, is arguably still art. Alternatively, 2) The Prisoner , certainly self-consciously arty, a full decade later when video gaming is approaching 20 years old. Where were they in the 1960s and 70s? Computer art most definitely existed, was extremely cutting-edge, and was given dedicated museum exhibits starting in the late 60s. The midcentury world of cutting-edge high art was extremely into works that poked at the boundaries between audience, artist, and artwork. In retrospect, a crossover between these two pretty-close worlds looks like a complete no-brainer, and it would happen eventually, but interactive computer art simply didn’t happen back then, as far as I can tell from skimming write-ups of era museum exhibits. Art games, flabbergastingly, seemingly did not originate then, in that intersection.
Computing had its chic space-age charm for a bit, and when that expired, we had hippies championing the democratic, liberatory possibilities of computing, like the People’s Computer Company who made Hunt The Wumpus . Their dream of common computing wouldn’t ultimately be manifested within the early-70s timesharing networked model. It took until the home microcomputers of 1977 for computers to start to get in the hands of the masses, not institutions like universities and computing companies. But you had to pay your way in to ownership. They weren’t networked or shared, they were atomized, isolated, personal. They were the automobile to the mainframe’s train. By the 1980s, the face of video gaming is not the copyright-free sharing of proto-internets and type-ins, but of quarter-munching and commercial distribution. And this is the context in which art games originated?!
John O’Neill, the creator of Lifespan , had had some experience in the aforementioned high art world, having gone to art school and gotten paintings in gallery, finally making good on that intersection I alluded to. He was one of many who grew some hostile disillusionment for that whole institutional model and how it commodified art into an investment, turning towards other methods of art delivery, something that can get it to the people, like selling postcards at the mall. Quote John, from a 1983 book that like me stridently asserts games as art as though there’s simply no counter-argument, “I decided what I was doing was for people, and that meant turning somehow to the consumer mass market — but not in a parsimonious way, or a pandering way. Not to produce pretty junk.” Usually, one thinks of the consumer mass market as something rather hostile to High Art, thinking of how, like, Tale Of Tales retired from it in disgust. And this pretty much bears out: according to John O’Neill in a later interview, most of the 5000 copies ever pressed of Lifespan ended up sharing the same fate as ET : landfill stuffing. (Coincidentally, he provided graphics for a different ET game on a different Atari system.) But this act of creation came from a very optimistic, generous place in the heart, an ecstasy for the liberatory potential not (just?) of computers but of mass media and consumerism. What else can I say except: The Eighties! Lifespan’s distribution is more or less conforming to capitalism just as much as art as an investment does, and I think we’d have to say it was a failure by the standards of profit, which honestly do more than anything to ensure a game’s place in the canon I’m delving into… but profit wasn’t the goal, it was more like hijacking the distribution system.
The game comes with an entirely-digital user manual, without which the game is essentially incomprehensible. Incomprehensibility is mostly a perfectly fine mode for this game, though. The whole thing is highly abstract, approximately on the level of Qix , so it feels very right that understanding in terms of concrete facts, even in terms of basic gameplay goals, remains very elusive. Your only guide to interpretation is the mere hints of text, like the name of the game and the chapter headings, such as “BIRTH SPIRAL” and “OPPORTUNITY GATES”. It has, like The Prisoner, a vignette structure, but a linear sketch-comedy one instead of its carnival midway. Each of its 5 chapters have enormous divergences of interface and rules, the better to illustrate their respective scenarios and make different rhetorical points.
The first chapter is the Birth Spiral, emerging from the cellular level of Conway’s Game Of Life. This is a sensational prelude. There’s a series of dots that, yes, spiral out from a center point, accompanied by a synthesized hum. The player can only participate in this section insomuch as they can waggle the joystick to change the hum, improvising drone music. Important to note, because it’s easy to forget, that up to “now,” music in a video game is actually quite the rarity, and when it is present it is deployed sparingly, not constantly. Here we have a music game, and Lifespan’s often-paired peer in art game aspirations Moondust  takes joystick-operated music as its fundamental. There, though, there are arcade game staples like a cursor-avatar, points, a goal. Lifespan raises its curtain, instead, on an intriguing absence of anything so conventional, but rather on something barely graduating from the status of cutscene. You watch the spiral grow and dissipate, and colored symbols emerging step-by-step. The consonance between these two games reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, from art critic and historian Walter Perry whose work I otherwise I am not well-acquainted with: “All art aspires to the condition of music.” In music, the abstract comes across as entirely natural, whereas in other art forms it is often received and spurned as artifice.
The second chapter, Childhood, is the most recognizable in the game, by immediate contrast. You have an avatar, a cursor that cycles between the letters L, I, F, and E. With it, you can pick up blocks from the corner one at a time in the same fashion as Adventure . The five sprites that emerged from the birth spiral bounce around the corners of the rectangle you are entrapped in together, like giant Breakout balls. It becomes clear now that Lifespan is about human life specifically because the arena is all clearly evocative of a fenced-in toddler playpen. The fact that it’s the most recognizable by way of referencing other video games is a bit of a statement. There is no instruction as to what you are to accomplish with all these components, no parenting. Following the notably goal-less introduction, it would be fair to assume that there again isn’t any objective here but to mess around and have fun. There ultimately, is, though, and it has very specific conditions with long-term repercussions! This is the last level without a visible timer, that crushing and everpresent knowledge of finitude, primarily because the timer of the rest of the game is set by your performance here — you get a head-start on life by smart use of your childhood time. There is an invisible timer, though, expressed of by the increasing prevalence of flickering sprites, which at first blush seems like a technical error but on re-evaluation is a steadily-escalating effect that makes accomplishing things harder. All this ignorance of how precious this developmental time is quite fits the mindstate of childhood, actually. You might, like me in my first blind playthrough, end up partially accomplishing the goal entirely by mistake. You are meant to capture the five sprites, pin them like butterflies against the wall for study, put an end to their playful freedom.
In the third chapter, Opportunity Gates, your avatar has become one of those five sprites. Now the backdrop becomes a star field, like the classic Windows screensaver. You are not free to move through this space, though. You are on a one-dimensional rail that proceeds deeper and deeper into the screen, and you can only move forwards. That rail is time, even though the timer in the bottom is also time. Your only input is how fast to move. You can slow to a stop, at which point you can move around as though back on the 2D plane, but you are punished for this by a horrendous cacophonous constant noise. For the first time, “game over” is a possibility, but your goal is again not communicated to you by the game, whether by language or design cues. Underneath the star field, in the borders fashioned to look like a rudimentary cockpit, there’s a little square on the right that sometimes has sprites appear as you probe deeper into Computer Space. When you stop while these are present, fancy twisting and twirling wireframe tubes appear, the titular Opportunity Gates, and you can enter them to proceed to the fourth chapter when they are positioned so the hole is head-on from your perspective, though touching the borders makes the timer count down rapidly. The ideal play for this section is that you are to find the sprite that matches you — a romantic partner? — which makes the next section easier. You can also somehow collect other sprites to expand your acceptable possibilities, though I never managed to. It’s a delicate balance, though: you are going to pass lots of sprites — opportunities, or perhaps simply friends? — and many will not be quite right for you. There’s no guarantee you will actually see the perfect ones, and always that timer is ticking down, very slowly but surely. You can speed up to see more opportunities, but stopping is not instantaneous and you can never go backwards. If you don’t slow down to smell the roses, you could miss it.
That fourth chapter, Situations And Conversations, is mind-bogglingly obtuse, not to mention frantic. You are no longer really in control, though your cursor from the last chapter recurs here. It’s smaller, though. You are once again confined by rectangle, but now on their borders rather than in their bellies — the game board is a 2D grid. All around you, there are dozens of tiny sprites flicking all about this grid at a rapid pace, and if any of them touch you, you slow down and the timer loses points rapidly, until you inevitably slow to a stop because of the vicious cycle since now you’re easier to catch, which leads to a respawn. Sometimes, at least three of these sprites will get together and connect with colored lines to draw polygons. It resembles nothing so much as a poor man’s Libble Rabble . Some of the rectangles in the grid sometimes light up with colors that are the same colors as the currently-active polygons. Apparently, brushing against the edges of one of these while they’re briefly active is good for you and allows you to thrive by venturing into the center of one of these polygons, but there is again nothing done whatsoever in terms of positive feedback to indicate anything at all has happened when you’re on the right track, no chime of “good job.” This is Lifespan’s opaque depiction of adulthood, an overtly hostile and confusing and fast world where there are no real friends and falling behind means you’re set up to fall even further behind, and I never managed to survive it. Welcome to the corporate machine, I guess.
Thankfully, the game comes with a chapter select, from which I am able to access the fifth chapter, The Experience Corridor. This one is even harder, and I can’t hardly survive a single minute in it. But for once, it’s not because I don’t know what to do. Your cursor-sprite is now speeding forwards into a time tunnel, crude 3D reminiscent of the star field of the Opportunity Gates — but now you have absolutely no control over your speed. Maybe you’re actually falling down a shaft. You do have control over your 2D position, which you use to avoid the objects hurtling towards you in a rain game with a perspective switch. Each object is colored black or more rarely white, respectively representing “bad for you” and “good for you.” Every time you are hit, and also seemingly every time you are not, your now-familiar cursor sprite decays, flaking off pixel by pixel. Things are fast, too fast. This is a vision of advanced aging as a horrifying gauntlet of decay, no stately dignity. I’m not good enough at video games to manage it, but apparently this section can be won, which doesn’t make sense to me. If you won, you would be rewarded for surviving slightly longer than another person with a non-interactive spectacle of procedurally generated computer art, reminiscent once more of yet-to-exist screensavers. These fireworks remix the gameplay segments together, approximating your life flashing before your eyes.
What can I say about life, as depicted by Lifespan? Most obviously from the way I wrote it, life constantly gets more confusing and miserable the older you get. It rhymes with the psychological cliche of the womb being the most peaceful, pleasant part of human existence, something worth yearning a return to. Starting with childhood, there’s an optimal way to live each part of your life. Just messing around will mess you up for good. The only time you’re ever really free to make your own decisions are in picking a path into adulthood, but once you’ve picked a path, there’s no changing it. And also, there’s still definitely correct choices and wrong ones — as the manual puts it, opportunities are themselves meant for specific types of people, and most aren’t for you, though surprising matches are possible. Lifespan is unavoidably normative in its attempt at universal generalization: No matter what you pick or do, the general arc of all human lives is fundamentally all the same, moving out of a playpen where initial circumstances they have no control over sketch out the grammar of the rest of their life, into the busy city grid of streets. If adulthood doesn’t beat you down, and it will try its best with its constant barrage of unpredictable negative incidents from all angles, then aging will get you in the end, quickly or slowly. You are born, die, and live entirely alone. Despite this cynical, honestly vaguely Thatcherite outlook, survival is valued, your reward being memories.
Fortunately, we don’t have to entirely rely on my jaundiced interpretation. Because in that aforementioned all-digital manual, the author went ahead and explained the entire game as though either very eager or deeply insecure about the work not speaking for itself. Up top, he writes that the manual is split into more thematic explanations and sections that are just about telling you what the actual goals and mechanics of each chapter are, so that you can skip the artist statements and make up your own mind, but in practice the two sections constantly bleed together — just for starters, the use of some specific terminology renders the once-implacable concrete. You simply can not succeed in a game without becoming literate in it, and that process does tremendous damage to Lifespan’s initially mysterious atmosphere. To hear Mr. O’Neill explain it, the whole game is mostly focused on interior psychology, on self-actualization. The sprites from the Birth Spiral are Character Types, they’re the potential kinds of person you can grow up to be, whereas the smaller sprites in Situations And Conversations, the ones which frequently hurt you and take years off your life because “they care only for themselves and will walk all over you if you get in their way,” are the only depiction of other human beings (who you are to socialize with at this party — not a career in the city — by becoming more conformist,) since finding a close-enough match for yourself in the Opportunity Gates is not finding a romantic partner. The Experience Corridor is apparently not about aging but about keeping your soul intact in the face of doubt, fear, and worry (all internal, psychological threats, not external, material ones,) with the power of hope.
Where The Prisoner used satire to really bring it to life with layers of meaning, and in its paratext kept a smug, aloof, cagey pose, Lifespan’s idea of abstract art is basically that it is a rebus, a set of direct one-to-one symbolisms for the one literal thing. This has consonances with the fad of the “puzzle game” — that is, not games that contained puzzles like Sokoban , but games like Hareraiser  that were, in themselves, puzzles, a computer program stuffed with seeming nonsense where anything could be a deliberately obtuse clue towards the solitary correct answer, which you could mail to the developers to receive a prize for getting right. (The prize generally being something like valuable in cash terms, not just memories.) Indeed, John O’Neill’s later The Dolphin’s Rune  was wrapped in precisely this gimmick. Ironically, mostly because of the extensive artist’s statement, made necessary to the basic functioning of the game and thus part of it, that works desperately to prove in detail its worth and depth as art… I regretfully believe Lifespan is an interesting failure.