By Harold Goldberg
Recently, I sat outside at a cafe on a cold, damp-ish day in San Francisco. Dealing with the chills usually makes me tense up and that yields a kind of sullenness that’s hard to hide. But these moments were worth it because I was able to speak to folks associated with Arte, a French and German television and radio broadcaster currently making some very creative forays into the world of games. While Arte began in Europe in 1992, it didn’t begin to publish games until 2006. That’s forgivable because they’ve been on quite a roll.
Their new Vandals was designed and created by Théo Le Du Fuentes, the same fine mind which imagined Type:Rider. The latter, an effective and wildly imaginative game about the history of typeface and fonts, was nominated for a New York Game Award after its release in 2015. (Arte has been nominated more recently, too. “Bury Me, My Love,” one of its more emotional works about recent cultural upheaval and migration, was nominated for a New York Game Award last year.) Incidentally, news of Vandals came with a can of real spray paint (For me, that recalled Rockstar’s promotion for The Warriors, which included a fake can of paint inside of which was a t-shirt).
Vandals is about making graffiti in cities across the world – without being discovered by police. Kind of a mix of Jet Set Radio Future and Grand Theft Auto 1, this top down mobile game is fun. Yet it needs more variety in each graffito and in city locales to enhance the well-designed strategic elements of evasion that are necessary to run from the cops.
But overall, Arte is doing superior experiments with games. The closest thing to Arte in the U.S. is PBS. But sadly, PBS has never moved to make a game beyond Flash offerings for kids. They’ve never made a game documentary, either. The closest they’ve come is the generally below average YouTube series hosted by Jamin Warren. The writing was good but the production was miserably condescending in its courting of millennials.
The most fascinating recent Arte game is Homo Machina, a puzzler which is based on the artwork of Fritz Kahn, the German born physician who was well regarded for his amazing medical illustrations. Kahn’s life was legendary. He lived in Manhattan and Hoboken, them moved to Palestine, where he became known for his writing. Then, his books were burned publicly and banned. The French arrested him, dubbing him an enemy. In 1941, Albert Einstein helped Kahn get away and back to Manhattan.
Adrien Larouzée, an Arte project manager, had Uta and Thilo von Debschitz’s “Fritz Kahn: Man Machine” book with him. It wasn’t a prop; it was more like he was honoring inspiration. That’s because the tome is full of illustrations that influenced the game development work on Homo Machina, which has become one of the more compelling, deeply awesome educational puzzle games I’ve seen this year. The efforts in interactivity make Peter Gabriel’s words in his old 1980 gem, “Jeux Sans Frontiere,” a reality. Games without frontiers, baby. The way it should be.
The upshot? If a game if published by Arte, it very much deserves your attention.
Author/journalist Harold Goldberg is the founder of the New York Videogame Critics Circle. Find out more at harold-goldberg.com.