Imagine a video game where you play a struggling artist - someone trying to make a living by selling their paintings. Your paintings are assessed by artificial intelligence that judges your works of art and decides whether they are good or bad, ugly or beautiful. Passpartout: The Starving Artist is a game that attempts to do just that, albeit with a humourous twist.
The game was developed by an indie company called Flamebait Games, who are located in Skövde, Sweden. It was founded by a couple of friends who studied video game development together. Niklas Bergwall is the animator, community manager and one of the founders of the company and he explains that the idea behind the company is to make games that are “whacky” and “out there”.
The idea of Passpartout: The Starving Artist might seem ambitious, but how did it come about?
”It's a rather weird story behind it, but it's pretty fun too. It was our CEO who had seen a movie called, Around the World in 80 Days, and in that movie there is a character called Passpartout, played by Jackie Chan. It was a scene with that Passpartout-character where they fight in an art gallery.” Bergwall explains.
He goes on by saying how their CEO saw that scene and came up with the idea of a game where you play an artist that is trying to make a living by selling paintings.
”The game makes fun of the art world a little bit, we take the fact that something that is just random ”splats” of colour on a canvas is called art, and then we joke about it.” Bergwall continues.
The video game as an art critic
Art is very subjective, and tastes can differ a lot from person to person. Getting an artificial intelligence to try and judge art might therefore seem like an impossible thing to do. Not surprisingly, it is one of the things that developer Flamebait Games worked the most on.
”We worked on the game from about June or July 2016 to the game’s release on the sixth of June 2017. So we worked on the game part-time for about a year. A third of that time we spent nailing the direction we would take.” says Bergwall.
They worked a lot on different styles and trying to piece together how the progression system of the game would work. He explains that one of the most difficult things to figure out was how to get the artificial intelligence of the game to evaluate art.
”It’s a weird thing for an artificial intelligence to try and evaluate what is nice art, and what is not.” says Bergwall.
Firstly, he explains that they do not make it obvious to the player how their paintings are going to be judged. He thinks that part of the fun is to figure out what each customer likes. And how does the computer evaluate the art?
”In every painting there [are] a bunch of factors that decides if a customer is going to like it or not. We also have different types of customers. We have punkrockers, aristocrats, hipsters etc. Every customer has different criteria for their paintings. Some customers might like a lot of energy while others like paintings with a lot of details.” he says.
”We don’t make it obvious exactly what those variables are, but it’s not random at all. A lot of people think it is, but it’s not. It is entirely based on concrete factors.” he continues.
Challenges in the art of video game development and future plans
When asked about the biggest challenges of developing the game, Bergwall explains that the challenge is not just figuring out how to make the game evaluate art, but also keeping everyone working towards the same vision.
”The biggest challenge, and this is not just about Passpartout but for all video game development, is to have a united front. Everyone who works at our company are creative people who have a clear vision of how they want the game to look and feel. So it can be difficult to make sure everyone is on the same page. So that everyone has the same ”picture”. It’s good to have a difference in opinion, because then you are not just focused on one thing. But I think the most difficult part is to get everyone to move towards a common goal.” he says.
Another struggle was how to advertise the game in order to get people interested. To do this they first put out a free demo version of the game. They also sent out free copies to YouTubers, to try and create a social media buzz. Bergwall believes that the nature of Passpartout makes it very well adapted to YouTube and similar platforms. He also admits that he knows it is not a game for everyone.
”To appreciate the game I think you need to have some kind of creative drive.” Bergwall explains.
Talking about the future, Niklas Bergwall is unable to say too much about what they are working on. He says that they are making prototypes on a regular basis to try to find their next project. Whatever their next project is going to be, it will be interesting to see if it tries something as ambitious as an artificial art critic.
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