Game Levels as Works of Art, Architecture and Design

Christopher W. Totten

Game Artist in Residence, American University

Christopher Totten is a game design professor and the founder of independent developer Pie for Breakfast Studios. He is also the founder of the Smithsonian American Art Museum Indie Arcade and an advocate for bringing games to museums and cultural institutions. Totten is an active writer in the game industry, author of two books: Game Character Creation in Blender and Unity (Wiley, 2012) and An Architectural Approach to Level Design (CRC, 2014) and editor of Level Design: Processes and Experiences (CRC, 2016). He has a Masters Degree in Architecture from The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.



Games have become a novel medium for appreciation of the arts. Many herald their interactivity as a brave new art form, but game makers and fans know that games are more than just their mechanics. This article examines several points of view on games as art, not discussing whether they are, but rather how they are. It also digs deeper to explore how elements of games—artwork, sound, music, and so forth—can themselves be artworks. The article then uses the potential curation of such game elements to explore how game levels—the spaces that players explore as they play—may be considered artistic works. It does so by finding common ground between game levels and works of architecture and establishes several frameworks for understanding designed space: affect, storytelling, and symbolism, occurring in both games and architecture. Lastly, it describes how such game worlds may be curated and included in exhibitions, inviting new comparisons between games and other art forms to further expand our understanding of interactive media.



In the past several years, conversations surrounding games have shifted from whether games are art, to how they are and are not art. [1] Game designer and curator John Sharp divides games with artistic intentions into the categories “Game Art,” “Artgames,” and “Artists’ Games,” based on formal aesthetics: Game Art subverts the goals of games through borrowed subject matter, tools, and processes, Artgames engage subjects—poetry, painting, literature, or film—games often do not, and Artists’ Games provide a synthesis of the previous two goals respectively. [2] Critics like writer Cara Ellison focus on the human element of games as art: personal views of game creators, their approaches, and contextualizing their communities as “scenes.” [3] The question of whether games are art is gloriously fragged like so many Doom opponents by game designer Anna Anthropy, whose influential work champions games as a medium for expressing personal experiences and sounds a rallying cry for new creators. [4] Indeed, museums around the globe exhibit games with increasing frequency, with institutions such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Museum of Modern Art acquiring games for their permanent collections. [5]

Philosopher Brock Rough takes a different view regarding games and their classification as “art,” arguing that games themselves are not art when they act as systems players can master and win. However, he also argues that artistic works are defined by their relevant features, the elements contributing to a work’s appreciation and understanding. [6] Fan communities show that a game’s assets—the visual art, animations, music, audio effects, and designed worlds—may be considered independently, providing inspiration for fan art or musical covers. Game studios within the industry promote games via exhibitions of a game’s concept art—the artwork made to determine the visual identity of a game—and concerts of incidental game music performed by live orchestras.

These views differ from those of Sharp and game industry historians like Tristan Donovan, who discuss the aesthetics of games based on game design factors such as interactivity, mechanics, rewards, and other rule-based elements. [7] Regarding curation, the notion of games as collected works opens the possibility of showcasing game-related media such as concept art, two-dimensional game sprites, three-dimensional models, game music, and even fan art inspired by games. This mindset is already pervasive in fan-focused events like the annual Music and Gaming Festival (MAGFest), an event showcasing fan artists and bands covering popular game music, or galleries like iam8bit that collect and showcase fan art.

Curatorial practices may also help game designers better classify areas for which they struggle to find descriptive language, such as level design, defined here as the creation of environments and contexts where players interact with a game. [8] Industry veteran Rudolf Kremers declares level design to be its own field related to, but separate from, game design. [9] Other authors go further, defining critical terms for the design of game levels and the creation of experiences for players through visual assets and architectural means. [10] This article discusses the elements that define level design as its own creative field within the game medium and proposes methods for exhibiting game worlds as works of art and design.


Historic precedents for game worlds as works of art

As a part of game design, level design has been lauded as “the most important job” [11] on a development team and “where the rubber hits the road” [12] because levels are the primary spaces in which players interact with all the game’s mechanics. Kremers calls levels “applied game design” for this reason, but this description fails to distinguish levels from the games in which they live. [13] Looking to Rough’s argument—that elements composing games are themselves individual works—one can find comparisons in art and design influencing game asset creation. As a field focused on the creation of interactive digital spaces, parallels may be found between level design and another discipline focused on the design of inhabitable spaces: architecture.

In the mainstream game industry, many environment artists and designers acknowledge the influence real-world architecture has on their own work. Many utilize the sculptural elements of famous buildings or styles to create epic backgrounds for their games, setting them in a specific period. [14] Rarer are the designers utilizing spatial and organizational principles of architecture in their work, using methods for ordering spaces and directing occupants’ experiences within. [15] These principles help architects create powerful and evocative spatial experiences, and it is common practice in architecture and other design fields to analyze the work of previous designers as a basis for their own decision-making. [16] Level designers who have learned these techniques have found powerful tools for both creation and analysis, generating works deserving critical consideration outside of their encompassing games. [17]

For both purposes—level design and the analysis of level design—histories of past works are invaluable resources for defining aesthetics and critical language. Level design, seen popularly as a part of game design rather than its own field, suffers from a lack of this sort of recording in ways that games themselves do not. Many games have what may be deemed “good level design,” but with few exceptions, individual levels are not curated to be precedents for future designers. [18] In this way, the connections between architecture and level design become increasingly important.


Architecture as fine art and design

Though there is some dissent over whether architecture is more art to be enjoyed for its own sake or as design meant for public utility, there is little debate as to its significance in the fine arts. [19] Richard Meier, a recipient of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, considers architecture a superior art form for its relationship with the people inhabiting it. [20] Considered as design, architecture has the potential to make aesthetic contributions transcending utilitarian purposes, just as the Constructivist propaganda posters of El Lissitzky contributed to the canon of Suprematist “art only for art’s sake” works. Sociologist Richard Sennett puts this in more philosophical terms, stating that the built environment facilitates a unity of humans’ inner “subjective experience” with their “outer physical lives.” [21] Of ancient cultures, he argues that their architecture was built to represent not only their practical needs, but also spiritual and political ideals, a claim supported by evidence found in ancient tombs and monuments.

Like other forms of art and design, architecture has found its way into gallery exhibitions and curated collections. While many museums are themselves important architectural works, it is difficult to allow entire buildings to travel with an exhibition or store them away for preservation. Instead, institutions like the National Building Museum in Washington, DC and the Museum of Modern Art in New York exhibit models, drawings, and photographs from built projects, as well as furniture and other architect-designed objects. [22] Institutions such as the National Holocaust Museum are themselves immersive environments meant to evoke emotions, stage encounters with the space, and provide resources for user-led storytelling through their arrangements of space and use of vernacular architecture. [23] In many ways, such museums blur the line between real-world space and gamespace in terms of the ways in which their construction creates designed experiences for users.


Architecture as level design

Finding comparisons between level design and architecture can add both legitimacy to level design as a cultural form and provide much-needed precedents from which a critical discourse of level design may be distilled. Many game designers express skepticism that level design can have a unifying body of theory due to the spatial gameplay requirements of different game genres, but how humans interact with space can influence how we understand the diversity of game world design. [24] While it is outside the scope of this article to provide a full history of architectural pieces that might provide a critical language for level design, spatial elements common in architectural works throughout history may help establish the discourse. The elements covered here will be architecture as affect, storytelling, and symbolism.

The ancient Roman architect Vitruvius considered venustas, or delight, to be among the most vital elements of architecture. [25] More recently, architect Grant Hildebrand outlined spatial elements that create pleasurable and comforting feelings in occupants, such as covered “refuge” spaces, protection from heights, and so forth. [26] Alternatively, game designers Salen and Zimmerman argued in Rules of Play that much of the pleasure of games comes from overcoming dangerous situations, experiences designed through the creation and placement of enemies and elevated environments providing no protection. [27] In these ways, delight can be created via a blending of functional forms and “subjective experience,” as described by Sennett. [28] For example, architect Philip Webb cast ordered form aside in building his Arts and Crafts architectural icon Red House, designing the structure for the lifestyle of the building’s occupant, William Morris. Decades later, Louis Sullivan, the creator of the modern skyscraper, unknowingly foreshadowed Kremers’ game mechanics definition of level design in a now-famous quotation regarding how the shape of a design should be derived from its use: “Form ever follows function.” Franco-Swiss architect Le Corbusier would later call the house a “machine for living in,” to which one level designer, alluding to Salen and Zimmerman’s “pleasure from danger” concept, added “living, dying, and creating tension by exploiting everything in-between.” [29] Architecture and level design may have different methods for achieving pleasure and delight, but both do so with spatial compositions meant to affect occupants. These are elements of what I am calling “architecture as affect,” where space design is a response to experiential goals.

Story, or the construction of functional spaces created for religious or cultural significance, relates to the third part of the taxonomy, “architecture as symbolism.” Following from Hildebrand’s assertion regarding architectural pleasure, noteworthy historic architecture creates experiences we might associate with modern game environments. Throughout history, architecture has been used for purposes of storytelling, symbolism, representation, calibrating to the habits of owners or building astonishment in inhabitants. [30] In this way, built space takes on a narrative purpose of the kind found in story-heavy games, becoming “architecture as storytelling.” For example, Gothic churches taught an illiterate populace Biblical stories through ornament and images in stained glass. Japanese gardens mimic natural landscapes in miniature via meticulously-arranged features, such as carefully-placed stones representing mountains, taking visitors on philosophical and aesthetic journeys meant to cleanse them of the outside world. [31] Mesopotamians desired much of the same, the building design of their temples and ziggurats symbolically elevating inhabitants to become nearer to their gods and characterize the mountains from which city dwellers migrated. Ancient structures in what is now the United Kingdom were constructed with specific sightlines and lighting conditions in mind; letting light into a tomb at a specific time of day gave occupants the best view of astrological phenomena. The self-same Gothic churches embedding narrative information in relief sculpture and stained glass also utilized linear elements to draw visitors’ eyes upward, towards the heavens. Stained glass created an ethereal lighting effect known as lux nova, meant to evoke the kingdom of Heaven.

Given that all game levels, even those representing natural environments, are designed spaces, all methods found in architectural works can and have been used in digital game worlds. Game assets are themselves digital representations of real objects, and with the rise of expressive games, they take on more symbolic significance; in works like Heart Machine’s Hyper Light Drifter (2016), certain assets evoke part of the creator’s life. [32] In level design, assets are arranged and manipulated to create spaces providing narrative context to the actions of players. In a more visceral way, stealth games like Arkane Studios’ Dishonored (2012) or IO Interactive’s Hitman: Absolution (2012) utilize Hildebrand’s notion of safe “refuges” and unsafe “prospect” spaces where players are exposed to enemies to create tension. [33]


Level design: contributions and curation

We are just beginning to see proposals of how players may engage with the assets comprising games—art assets, musical compositions, audio design, levels, and so forth—as self-contained artworks. [34] Where critics previously focused on the expressive power of games’ interactivity, we now see them take larger interest in things like the evolution of visual styles in games and other aesthetically-driven aspects of game production. [35] In the case of level design, we have seen that game environments have much in common with the aesthetic and experiential factors of architecture. While previous sections have outlined their similarities, it is also worth exploring the ways in which differences between architecture and game levels reveal levels as potentially engaging exhibition objects.

The difficulty of exhibiting architecture is both in its physical size and experiential nature; viewers need to inhabit works to truly understand the experiences they create. In many ways, a similar challenge is faced by games in the museum environment, as galleries such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum struggle with whether to let visitors play their games. [36] Exhibitions of game levels may begin with the was that architecture has answered such questions. As the Museum of Modern Art and National Building Museum display the models and construction documents for architecture, galleries can display game levels similarly: visitors may gain insight into the game-making process and learn how levels are made from gameplay-focused prototypes made of gray boxes to compelling interactive worlds filled with interesting artwork. [37]

Art of Video Games curator Chris Melissinos highlighted another aspect of game worlds that differentiate them from real-world architecture when he said games were “literally an alternate universe behind glass,” describing game worlds existing as data on computers. [38] For displaying game worlds, this has important implications. First, it means that unlike architecture, game worlds can be easily collected and transported. While design documents can be a useful supplement to the works themselves, game worlds benefit from being interacted with and inhabited by players. Game levels in museum exhibits may be shown and interacted with freely via either interactive or video formats. Game historian Daniel Greenberg also suggests that modified versions of games may also aid the effort of curating games, allowing game level portions to be replayed multiple times in quick succession to highlight specific content. [39] As many popular games are the work of studios still in operation, these types of modifications could be developed in concert with the game creators themselves.

Likewise, game worlds exist in spaces not governed by real-world considerations like physics or time. Game industry veteran Ernest Adams discusses how game worlds such as the version of Chernobyl seen in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (GSC Game World, 2007) might be an important work in its own right by preserving a physically inaccessible location of historical significance. [40] The work of Atelier Ten Architects in Second Life (Linden Lab, 2003) features structures built without the restrictions of gravity and other natural forces. Showcasing these interactive worlds emphasizes ways these works are impossible outside of games contexts, providing new contributions to art and design not otherwise possible.



In focusing on games merely as works of interactivity and mechanic design, we ignore the art contributing to a game’s overall experience—art assets, music, sound, environments, and so forth—created by professionals with their own deep knowledge of fine art and design fields. Game levels are but one type of work within games that may be studied for both their contributions to games and for their own contributions to the cultural canon. One method for distilling the works within games is to contextualize them not only among other games, but within broader histories of the fine arts and design. In these fields, designers may find inspiration for new works from a legacy of past games. Likewise, game studies professionals may find missing pieces of the critical language being developed for games and other interactive artworks.

For these reasons, level designers and architects should find ways to express this common ground. I have discussed a range of museums and cultural institutions that have curated games. A logical next step would be exploring the game design process further by exhibiting game components, like game levels. The taxonomy of architecture as effect, storytelling, and symbolism apparent in game worlds and architecture may engender a united art critical discourse for game worlds.

Likewise, setting a precedent for finding critical language in other arts fields may provide a template for future efforts to add to the lexicon of game design. For level design, real-world architecture holds one such source of knowledge providing both design precedent and opportunities for appreciation, but others may be inspired by theater, sculpture, or any other number of disciplines. By exploring connections between these fields further, other links may be found between the works that create games and the broader canons of art and design.



1. Roger Ebert, “Okay, Kids, Play on My Lawn,” Roger Ebert’s Journal, 2010,

2. John Sharp, Works of Game: On the Aesthetics of Games and Art (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015).

3. Cara Ellison, Embed with Games (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2015).

4. Id Software, Doom, 1993; Anna Anthropy, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Drop-Outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012).

5. “Smithsonian American Art Museum Acquires Video Games,” Smithsonian Newsdesk, 2013,; Paola Antonelli, “Video Games: 14 in the Collection, for Starters,” Inside/Out, 2012,

6. Brock Rough, “Why Video Games in Art Museums Still Aren’t Art,” 2014,

7. Sharp; Tristan Donovan, Replay: The History of Video Games (East Sussex, UK: Yellow Ant, 2010).

8. Ernest W. Adams, Fundamentals of Game Design, 2nd Edition (New York: New Riders, 2009), xxii.

9. Rudolf Kremers, Level Design: Concept, Theory, & Practice (Boca Raton, FL: AK Peters/CRC Press, 2009), ix.

10. Christopher W. Totten, An Architectural Approach to Level Design (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2014), 91.

11. Marc Saltzman, “Secrets of the Sages: Level Design,” Gamasutra, July 23, 1999,

12. Sam Shahrani, “Educational Feature: A History and Analysis of Level Design in 3D Computer Games–Pt. 1,” Gamasutra, April 25, 2006,

13. Kremers, 18.

14. “God of War 3 Bonus Features - Environment Art,” SCE Santa Monica, 2010,

15. Totten, An Architectural Approach to Level Design, PAGE.

16. Matthew Frederick, 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007); Eric Jenkins, Drawn to Design (Basel, Switzerland: Birkhauser, 2013), 39.

17. Fernando Bueno, The Art of Halo 3 (Roseville, CA: Prima Games, 2008).

18. Saltzman, 1999.

19. Larry Shiner, The Invention of Art: A Cultural History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 105; Lance Hosey, “Why Architecture Isn’t Art (and Shouldn’t Be),” ArchDaily, 2016,

20. Richard Meier, “Is Architecture Art?” Big Think, 2007,

21. Richard Sennett, The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1992), xii.

22. Charles Hind and Irena Murray, “Palladio and His Legacy: A Transatlantic Journey,” (Washington, DC: National Building Museum, 2010).

23. Henry Jenkins, “Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” in First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game, eds. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004), 118-30.

24. Adams, Fundamentals of Game Design, xxii.

25. Michael W. Fazio, Marian Moffett, and Lawrence Wodehouse, A World History of Architecture, 2nd edition (Boston, MA: McGraw Hill, 2008), 5.

26. Grant Hildebrand, Origins of Architectural Pleasure (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 1999), 46.

27. Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (MIT Press, 2003), 334.

28. Sennett, xii.

29. Christopher W. Totten, “Designing Better Levels through Human Survival Instincts,” Gamasutra, June 21, 2011,

30. Totten, An Architectural Approach to Level Design, 4-27.

31. Chaim Gingold, “Miniature Gardens and Magic Crayons: Games, Spaces, Worlds” (master’s thesis, Georgia Institute of Technology, 2003); David A. Slawson, Secret Teachings in the Art of Japanese Gardens (New York: Kodansha America, 1987), 79.
32. Chris Priestman, “Hyper Light Drifter: How Heart Disease Inspired One of 2016’s Great Games,” The Guardian, June 2, 2016,

33. Hildebrand, 22.

34. Gerald Farca, “The Emancipated Player” (paper presented at the 1st International Joint Conference of DiGRA and FDG, Dundee, Scotland, August 1-6, 2016).

35. Jesper Juul, “High-Tech Low-Tech Authenticity: The Creation of Independent Style at the Independent Games Festival,” In Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games, 2014,

36. Christopher W. Totten, Drew Robarge, and Kaylin Lapan, “Games+ Museums” (presented at Games+ Summit, Washington, DC, 2016).

37. David Hodgeson, Half Life 2: Raising the Bar (Roseville, CA: Prima Games, 2003).

38. T.C. Sottek, “The Art of Video Games at the Smithsonian: Still in Beta,” The Verge, 2012,

39. Daniel Greenberg, “Lessons from Let’s Plays,” MAGFest 2017,

40. Ernest W. Adams, “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl: Ludic Space as Memorial,” in Space Time Play, eds. Friedrich Von Borres, Steffen P. Walz, and Matthias Böttger (Basel: Birkhäuser Verlag AG., 2007), 458-60.




Toward a Ludic Literacy: Procedure, Imageword, and Metaphor in Digital Games

Jacob Euteneuer

Instructor and PhD Candidate, Oklahoma State University

Jacob Euteneuer is a PhD candidate at Oklahoma State University. His interests include game studies, visual rhetoric, and multimodal composition. When he’s not busy reading, writing, and teaching, he is usually playing Mario with his wife and two sons. He tweets @jacobeut.


  Jonathan Blow, The Witness (Untitled 1), 2016. Image courtesy Jonathan Blow.

Jonathan Blow, The Witness (Untitled 1), 2016. Image courtesy Jonathan Blow.

With the rise in popularity of video games and gamification, it is more necessary than ever to establish how play creates meaning and shapes persuasive and expressive thought. This paper utilizes games studies theory and visual rhetoric to develop a ludic literacy which allows for a greater understanding of how play engages limits and conditions to create a specific message. Through a close reading of The Witness (Thekla, Inc., 2016), I show how ludic literacy enables an understanding of how games differ from traditional media forms in their creation and use of imagewords breaking down the boundaries between words and images through symbolization.

There are no words in the world of The Witness. Designer Jonathan Blow and studio Thekla, Inc.’s 2016 puzzle and exploration video game exists in a world without traditional, printed texts. From the starting tutorial to the final credits, there is not a single written word. Nonetheless, the game is rich with language. The Witness creates a world and a semiotic system that the player must learn through play. However, the game’s stark lack of traditional language systems and its reliance on perspective and visuals creates problems for both players and scholars attempting to navigate and distill meaning from the game. Interpretive models relying on narratology, for instance, fail to accurately sum up the experience playing a game devoid of story and character, and yet, methodological approaches examining the procedures and formal systems of the game do not adequately account for the expression and persuasive influence the sights and (lack of) sounds the game provides. For narratologists, issues of choice and agency become cumbersome and cannot account for the difference in experience between a player using a warp whistle as opposed to a player who grinds out the content. For ludologists, the formal systems of a game cannot account for how perception would shift if Princess Peach were to rescue Mario. How, then, is one to derive meaning from a video game like The Witness? This question is important to more than just players of The Witness: it is central to how players experience games, how games create meaning, and how games move beyond their forms and bleed into our experiences and identities.

If we are truly living in “the ludic century,” as posited by games studies scholar Eric Zimmerman, then uncovering how players construct meaning in games like The Witness gives the careful reader a glimpse of the importance of play to this process. [1] With the meteoric rise of video games in education and the gamification of everything from the workplace to environmental protection, it is more important than ever to understand the myriad ways in which games produce meaning and promote connectivity. Zimmerman suggests we focus our energy and resources on promoting games literacy, consisting of systems thinking, play, and design. [2] Because systems thinking identifies relationships between parts and the whole, its applicability to games remains too broad; while a games literacy encourages thinking about the ways systems work at both the virtual level (such as in coding) and analog level (such as political policy), it elides what makes games special: their ability to create fun and simulate agency. Similarly, focusing on the way games encourage fun or promote innovative thought fails to explore how video games represent an embodied way of being in the world, a powerful way of simulating our lived experiences. One needs only to get a group of friends in the same room with four controllers and a copy of Mario Kart 8 (Nintendo, 2014) to see how this is true: some players move their bodies along with their controllers to stay on the track; others will sweat with focus and determination. Still others will grit their teeth and unblinkingly stare at the screen. How, then, to account for all this manic magic?

Scholars have attempted to define the term ludic literacy in a variety of gaming contexts: most notable are James J. Bono and Ben McCorkle’s use of ludic literacy to discuss how players talk about games, and Zagal’s term ludo literacy, used to explain how learning takes place in digital games. [3] However, what is needed is not a deeper understanding of the language of games—a games literacy, as put forth by Zimmerman—but rather a deeper understanding of the ways in which play can be both expressive and persuasive. Ludic literacy operates through the corporeal, cultural, spatial, and temporal dimensions; it can illuminate how play works with our world and through our bodies to create meaning, engender experience through performance, and cultivate memory.

Games studies scholar Brendan Keogh describes the necessary properties for a ludo-critical methodology to analyze how video games construct meaning and move people. He claims video games are best understood when the critic or player considers “the player’s proprioceptive awareness of the both the video game’s material form (controllers, screens, rumble motors, etc.), the audiovisual signs (characters, a projected world, music, menus, etc.), and the various interrelations between all three. To analyse a video game text is to analyse this entire textual network.” [4] This is a steep task: the scholar must analyze the “cybernetic ebb and flow between the player’s body, the video game hardware, and audiovisual and haptic representation,” both in the virtual and actual worlds. [5] This would demand superhuman levels of cognition by an expert trained deeply and yet broadly in art, literature, psychology, emotion, computer engineering, user-centered design, dance, and more. If the critic focused on the essence of play instead of the form of games, it may offer more accessible and successful alternatives. A ludic literacy constitutes a profound understanding of the way play uses signs, responses, and emotions to construct modes of discourse and meaning-making.

Cultivating a ludic literacy necessitates not only an embodied approach to criticism, but also an understanding of the way literacies are embodied. Traditionally, scholars have focused on the many different elements that combine to create the ecology of the cybernetic system, such as the system described by Keogh. Instead, emphasis should be placed on the combination of images and words—the imageword—and the logics employed by these two modes in cooperation with the logics of play. Literary theorist Kristie S. Fleckenstein’s formulation of the imageword breaks down the binary between the symbolic nature of words and the representational nature of images. [6] She argues that an awareness of the contextual surroundings of a text allows us to simultaneously conceptualize objects while distancing ourselves from them. For example, we can understand a picture of a redwood is not all trees; likewise, we also implicitly understand a text describing a redwood, even in meticulous detail, can never fully encompass the scope and detail of an existing redwood. Imagewords refer to the underlying meaning of a symbol—be it graphic or textual—to contextualize and further understand its implications both connotatively and denotatively. [7]

Understanding the imageword as an embodied experience demands an investigation of the underlying logic driving play. Scholar Anne Frances Wysocki advocates an embodied approach to media and game studies, in which “our bodies—our primary media” allow us to experience the world. [8] She uses the idea of embodiment to highlight the various ways our bodies allow us to relate to the world in a contextual way, one continually grounded in the realities of place, time, physiology, and culture. [9] An understanding of the ways in which much of the media we experience is filtered through the body sheds light on the reasons why certain aspects of games, such as their design and systems, are emphasized, while play, the embodied part of games, is ignored. The lack of attention paid to this sense of embodiment has contributed to a simplification of seeing, one that assumes “everyone sees in the same ways and so will be affected in the same ways by what they see, everywhere and at all times, ahistorically, aculturally, apolitically.” [10]

The question remains: what is gained by forcing considerations of embodiment onto video games and specifically onto play? In their book Rules of Play, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman note that imposing rules does not suffocate play, but rather makes play possible in the first place; play then becomes a way of navigating a set of rules. [11] In Literary Gaming, media scholar Astrid Ensslin traces the critical study of play through Kant, Schiller, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein to arrive at a definition of play focused on the way in which spaces are marked off, allowing for interaction and creation of new forms of meaning and expression. These new forms are created through the ergodic: non-trivial, but also non-utilitarian movement. [12]

Movement is a central aspect of play, whether it is the swing of a foot to kick a soccer ball or the tap of a button to make Mario jump; however, movement, or use of the body as a medium, does not immediately make play embodied. Play becomes embodied because, in addition to the requirements of physical movement, it is always contextual. It is “enmeshed” in the culture, time, space, and place in which it is created. In his book Play Matters, Miguel Sicart writes, “play too is a contextual appropriation of a situation with the purpose of creating new values, expressions, or knowledge.” [13] In addition to the need for rules to be established in either a social or formal manner, play can take over spaces—virtual, actual, and social—and depends on those spaces to create meaning. An example of the way play is contextual can be found in the simple game children play where the floor is lava: the players of the game depend on the social creation of the expectation that no one will want to touch the lava. They use their bodies to jump and maneuver around the “lava” and depend on their senses as feedback to see if they have touched the floor. The penalties for touching the lava are dependent on the players and their expectations. Some children may writhe in pretend pain when touching the lava while others may be deemed “out” and barred from playing for a short time. Whatever the specifics of the game may be, the play is established in an embodied way relying on the physical movements of their body in cooperation with the social, physical, and cultural context in which the game is being played. If we view play in this matter, we can begin to see the ways in which the senses construct a system that can be used to understand play.

I argue that a logic based on recursive and conditional semantics, coupled with an understanding of imageword and embodied play, can be used to cultivate a ludic literacy. Fleckenstein argues that image operates under the “is logic” and seeks to establish connection between groups of objects and experiences; language operates under the “as if logic” of metaphor and allows for articulation between groups of objects and experiences. [14] If image operates under the “is logic” and language operates under the “as if logic,” play operates under the “if-then-else logic” of McCarthy Formalism. In computer science and recursion theory, John McCarthy’s explanation of “formalism” allows for computation by expressing complex operations as simple true/false statements and then positions them in a flow chart where the answer to the previous question (for example, “if [answer] = true”) leads to a new set of processes (“then perform x function”). [15] This logic can be interpreted to operate through temporality and embodied experience. “If-then-else logic” allows for the passage of time in a way static image does not. Scott McCloud illustrates this effect in his book Understanding Comics, explaining how time is perceived to pass in static images. [16] McCloud uses the simple example of a clock shown in four consecutive panels with the minute hand moving in five minute increments across each panel. The reader easily intuits the sensation of passing time. If in one of the panels the minute hand moved more than five minutes, the reader would feel something was off. If we close our eyes and focus on an image, we can focus not only on the visual element but also the emotive aspects, the sensory aspects that are central to what Fleckenstein means when she evokes the word image.

Ludic logic allows for the inclusion of time in a way image does not. It is not only an understanding of the influence of time, but also a way of moving through time. Following “if-then-else logic” allows for subjective movement through time by constantly referring to previous experiences to allow for new possibilities. In Fleckenstein’s formulation of the imageword, she focuses on its dual aspects of creation and destruction, the ability for image to absolve boundary and language to create division. Movement across the boundaries and various embodied literacies of imageword happens through the logic of play embedded in “if-then-else logic.” However, as previously mentioned by Salen and Zimmerman, play does not simply arise from conditional “if-then-else logic,” but also from the introduction of rules. [17] For a game of soccer to be played, the limit of every player except the goalie being unable to use her hands needs to be established. Once the limits are in place (goals, side lines, no hands, etc.), then the recursive logic of “if-then-else” can be applied to induce play.

This understanding of ludic logic combining a condition with a limit echoes other game studies scholars’ approaches to play. In “The Rhetoric of Video Games,” Ian Bogost describes the prevalence of procedurality in the modern world, where constraints create “possibility spaces, which can be explored through play.” [18] This conception of modernity closely resembles Zimmerman’s systems-theory definition of the “ludic century.” [19] In his text Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, Bogost emphasizes the ubiquity of procedurality in society by relating a hypothetical interaction involving returning a non-functioning DVD player to a store without a receipt: a clerk follows procedures and denies the return, but after the customer complains, the clerk and supervisor invent new procedures to accept the DVD player return to maximize customer satisfaction. [20] In his most recent text Play Anything, Bogost positions limits as a source of pleasure, again combining with conditionals to inform ludic logic. Using the example of a stick—a recent inductee into the Toy Hall of Fame—he explains how the shapes, materials, and context of the piece of wood help create limits as to what it can be. In this way, imagination shapes its use and meaning: a long stick can be a sword, a short stick becomes a knife, a flexible stick becomes a sort of spring, while a stick with a Y-shaped fork can become a slingshot. [21]

While recursive “if-then-else” logic and context applies to the procedural rhetoric of store returns and imaginative flexibility of stick play, it doesn’t offer insight into the embodied process of play making a game such as Donkey Kong Country (Rare, 1994) fun. The contact between a player and the limits of a system, when coupled with a conditional statement, are the basic elements of a ludic literacy: while ludic logic allows for the inclusion of limits, and the imageword remains grounded in the recursive “if-then-else” conditional, ludic literacy combines these logics to further explore ways in which play can be both expressive and persuasive. Furthermore, ludic literacy reveals how the embodied nature of play through the structure of games allows for persuasive and expressive potential.

This definition of ludic literacy contrasts with other attempts to formulate a literacy of games or play. Composition scholars Jamie Bono and Ben McCorkle have used the term ludic literacy to define how the subculture and affinity groups of gamers establish discourse communities to talk about games and about play. [22] Their definition of ludic literacy focuses on a more colloquial definition of literacy, such as being able to talk competently about a subject. Similar to Zimmerman, José P. Zagal argues for a “ludoliteracy” grounded in the principles of understanding the semiotic system of games necessary to play, understand, and create games. [23] While ludoliteracy is productive and capable in its execution, it is still a literacy focused more on the medium and discourse of computer-based games than an actual understanding of the expressive potential of embodied play. In his article “Exploitationware,” Bogost warns of the current gamification of society and the ways in which corporations exploit games to further their brand and develop more sophisticated methods of personal data collection. He warns that readers should not confuse the goals, leaderboards, and high scores with the magical, less obvious aspects of games that make them enjoyable. [24] I argue the magic Bogost refers to is play itself, and games are merely one way to facilitate play. An understanding of ludic literacy highlights what it is that makes play special. It is useful to think about the connection between play and games through an understanding of Zagal’s formulation of a games literacy, grounded in psycholinguistic researcher James Paul Gee’s definition of literacy, which necessitates a command or control of secondary uses of language. [25]

One way to approach an understanding of ludic literacy and the importance of imagewords to play is to think about the possibilities that could be present in the game. Play is the semiotic domain in which games operate. In other words, play is the language of games. An understanding of ludic literacy provides the same level of depth needed to understand how words comprise the material existence of novels, enmeshed in an ecology of meaning. Ludic literacy then sheds light onto some of the more obscure functions of games. A particularly illuminating example can be seen by comparing Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 2. In the latter, the player is given the choice of choosing between Mario, Luigi, Princess, and Toad. Each of the playable characters has a different way of moving through the world. Controlling Luigi, for instance, feels slippery, as if running on ice. Changing directions is hard for the player using Luigi, but the green plumber can reach heights inaccessible to all other characters. Princess moves slowly and can jump almost as high as Luigi. However, her special ability allows her to float in the air momentarily with each jump. The floaty feeling of controlling Princess changes the experience of play, resulting in the creation of unique imagewords owing to the specific “feel” of each character. This “feel” does not change the game—the goal-driven play put forth by the game’s rules and systems remains, even if it does allow players to explore alternate paths or techniques. These changes and considerations seem obvious, owing to the embodied nature of play; we “feel” the game being played differently.

The original Super Mario Bros. provides a less obvious example, as the game does not allow players to pick their character. Consider how changing the avatar of Mario to the Princess might change gameplay. The imageword of the player's avatar has changed, providing the player a different play experience even though the game itself—the end state of each level the player strives for—has not changed. The narrative becomes something new with Princess rescuing the knightly plumber, but some formal aspects of the game become less obvious such as why Princess, who is not a plumber, explores pipes. This is even more evident in Super Mario Maker where the player is given access to hundreds of costumes, from Mario, to Link, to a pigeon, but each controls like the Mario avatar from Super Mario Bros. Again, the game remains the same, but the experience of the game, the act of play, has changed because the imageword has transformed.

  Jonathan Blow, The Witness (Untitled 4), 2016. Image courtesy Jonathan Blow.

Jonathan Blow, The Witness (Untitled 4), 2016. Image courtesy Jonathan Blow.

With an understanding of both ludic logic and imageword, we can build toward a ludic literacy of recent, more multifaceted video games. Jonathan Blow and Thekla, Inc.’s The Witness is a difficult game to classify, occupying a space somewhere in between auteur art game and industry heavyweight AAA release. It was made by a small independent team with a specific, unique vision for their game, yet it took seven years and several million dollars to produce. The Witness stays true to traditional puzzle games that feature little story and character development, and puzzles increase in difficulty as the player progresses. Within this traditional framework, several aspects of ludic logic make thinking about the game in terms of its procedurality and rules productive. The Witness is a game obsessed with rules, placing emphasis on knowledge and logic. Each set of puzzles and the cryptic symbols forming the puzzles’ logic must be deciphered and completed to gain access to new areas. However, no amount of analysis in this mode can capture the magic and sense of play The Witness induces in players. The game encourages the player to form, observe, and reflect on new and creative imagewords. The user must become an active participant in the static environment surrounding them. While the game seems open-world, there are many gates and enclosures blocking progress. In the game’s central town, the player encounters the first of the island’s many statues: a concrete figure stands with arms outstretched above his head, a look of woe on his face. If the player follows the statue’s line of sight, they see a large windmill. At this point in the game, most players will be unable to access the windmill, but once returning to town, astute players will notice while the statue of the man has remained the same, their perception of it has changed greatly. Approaching the statue from the opposite way forces players to encounter the statue’s shadow before the statue proper, and what was once a man in great pain becomes the shadow of a man juggling rocks: his outstretched hands are transformed into those of a juggler, complete with several stones on the ground to act as balls.

  Jonathan Blow, The Witness (Untitled Banner 3) detail, 2016. Image courtesy Jonathan Blow.

Jonathan Blow, The Witness (Untitled Banner 3) detail, 2016. Image courtesy Jonathan Blow.

The process of revealing a shadow clues the player in to one of the game’s more powerful lessons: it matters where you stand. Perspective becomes an important theme, and indeed the key to the game’s final area is to resituate the perspective between the player character and the statues that surround the puzzle. This is not necessarily a concept essential to success in the game, but it is crucial to the way the game is experienced. Whether a player notices the play between juggler/pitiful man shadow/statue has no effect on game progress. However, this is but one of the many perspective illusions the game has in store for the observant player.

Examining a game’s ludic literacy gives insight into a game’s idiosyncrasies, systems, procedures, and player progress, not just its goals. One way to examine these aspects is to analyze the meanings underlying the optional tasks the game privileges. In The Witness, there are dozens of clever perspectival tricks such as those mentioned above, but the game establishes this method of playful communication to suggest the presence of an entirely optional way of playing the game embedded in its original structure. Every puzzle in the game begins and ends in the same manner: a large circle with a small branching line eventually ends in a rounded section. After playing through many of the game’s 523 puzzles in this manner, it becomes almost impossible to miss these simple designs outside of their walled-off panels. This is a process called pareidolia, where the mind perceives patterns where no intended pattern is meant to exist. Other examples of pareidolia include the man in the moon, and the “Paul McCartney is dead” conspiracy. The Witness makes use of this phenomenon by repeating the same set of symbols, making players see patterns where there is only coincidence. Once players see enough of these patterns, they may be tempted to click on one of the large starting nodes, just to see what happens. If a player does this, the game responds with an uncharacteristic burst of audio and a flaming cursor. If the player successfully traces a path from starting node to rounded endpoint, say, perhaps, on one of the island’s drainage pipes or train tracks, they will be rewarded with a shower of sparks and confirmation from an in-game obelisk that they have found a secret. That is the only reward. The game can be completed without the player ever completing a single environmental puzzle. This is a form of play entirely dependent on the creation of imagewords, and it is one that does not stay confined to the game itself: entire Tumblrs and subreddits are devoted to documenting examples of The Witness’s pareidolia effect outside of the game. It manifests itself through the ludic literacy the game establishes. This carryover between virtual and real worlds gives further credence to the positioning of play as embodied, allowing for the play fostered by games to be used in creative ways.

  Jonathan Blow, The Witness (Untitled 5), 2016. Image courtesy Jonathan Blow.

Jonathan Blow, The Witness (Untitled 5), 2016. Image courtesy Jonathan Blow.

What the game establishes as metaphor—the paneled line puzzles forming its core mechanic—takes on exogenous meaning using both the game’s environmental puzzles and the intentional use of pareidolia. In studying how the brain processes metaphors, psychologists Eduardo Santana and Manuel de Vega conclude that we experience metaphors in a way analogous to their literal parts. [26] Their experiments show that whether it is a literal or metaphorical “rising,” the same areas of the brain are used. Because of this, they state that metaphor is embodied, as are its literal counterparts. A walkthrough of The Witness demonstrates the many ways the game attempts to communicate non-verbally with the player. Because of the recurrence of panel after panel of puzzles, and then the presence of the puzzles throughout the game’s environment, the player’s perception through the act of playing, and specifically through the act of constantly scanning for playable puzzles. There is no in-game goal related to this; it simply highlights the importance of seeing to the game. Without a ludic literacy, this important aspect of the game is completely missed or glossed over.

This brief examination of The Witness has developed a ludic literacy, in which play takes on expressive potential in the ergodic creation of new imagewords within the limits of a conditional system. Exploring limits through these conditional operations, coupled with the resulting imagewords, creates a ludic literacy that more thoroughly explains the embodied play experience of video games such as The Witness. Indeed, when play allows for imagewords to be rapidly and creatively constructed, a game is more likely to be embraced by an audience primed to engage in making meaning through embodied, productive play. This engaged concept of ludic literacy facilitates an understanding by both players and creators of how play is essential to constructing meaning, constituting a step toward wider appreciation of video games as more than just the sum of their narratives and systems.



1. Eric Zimmerman, “Manifesto for a Ludic Century,” Eric Zimmerman, April 2016,

2. Ibid.

3. J. James Bono and Ben McCorkle, “Ludic Literacies: Mapping the Links Between the Literacies at Play in the DALN,” in Stories that Speak to Us: Exhibits from the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives, eds. H. L. Ulman, S. L. DeWitt, & C. L. Selfe (Logan, UT: Computers and Composition Digital Press, 2013),; José P. Zagal, Ludoliteracy: Defining, Understanding, and Supporting Games Education (Pittsburgh PA: Carnegie Mellon ETC Press, 2010).

4. Brendan Keogh, “Across Worlds and Bodies: Criticism in the Age of Video Games.” Journal of Games Criticism, January 22, 2014,

5. Ibid.

6. Kristie S. Fleckenstein, Embodied Literacies: Imageword and a Poetics of Teaching (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003), 3.

7. Ibid., 33.

8. Anne Frances Wysocki, Introduction to Composing Media Composing Embodiment, ed. by Kristin L. Arola, and Anne Wysocki (Utah State University Press, 2012), 4. 

9. Ibid., 3.

10. Ibid., 5.

11. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2003), 4.

12. Astrid Ensslin, Literary Gaming (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2014), 22.

13. Miguel Sicart, Play Matters (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2014), 67.

14. Fleckenstein, 30.

15. John McCarthy, “A Basis for a Mathematical Theory of Computation,” in Computer Programming and Formal Systems, ed. P. Braffort and D. Hirschberg (Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1963), 185.

16. Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (New York, NY: William Morrow Paperbacks, 1994), 94-95.

17. Salen and Zimmerman, Rules of Play, 4.

18. Ian Bogost, “The Rhetoric of Video Games,” in The Ecology of Games, ed. Katie Salen (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 119-22.

19. See note #1.

20. Bogost, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2007), 4-6.

21. Bogost, Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games (New York: Basic Books, 2016), PAGE.

22. Bono and McCorkle.

23. Zagal, 21-4.

24. Ian Bogost, “Persuasive Games: Exploitationware,” Gamasutra, May 3, 2011,

25. Gee, James Paul. “What is Literacy?” In Negotiating Academic Literacies: Teaching and Learning Across Languages and Cultures, eds. Vivian Zamel and Ruth Spack (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1998), 51-59.

26. Eduardo Santana and Manuel De Vega, “Metaphors Are Embodied, and so Are Their Literal Counterparts,” Frontiers in Psychology 2 (2011): 11.

Letter From the Editor: Shall We Play a Game?


Tiffany Funk
Editor-in-Chief, VGA Reader

Would you like to play a game?
—War Games, 1980

You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.
—Zork, 1979

I am pleased to present the inaugural issue of the Video Game Art Reader (VGAR), a peer-reviewed journal for video game audiences and video game practitioners interested in the history, theory, and criticism of video games, explored through the lens of art history and visual culture. Our aim is to break down the barriers restraining video game discourse. We are not limited to prescribed narrative choices like in a text-based adventure like Zork. We don’t have to engage in the well-worn debates between narratology and ludology, hardware and software, indie or AAA, lest we be eaten by a grue. Our mission is not only to advocate for video games as art, but also engage in a meaningful art criticism of games.

We recognize that it’s daunting investigating such an interdisciplinary subject as video games, and even more intimidating recognizing the scope of its global, diversified audiences. A survey of texts regarding video game discourse reveals a dizzying array of subjects and subjectivities, including computer science and information theory, psychology and sociology, post-colonialism and globalization, gender studies and queer theory, not to mention the array of programming texts encouraging game development through both industry and grassroots methods.

The advantages of VGAR advocating for video games as art is that the art historical and visual culture disciplines are already fundamentally interdisciplinary, and come packed with a long history of analytical tools and techniques for analyzing such diverse cultural artifacts. Video games are both performative and material, and communicate meaning through a complex of visual, audio, and embodied methods. VGAR provides a platform for these insights and experiments, from all corners of the gaming globe.

That is why our inaugural issue celebrates video game culture as inclusive and global. Our opening article is an interview with the art director of the first independent Cuban video game, Savior. The following essays from art historians, literary theorists, game designers, artists, educators, museum curators, and programmers all engage with video games as an important part of the global art landscape. Each engages with what makes good game art with special attention to the transnational cadre of gamers that play them.

So, would you like to play a game?

Of course you do.




Would You Like to Play a Game?
Tiffany Funk


Savior: Cuba's First Independent Video Game
Josuhe Pagliery and Teresa Silva


Game Levels as Works of Art, Architecture and Design
Christopher W. Totten

Toward a Ludic Literacy: Procedure, Imageword, and Metaphor in Digital Games
Jacob Euteneuer

Ludic Voyeurism and Passive Spectatorship in Gone Home and Other “Walking Simulators"
Sercan Şengün

Arcade Operator: An Art Game Experiment About Arcade Repair
Kieran Nolan

“Who Did I Jettison Into Space?” Complicity as a Tool for Narrative Expression in INSIDE and The Swapper
Monica Evans

“Please Do Touch (and Disrupt) the Art”: Glitch-Kinesthetics and Spectator Agency in Super Metroid: Nightmare Edition
Eddie Lohmeyer

The Enemy of Expression: Production Notes on the Simulation of an Endless Place
Evan Meaney

Let’s Play Game Exhibitions: A Curators’ Perspective
Jesse de Vos, René Glas, and Jasper van Vught

Savior: Cuba’s First Independent Video Game

 Savior, 2017. Image courtesy Josuhe H. Pagliery and Johann H. Almenteros.

Savior, 2017. Image courtesy Josuhe H. Pagliery and Johann H. Almenteros.

Interviewer: Teresa Silva
Director of Exhibitions & Residencies at the Chicago Artists Coalition
Interviewee: Josuhe H. Pagliery
Director, art designer, and screenwriter of Savior

Abstract: Josuhe H. Pagliery is an artist and game developer based in Havana, Cuba. He is one half of the co-creators behind the new and critically-acclaimed video game Savior, along with partner Johann H. Almenteros. In this interview, Pagliery discusses the background and influences of Savior, as well as his aesthetic approach and efforts to collect resources to make the project a reality. Answers for this interview were provided through an email exchange with Teresa Silva.

TS: First, I want to thank you, Josuhe, for giving me the chance to talk with you about your video game, Savior. VGA Gallery and its brand-new VGA Reader feel fortunate to feature your project to a global audience.

I want to start off by mentioning that recent media coverage in the United States for Savior has been very positive, though highly focused on certain aspects of the game. Are there more important themes or concepts that are part of the game, which we, the international audience, are missing? Also, what is the intention behind the title, Savior?

JHP: Savior is a 2D platformer heavily inspired by 16-bit video games. The history comes from the idea of a “game inside a game,” and begins when the main character, Little God, discovers that his whole world is nothing more than a collapsing video game. To reinforce our breaking of the fourth wall, our game starts in the most archetypical way possible: a hero trying to save his world after the mysterious departure of his creator, the Great God. But this sense of familiarity rapidly disappears as you begin to see the true nature of Savior, a game that uses its narrative and gameplay to deconstruct the nature of a video game.

The game is rooted in Judeo-Christian mythology, based on the theological principle that God is equivalent to reality. I translated this logic to a video game: if God is equal to reality, then a video game, which is its own self-sufficient reality, could be a literal representation of what God metaphorically is; from this central premise, the tension emerges between reality and fiction, the player and the game. From this perspective, the search for the Great God could be seen as the desperate need of the protagonist to repair the fiction of the video game while on a self-destructive path toward the annihilation of this artificial reality.

TS: Some younger or general audiences may not be familiar with significant moments in recent Cuban history. Specifically, I am thinking of the “Special Period” that occurred in the 1990s. It forced a new phase of the Cuban revolutionary process. Cuba struggled with the loss of support from the Soviet Union when it dissolved. There was a mass exodus of Cubans from the island to mostly the United States. Is Savior a reaction to that era—or the very recent opening up of political relations with the United States—that international audiences should know about? How have these phases affected your relationship to gaming and game development?

JHP: Of course, a clear parallel exists between Savior and the socio-political changes currently taking place in Cuba, and, with that in mind, we’re trying to create a sort of generational document to archive this unique moment in the history of our country. If we manage to achieve that with Savior, then the line between game and reality will be erased completely.

TS: As I understand it, your partner Johann H. Armenteros is a computer scientist and the programmer of Savior, while you created the concept, art, and design. When did you meet Johann and decide to collaborate on this project? What were the steps you took to procure the resources to make it a reality?

JHP: The development of Savior started almost two years ago. I always wanted to make a video game, but until a few years ago we didn’t have the technology to try something like this in Cuba. After I started creating the designs and writing the story, I began to look for a programmer and quickly found Johann, a programmer interested in video games as well. In the beginning, we nearly made the same mistakes that many other startup developers make: a game more complex than what we could produce, constant changes in the story and the gameplay, issues developing a game from scratch…the list goes on. But I always felt, even in the most challenging moments, that we had something special on our hands, and we persevered.

The challenge in the first year was to find a way to finance the game. We started out using the money I’d saved from my art, and later Johann’s savings as a web programmer. Our funds quickly dwindled, but we met someone from a US nonprofit that helped us launch one of the first Cuban crowdfunding campaigns on Indiegogo. To our surprise, we funded our $10k goal in just 6 days. With this campaign came a lot of press—Polygon, Kotaku, PC Gamer, Game Spot—publications that I wouldn’t have imagined we could reach in my wildest dreams! Thanks to the international press, while being completely ignored in Cuba, we gained some kind of weird notoriety in the world of video games. Honestly, we got more attention for being Cuban guys who work in isolation without internet than for the game itself; but, thanks to that, our project, Savior, is still alive today.

TS: What has the reaction to Savior been inside Cuba—both general audiences and the gaming and artist communities?

JHP: Sadly, in Cuba our game is almost non-existent. It’s funny, though, that there are more than 50 articles, from all over the world, about Savior: articles from the US, Australia, Turkey, China and Russia. However, we still don’t have one single article from the official press in our own country. In Cuba, everything has political meaning, and the fact that we are completely independent doesn’t exactly fit in with a centralized vision of the Cuban government. So only small and independents publications have spread the word, and the most impressive is that almost daily we receive emails of support. I deeply believe that if our game succeeds that it will create a whole new breed of Cuban indie developers, but we are still far from that point. In the meanwhile, we are just two isolated weirdos with time to spend on something very, very risky and even unimportant, as some think we are making a “Mario kind of game.” It’s a pessimistic view imposed on us from people we know, as well as those we know from the art world. They say, “you should draw or paint to make real money,” and that’s the “friendliest” advice I’ve heard so far.

TS: I understand that you are trained as an artist—you went to art school in Cuba. You also participated in the Havana Biennial. This is significant because the Havana Biennial—in a relatively short amount of time and resources—became successful in bringing Latin American and Caribbean artists and their work to international contemporary art circles. Often, these are artists whose work falls outside the scope of institutions. What did it mean for you to be included in the Havana Biennial? What was your experience? Did it change your relationship to making art or game development?

JHP: That’s the biggest achievement a Cuban artist could have inside the country. So, for me, both personally and professionally, it meant a lot. The video game art I showed in the Biennial (which was programmed by Johann) was a non-game called Destroyer structured from the Schrodinger cat paradox.

 Screenshot from Destroyer, 2015. Image courtesy Josuhe H. Pagliery and Johann H. Almenteros

Screenshot from Destroyer, 2015. Image courtesy Josuhe H. Pagliery and Johann H. Almenteros

That work was a real turning point for me, because it helped me to understand (and this is a very subjective view) that even though I feel a lot of respect for this kind of more art-oriented video game, I felt like I was betraying something. In my humble opinion, video games don’t need to be associated with other historically established forms of art to gain respect or authenticity from people, including intellectuals. Video games have a very unique form of narrative, structure and visuals, by any means inferior to other artistic or intellectual forms of expression, so I deeply think we don’t need to emulate, out of self-pity, another art discipline to gain “high art” status. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we should stupidly dismiss all the invaluable experiences we gain from the humanities: philosophy, literature, film, visual arts, science, poetry, etc. In any case, we should include this knowledge into the video game experience and not let it masquerade as something it’s not.

TS: What artists, either working in contemporary art, video games, or illustration, do you think you are most in-conversation with?

JHP: Savior is structured like a conceptual work of art. The deconstructive narrative is reflected visually in the classic 2D aesthetic; it accentuates the artificiality of the “reality” that is represented in the game.

 Savior, “Isle of the Dead,” 2017. Image courtesy Josuhe H. Pagliery and Johann H. Almenteros.

Savior, “Isle of the Dead,” 2017. Image courtesy Josuhe H. Pagliery and Johann H. Almenteros.

Many of the visual influences come from symbolist painters like Bocklin or Millet, with touches of Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles in the game’s backdrops. I use heavy, dark outlines to emulate both the religious aesthetics of stain glass windows and the classic style of 90’s games from Japan, specifically CAPCOM and Konami games, as wells as visuals artist such as Akiman, Amano, McCarthy, Barney. Also, writers such as Carlyle, Kafka, Capeck, or Cervantes have been big influences on my work.

Strictly talking about video games, I feel very influenced by games such as Earthworm Jim, Castlevania 4, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, MDK, Final Fantasy 6, the work of Fumito Ueda, and more recently the Dark Souls series, and particularly for Savior, The Legend of Mystical Ninja or Ganbare Goemon in Japan (the 16-bit versions). I always remember that in the third level you could play Gradius inside a fair tent, a game inside a game. That move simply blew my mind!

TS: I want to change gears and talk about some of the aesthetic choices you’ve made in Savior and what they mean to the cultural content of the game. One thing that is striking about the game is that it goes from very lush visuals to harsh, glitched-out moments that can have a really visceral effect on players. What is the intended effect of contrasting a highly-illustrated world with exposed code and glitch aesthetics?

JHP: First I bring the player into this very conventional 2D platform with this never-ending story of the typical hero trying to save the world, and all of a sudden everything starts to fall apart, not only visually speaking but also from the gameplay narrative. The aesthetic needs to be impressive, very smooth and polished in order for you to really experience the radicalism of the destruction of everything around you later. It’s a huge contrast between the world that you know and the destruction that later ensues. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I will say that the game at the very end will really take you out of your comfort zone.

TS: Why did you choose to resolve Savior as a puzzle platformer style game? Or does it not fit the normal conventions of platformers, and if so, why?

JHP: Savior is not a puzzle game. To be honest, I don’t like too many puzzles games. With Savior, I tried to make a “weird” platformer, but its gameplay and aesthetics come from the 2D platformer genre, and still—like in the “old good days”—you will need some skills to get through the whole game.

TS: What’s next on the horizon for Savior and for you in terms of new creative projects in gaming or art?

JHP: Next for Johann and I is the launch of the demo at VGA Gallery in Chicago. We come from a place where it is safer and smarter not to look too deep into the future. Once we accomplish a milestone, we will set a new one for ourselves. The only thing is that we don’t want to stop. Luckily for us right now, it’s been easy to keep moving forward and not look back.

TS: Thank you very much for your time and generosity in sharing your thoughts, Josuhe.

JHP: Thanks again for this interview.


Josuhe H. Pagliery (b. 1981, Havana, Cuba) graduated in Painting from the National Academy of Fine Arts San Alejandro and later from the University of Arts (ISA) with a degree in Visual Arts. He also has been a teacher at ISA and gained experience as an animator in the Cuban Institute of Film, Radio and Television (ICAIC). For many years, he did performance art with the group La Teoria Dorada de Popeye. His artwork has been exhibited in Cuba and internationally in Germany, US, UK, Spain, Canada, among other places. More recently, Pagliery was officially invited to the 12th Havana Art Biennial and is currently working with the programmer Johann Hernández Armenteros to create the first Cuban independent videogame Savior.     

Teresa Silva is a writer, curator, and the Director of Exhibitions & Residencies at the Chicago Artists Coalition. She is a member of the artist-run spaces VGA Gallery (Chicago), Tiger Strikes Asteroid (Chicago), and Exgirlfriend (Berlin).