Greg Nishikawa, Tiger Brooke, Ky Fifer – Sixty Frames Per Minute (2011)
This case study examines Greg Nishikawa’s “Sixty Frames Per Minute”, an experimental online game that falls within the realm of Software Art. I will use a Post-Structuralist methodology that highlights individualistic interpretation, and synthesizes a variety of approaches to knowledge, including the experience of the work, the modern histories of Software Art and gaming, and a textual analysis of the narrative. Using these methods of analysis, I will pursue a qualitative, experiential analysis based on my own encounter with the work and posit an interpretation of the text in order to determine how the work uses virtuality to draw attention to the spectator’s role and embodiment. Since gaming software art is a relatively new category of art-making—one that like cinema is situated most recognizably in the commercial application of the entertainment industry—it often has to justify itself as an art form. While there is undeniably a glut of computer games that are exclusively focused on entertainment and not high art, what seems to distinguish more artistic practices is an attempt at subversion of the standard relationship between gamer and game, and narrative or interactive practices that draw attention to the history, intention and operation of the form. Although defining “Art” is notoriously slippery and usually a pointless activity, a good way to begin to consider what distinguishes “Software Art” from other methods of art making is the definition set forth by the Transmediale festival in 2001, where the jury for the first software-art prize noted that it is“…opposed to the notion of software as a tool… [it] has the potential to make us aware that digital code is not harmless, that it is not restricted to simulations of other tools, and that is itself a ground for creative practice.” (“Transmediale 2001”). As such, it seems linked to an awareness of the medium, and the role it plays in the work that it has created, much like any other form of “high art”. This is not to say that works that do not draw attention to medium cannot be art, but it seems as good a place to start as any for an in-depth analysis.
“Sixty Frames Per Minute” is an browser-based game designed by Greg Nishikawa, Tiger Brooke and Ky Fifer as part of Nishikawa’s thesis research at the University of Southern California. It explores perception from the point of view of a stop-motion character by contrasting two perspectives—one in stop-motion time and the other in “real-time” (Nishikawa. “Gymmi’s Eyes”). The gamer controls the character of Gymmi, a small stop-motion puppet character set into a paper-collage natural scene on the left hand of the screen; on the right hand side, the same scene is repeated, this time in a cinematic-style document of the movements that the gamer makes with Gymmi on the left. Moving Gymmi through the scene is painstaking. One step seems to take an eternity, while the right hand screen zooms through the motions rapidly on an endless loop that slowly incorporates the new movements as it extends through the time and space of the game. The structure of the game is side-scrolling exploration, much like the familiar Super Mario games for Nintendo. However, unlike Mario, Gymmi can’t interact with the other characters and doesn’t seem to have the same goals of collecting and completing the race. In fact there is no race, just the simple struggle to move forward, assuming that the game will end at some point.
Although in many ways, the coding used for “Sixty Frames Per Minute” is simply used to create an immersive narrative (as opposed to Glitch or other forms of Software Art that break the code to prevent it from running quietly in the background), it also simultaneously activates an awareness of the medium and disrupts the traditions of gaming for a conceptual purpose. Historically, most games establish expectations that the narrative itself is a process that leads to something (usually winning or losing the game), however with “Sixty Frames Per Minute”, the journey itself seems to be the message. It is an attempt to slow the gamer down, to force them to pay attention to the moment of gameplay rather than reaching to the next stage or prize. Usually gaming attempts to be as immersive as possible, mimicking “real-time” in order to maintain the illusion of the environment. A lag in time is often considered an error, messing up the smooth interface of the game and disrupting the act of reaching the goal. “Sixty Frames Per Minute” often seems like an error, and attempting to navigate the world is frustrating because I didn’t seem to be achieving anything. However, a modicum of patience revealed several goalposts along the way, that maintained my interest by shifting the scenery or creating new actions. Along the path, several signboards allow Gymmi to pause and read, referencing information gathering in Mario, and other early action adventure games. However, for Gymmi, these signs do not offer information about actions, interface or advancing gameplay, instead they provide insight into the previously silent character’s internal dialogue.
The first sign reads:
“Gymmi treads his path a step at a time
Slowly finding his way
His thoughts, as well, are tiny bubbles
Easily distracted and erased
With the world laid out before him
He seeks to understand it
He believes he can find an answer
And find others like himself”
The text on this signage is obviously self-referential to the duration and gameplay at work in “Sixty Frames Per Minute”. It offers an entry point for the gamer’s contemplation of their role in the game, and the way that they might have to shift their expectations to better engage with it. Like the texts, other interactive elements along the way stunt the gamer’s expectations of what should happen. Two moments of interaction, shaking an apple tree to pick up ripening fruit and leaping to catch stars, are disrupted by the lag in duration. The apples are difficult to drop before they corrupt and rot (they turn into glitched images as they fall) and the stars are seemingly impossible to catch—a shadowy character moves faster than Gymmi and steals them from the sky above him before his slow-motion leap is able to reach them.
Since the gamer controls Gymmi, it is safe to say that one is supposed to identify with him (and I certainly did, feeling the wonder of his environment when he stops to watch meteors and wanting Gymmi to succeed in his tasks). These shadowy characters are intriguing since they seem to act both as an antagonist to Gymmi (and therefore the gamer), and an embodiment of the gamer simultaneously. The shadowy figures move at the speed I wished to move, and managed to fulfil the task that I was expected to do in the tradition of computer game design. Gymmi is unable to speak or connect to these rushing shadows, and by continuing to expect the things that regular computer games offer, it means that I was unable to fully connect with Gymmi as well.
By providing the two perspectives side-by-side, however, “Sixty Frames Per Minute” also moved beyond the simple experience of duration in relation to the conventions of gaming, and began to deal with issues around memory and identity as well. Once again, by identifying and controlling the protagonist in the game, the gamer in some ways creates his narrative (in a limited manner of course). Although the character can only move forward, backward, or stand still, there is a cinematic record of each of those movements on the right of the screen, which changes every time the game is played. Each instance of the game is slightly different, depending on how long you stand in one spot, whether you move only forward, or pace back and forth. The gamer can choose not to activate any of the signboards, trees or other elements, and can attempt the interactions for as long as they wish, since there is no timer that will end the game.
In many ways, the word “game” itself is a fallacy, since there is no ability to “win” or achieve anything within the structure. Instead it is more like the acting out of a narrative. Like a character in a film or play, the script is set, but there is variation within it. In addition, the “real-time” only ever displays the actions that have already taken place. It is a loop of the past, and any actions that Gymmi might execute are contingent. This draws attention to the way that we also create memory, how it affects our choices, and how it seems to exist in a different state of duration as reality. The duration of memory is timeless—it seems to loop perfectly, after-all it is a fragment of unchangeable past experience; however memory is fallible and is recorded differently by each person. Here, the game both recalls our actual memories of the experience of gaming, and re-presents it to the us as a cinematic document of truth. While participating in the game we are watching, remembering and experiencing at the same time. It is a confusing state to exist in as a gamer, especially if one is used to the simplicity of a gaming experience where you (simply) immerse into the narrative and play it out in a single path in order to “win”. This confusion acts to draw attention to our situation as gamers, and the culture of gaming that informs the rules of its’ products. “Sixty Frames Per Minute” breaks many of the conventional rules of gaming, and forces us to reconsider its production as something other than entertainment, as part of a discourse of art and as part of an experience that requires thoughtful participation in order to fully engage with its unique virtual space.
Nishikawa, Greg. “Gymmi’s Eyes”. Gemedet. Greg Nishikawa. Web. October 23, 2013. <http://gemedet.net/news/?p=69>.
“Transmediale 2001. Software Art Category Jury Statement”. Lev Manovich. Lev Manovich, 2006. Web. October 23, 2013. <http://manovich.net/icam40_spring2006/trasnmediale_2001.htm>.