Game on: Scottish artists bring their work to life with video games

Beeswing

Beeswing

Simon Meek and Jack King-Spooner explain how they're using the medium of video games

It's a hoary old question: are video games art? But over recent years, thanks largely to the explosion of low-budget independent game production, a number of traditional artists have discovered vast possibilities of creative expression afforded by the interactive, multimedia nature of games.

Simon Meek of interactive design studio The Secret Experiment is a V&A design champion and the first ever designer in residence at the newly opened V&A Dundee. His most recent game, Beckett, is on permanent display in the museum, helping cement gaming's place in the world of visual art. Meek describes Beckett as a surreal noir which examines the nature of reality, influenced by the works of William S Burroughs, JG Ballard and Samuel Beckett. It's an extraordinarily beautiful game and you could take a screenshot at any point, print it off and hang it in on a wall.

'I'm very multidisciplinary,' Meek explains. 'I cut my teeth in journalism and moved into television development, writing and directing.' He's worked in games for some time now, with notable projects including PlayStation 3's interactive storytelling device Wonderbook and an ambitious adaptation of John Buchan's novel The 39 Steps. 'I got quite obsessed with the potential of games and interactive media for telling stories. I'm trying to explore and mine the potential of video games as a new and potentially limitless storytelling medium.'

Although Meek created much of Beckett himself, his company, The Secret Experiment, received funding from Scottish Enterprise which enabled him to hire a small team to assist him on the game, working with a six-figure budget. It sounds like a lot of money but Meek claims it was a low enough amount to help him focus his creativity. 'I'm a big believer that design comes out of constraint,' he reckons. 'One of the constraints of Beckett, right from the start, was: this cannot be a big-budget game because I'm self-funding this, so a lot of the choices which are now presented as ingenious design choices are because I had no animation budget and I didn't want to rely on 3D modelling. So what can I do?'

In 2014, artist Jack King-Spooner released Beeswing, a semi-autobiographical story set in the titular Dumfriesshire village where he grew up. It's a melancholy philosophical journey brought to life as a beautiful watercolour painting. Impressively, King-Spooner created the whole game himself, including its sublime acoustic soundtrack. Unlike Meek, King-Spooner doesn't consider himself to be much of a gamer. 'I looked up "what's the easiest way to make a game",' he remembers. 'And it was a program called RPG Maker. So I made a handful of games with that.'

Beeswing came about when he decided that a video game was the best way to tell his story, the idea of which was inspired by classic novels of country living, notably Cider with Rosie and Sunset Song. He's reticent to reveal what Beeswing is ultimately about but he explains why he decided to make it in this particular medium. 'It seemed like a game was good way to convey the story, what with its different paths and then meeting up, and not knowing what's the right way, and not really finding any answers even though there's a checklist, which is ultimately unsatisfying.'

King-Spooner's follow up game, Dujanah, tells the story of a woman searching for her family in a fictional war-torn Islamic country. He describes it as a clay-punk adventure game, and the story is told using mixed media including hand-animated clay figures. 'The idea came from personal experience,' he explains. 'It came from trying to understand the political climate we're in and from ideas of parenthood. All my work has some relationship with death.'

Beckett is on display at V&A Dundee, free; thesecretexperiment.co.uk; jackspinoza.itch.io

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