There are some games where we want to look at them as art. For example, I just finished Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time, which has an utterly charming narrative and set of characters. The story is not only powerful, it's used as a creative device to wrap the entire game into the tradition of Scheherazade. Another that springs to mind is Ikaruga, which is the perfect shooter--you could not add any elements to Ikaruga that would make the gameplay better without either changing its genre or unbalancing the rest. These are games as art as games.
To people who confine themselves to that type of experience, Electroplankton seems a lot more revolutionary than it really is, which explains the mixed reviews. Most of the articles I've read about it are confused about the lack of replay value, the total absence of goals or unlockable content, where is the game here? And the secret, of course, is that there is no game here. This, unlike POP or Ikaruga is not art as a game. It's art as art. Although many journalists are trying to position it as a "gateway game," part of Nintendo's initiative to hook non-gamers, clearly it's not going to sell DS units. It is too odd, and people are unprepared to buy a game that's not a game. Most people will poke at the screen for a few seconds and move on.
Think of the cartridge as a gallery holding a collection by creator Toshio Iwai. Within that gallery are ten pieces of art with a common theme, both visually and musically centered around aquatic animals dubbed plankton. I'm not going to try to describe all of them, because this is not a review, but suffice to say that they range from the straightforward to the chaotic. All of them are highly interactive, through the touchscreen and the physical buttons. Some of them manipulate sounds from the DS microphone, and some of them react to that input to change their own arrangement. Depending on the plankton and the user, the results of any given piece might be music, ambient sounds, or just random noise.
If you google Iwai, you find that this is not his first electronic piece. In fact, he's a fairly well-known media artist who works in interactive electronic displays combining visuals and sound. At least one of the plankton, Luminaria, is very similar to a table installation he created in the past. He's also done similar work for the Exploratorium in California.
So what? Why am I explaining all this?
I think it's because I find myself fascinated by Electroplankton. There are a lot of lines blurred here. It's not a game, but it runs on game hardware. Does that change the meaning of the individual pieces? Does it alter how we think of art, when the pieces are digital artifacts, capable of being passed from place to place? Is the art just in the exhibits, or is it how we interact with the exhibits? Toshio Iwai's name is prominently--and deservedly--featured on the packaging and the titles, but does the user deserve any credit? What does it mean that you are a "user" or "participant," not a "viewer?" Some of the plankton are self-sufficient, but some of them seem pointless until you remember that Iwai's installations were cooperative--do I need someone else to get the most out of it?
These are not, admittedly, very deep questions, and I'm sure most of them have been contested about deeper subjects by better-informed critics. Yet I really like the way that I'm forced to think about them when I try to elaborate my impressions of this software. There aren't any goals in Electroplankton and you've seen everything in the package after a few tries, but I still find myself going back for more. I don't want all gaming to move in this direction--by all means, let's have more involving stories and clever systems like Prince of Persia and Ikaruga. On the other hand, my hope is that this experiment will cause other new programmers to ask questions about what the medium can do, and how they want to work. I'd like to see this kind of art gain more ground with the public.