8 of Hearts: 2022 Games of the Month 2: PLEASE TOUCH THE ARTWORK

In the early years of the twentieth century, the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, who had previously focused on impressionist presentations of landscapes, was moving in a more abstract direction. Moving from the Netherlands to Paris in 1911, he was visiting his home country upon the outbreak of World War One, which made returning to Paris somewhat difficult. Already influenced by the new art style of cubism, Mondrian’s stay at the artist colony at Laren during the war allowed him to met other artists, such as Bart Van der Leck and Theo van Doesburg. The three artists, all moving towards abstract art, collaboratively began an art movement named De Stijl, or “The Style”, with a journal by the same name publishing essays on the movement and its theory of art, which Mondrian called “Neoplasticism”.

A full discussion of the history and theory of neoplasticism and the De Stijl group is beyond the scope of this game review, but the core concept is the idea of purifying or reducing art to a “universal” abstraction, producing art using only horizontal and vertical lines and an extremely limited colour palette: white, black, and the primary colours of paint, red, yellow and blue. It was a search for the root of fields of art, removing the messiness of the natural world to create a separate world of beauty. While the exact link between the art style and Mondrian and the rest of the groups spiritual beliefs (Mondrian was a firm believer in the new religion of Theosophy, for instance) is difficult to make, it’s not that hard to look at the conditions of World War One and follow how the search for a universal form of harmonious art may have been popular at the time. The abstract geometric planes of the neo-plastic style was thought to provide a method for a individual to express themselves uncluttered by the world.

Pier Mondrian 1929 Composition With Red Blue and Yellow

From this, Mondrian and the others developed the famous grid paintings he is mainly known for, his Compositions and Tableaus (I’m going to refer to them primarily as Compositions throughout this piece. This is incorrect but Compositions is a weirdly fun word to type so I’m doing it). It is highly likely you have seen these before, if not necessarily with his name attached to them. They are extremely famous pieces of modern art, possibly due to their striking appearance and ability to be copied and transferred to other forms in the kiln of popular culture, such as Yves Saint Laurent‘s Mondrian dresses, a copy of Tableau 1 hanging in Data’s room on Star Trek or another art based game, Mondrian Squares by LH Games. However, while Mondrian was willing to experiment somewhat within this grid space, such as hanging canvases in such a way they become diamonds rather than squares while still maintaining the grid, his friendship with fellow artist van Doesburg broke down in 1924, with some art historians blaming this on the scandalous introduction by van Doesburg of diagonals to the pieces. Van Doesburg would later form a new school of art, Elementarism.  

Piet Mondrian 1942 New York City I

In 1938, with fascism rearing its ugly head in Europe, Mondrian travelled first to London and later to Manhatten. Here his art style continued to evolve. His painting New York simplified things even further, with the coloured spaces between the lines being done away with, replaced by a primarily yellow grid of lines, weaving in and out of each other, based on the gridded city layout of his new home. Near the end of his life, two new far more complicated paintings emerged, growing again from the grid layout and architecture of Manhatten, but also attempting to visualize the boogie woogie genre of blues: the first known as Broadway Boogie Woogie, and the second diamond shaped one, unfinished due to his death, known as Victory Boogie Woogie.

Piet Mondrian 1943 Broadway Boogie Woogie

It is these three sets of painting: the Compositions with Red Blue and Yellow, New York City, and the Boogie Woogie paintings that form the basis of the indie game Please Touch The Artwork, created by Thomas Waterpoozi and released in January 2022.

Piet Mondrian 1944 Victory Boogie Woogie

Presented as a gallery with a helpful guide, the game is spilt between three sets of puzzles, each based on and building upon Mondrian’s work. The first, “The Style”, sees you putting together compositions of black lines and black, white, red, blue and yellow rectangles. The puzzle itself is very neat: you are given a number of points around the canvas from which you can draw the black lines in order to recreate the goal canvas you are presented with to the left. Initially you are only drawing lines across the canvas, but the game rapidly develops the techniques, first by allowing additional lines to be drawn from points on existing lines, then introducing a second way of drawing lines (one simply draws a line up and down (or left and right) from the selected point, while the other only draws it on one side of the line), and then later introducing the blocks of colour. Rather than you simply clicking on a rectangle to fill it with the colour, it instead fills all the squares touching the space you’ve touched, forcing you to find the correct order to fill the squares to match the given canvas. It is a puzzle about carefully ordering your additions to the canvas, and I think is extremely good at forcing you to think a bit more about the construction of the painting, while losing, of course, some important details are lost. For instance, the Compositions actually use very different painting techniques for each of the individual colours giving them a different feeling rather than them being uniform blocks, but this is difficult to get across in a game. Weirdly I think this means The Style has actually further abstracted down the original paintings?

In between the puzzles, around 50 in all, we are shown what you might call cutscenes. Here, the individual elements of the compositions – the lines, the colours – are all introduced through a parody of Genesis. In the beginning, we created the canvas. Like the ideals of De Stijl, we are (at least portrayed as) creating a new world, perfect (or perhaps not) in its abstraction. The simple mechanics are extremely impressive for being able to tell a story of the history of De Stijl. Near the end, like van Doesburg, the diagonal is introduced. The pronoun in the cutscene texts changes from we to you. Once again, the group is spilt, and the painting develops. It is this neat use of mechanics, mixing solid puzzling with art history, that makes the game really stand out for me. We also get to see a gallery of Mondrian’s own works in chronological order, letting us understand how he developed from impressionism to abstraction.

The Style is the most heavily linked to Mondrian of the three puzzles. The second, Boogie Woogie, instead uses the small coloured squares of Broadway Boogie-Woogie to tell a love story. Boogie and Woogie are in love. They have meeting places around their town, a town of long yellow roads and block coloured buildings, and Woogie must reach their partner through an increasingly complicated network of roads and an increasingly large crowd of other squares that push the small square representing Boogie left, right, and in the case of the handsome but repulsive blue square Broadway, backwards. The town grows larger and the traffic increases, adding in elements of the game Snake as Woogie drags a line of grey squares behind them, black tunnel squares appear on the map to handle the traffic, Woogie and Boogie are forced to meet at night, and then, like in reality, the mysterious, confusing but alluring diamond Victory appears to tempt our protagonist square. The puzzles, rather than focusing on the art like The Style, use the art as a jumping off point (and still including in-jokes), using it to tell a story, with characters constructed from an in-joke. Once again, the mechanics interact with the text: this is, to flip a term I love but other pop game commenters are tired of, ludonarrative symbiosis. Victory Boogie Woogie becomes the tempting diamond Victory who warps all the other squares around them as Woogie crosses over them. When Woogie and Boogie decide to meet at night, away from the crowds, the difficulty for a few puzzles abruptly drops, as there is no one around to get in their way. I wouldn’t necessarily call the writing fantastic, but it is too deeply enmeshed in the art and the mechanics for me to really be able to extract the text by itself and go “see, this was the disappointing bit”.

New York City, the final puzzle, is the disappointing bit. Well, that’s not fair. It is by far the simplest of the three puzzles, a maze game where you dart around the interconnected yellow highways of an abstracted New York, collecting small black dots that turn into the letters of the lines of a poem about moving to New York and entering a relationship. To a degree, the same clever techniques of the other two sets of puzzles are here: the city map changes with the flow of the poem, distorting with lense effects during moments of emotional turmoil, the lines growing closer and closer together as other black dots dart along the lines you cannot enter, representing the traffic of the city. Foot, car, subway, take your pick on the mode. When the speaker moves away from the city, the mazes become simple lines, country lanes on a dark green backdrop, a reprieve but one that does not last. But despite this, the interconnectedness does not land quite properly for me: the text of the poem is not bad but I certainly got the feeling I had read things like it before in most stories about moving to the big city (at least those that don’t just portray it as a hellhole the unwise, naive newcomer must leave), and unlike Boogie and Woogie the mechanics are simplistic enough that I feel I can extract the weakest parts. That’s not to say it is worthless, bad, or even mediocre: it’s a good zen time passer. (I also feel, based on the other two puzzles, that there may be biographical points in the poem linking it to Mondrian’s time in New York but…). 

It is definitely the furthest from the original artwork. The lines of Mondrian’s New York pictures are spaced out, leaving plenty of large, pretty regular gaps like blocks of buildings, and the lines also cross the whole of the canvas, making it feel like you are never looking at the whole of the city or even the whole of the roads you are focusing on. Instead, the lines in the puzzle cluster together like the lanes of a highway, with the yellow lines you can move across branching and dead-ending in order to create the maze you navigate to find the letters of the poem. This is no bad thing in and of itself. It almost reminds me of an abstracted version of the 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi, directed by Godfrey Reggio, which, in a series of wordless shots of then modern cities, time lapse shots being used to capture the constant movement of city life, like the constantly moving dots that dart across the screen. You can’t interact with the dots in the New York City puzzles: like a real city, they are simply representations of lives that you briefly interact with only by being in the same space, a thousand stories being told in a small, concentrated area. It’s one of the things I like about living in cities. There is plenty of human interaction around you, and plenty you can indulge in yourself, but the mass of people is so large you cannot know everyone, and not everyone, indeed, not even ten percent of the populace, can, on a practical level, know you. You are connected but also can keep your distance. Your squares dart around separate lanes.

One of the most interesting things about the game, for me, is the way it almost reverses the abstraction that Mondrian used to distill his style down to so few elements. It takes the abstraction and uses them as a basis to build on. It takes the infinite plains of coloured squares of his compositions and builds a creation myth onto it. It takes Broadway and Victory Boogie Woogie and makes them into a town to tell a love story in. It takes the design of the New York paintings and uses them to recreate the city in a different way, all of its own. It reminds me of studying physics, where you first abstract the world down (assume a frictionless sphere in a vacuum) and from that abstracted basis you build back representations of reality.
Abstraction in games is nothing new: on the mechanical side, Pong and Tennis for Two, two of the earliest video games, abstract down tennis in two different ways. American naval training abstracted the damage needed to sink a warship into simple points that became the concept of HP. Tetris is, quite possibly, the most popular abstract work on the planet. But with Mondrian having abstracted down…not everything he could but a lot of it, Waterzooi almost de-abstracts it, taking it at least a few steps closer to being representational. It is a game that pushes and pulled on an artist I really like, and the history of the movement he created (a lot of my recent abstract, quadrilateral based collages are clearly inspired, at least partially, by Mondrian, and I’m not going to deny it, or claim I am as good as him). It is a game I highly recommend if you like either strong visual puzzles or abstract art, particularly with its low price tag.

Heartofaquamarine 2022, Untitled Collage

That being said, I’m not sure how much someone who isn’t already into abstract art will get out of it. I mean, you’ll definitely get some well crafted puzzles ranging from the difficult to the relaxing, but if you don’t get Mondrian on an aesthetic level, I’m not sure how much this will help you get him. The game provides a timeline of his work and short sentences explaining his views, as well as quotes from Mondrian recited by the guide, but it is still…not completely reliant, but heavily built on the context of the artist. New York uses the paintings as a launch point it quickly leaves. Boogie and Woogie are far more focused on the puzzle and the story being told, and often doesn’t really resemble the far busier paintings. The Style is based around composition but it isn’t your composition. Like a school exam, you are recreating a given answer, not thinking about how the painting is constructed. But all that might actually help someone who isn’t already into the art get a glimpse of why people like it, why they are fascinated by it.

Perhaps having a different view may improve the paintings for you. 

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