Stepping into the cozy virtual gallery of Please, Touch the Artwork, there’s something instantly familiar about the paintings in front of me, even if I can’t recall the name of the art, the artist, or any facts about what I’m looking at. But I know I’ve seen the blocks, the lines, the use of primary colors laid out in front of me before. Maybe in an art book in school, or in passing on a museum field trip.
These are, I am told, the paintings of Piet Mondrian, or interpretations of them. They’ve been compiled and turned into a puzzle game by Thomas Waterzooi, a solo developer with a background in engineering, artist parents, and credits at Larian Studios and IO Interactive. Waterzooi was let go from IO when it parted ways with Square Enix, after which he struck out on his own to make games that were very, very different from the narrative adventures of Divinity or the comedic puzzle boxes of Hitman. Specifically, he wanted to make “pacifistic” games that explored “the bigger picture” and “the human condition.” Something, he says, “cultural.”
Something, maybe, like a game where you solve visual puzzles by touching famous paintings.
In a process that Waterzooi describes as “exactly the opposite of what a game designer would do,” Please Touch the Artwork’s creation came as a bit of a delightful accident. At one point amidst his tinkering with different game ideas, Waterzooi was also reading a book called “What Are You Looking At” by Will Gompertz. It’s about the origins of modern art, and abstract and suprematist movements particularly fascinated while reading.
One night, when Waterzooi couldn’t sleep, he decided to make a “Mondrian generator” just for fun — a simple program that would generate a painting based on the ruleset Piet Mondrian applied to his own work, which he called “De Stijl” (“The Style”). So: three primary colors, three primary hues (black, white, and gray) and two primary directions (horizontal and vertical). It’s a familiar look, one ingrained in the cultural cognizance even of those who aren’t art experts.
Waterzooi successfully made his Mondrian generator and over time began to evolve it by adding interactive elements. By touching a square on the painting, for example, the colors of all the squares touching that one would change. Thus was born the main mechanic for the first of three games within Please Touch the Artwork. He evolved it further over the years as he took his first game to different festivals and shows, eventually adding two more games inside the game inspired by the Mondrian paintings Broadway Boogie Woogie, and New York City.
And he added story to all three, with New York City’s story inspired by his own experience in a long distance relationship while working for IO. De Stijl’s narrative gives his audience a little lesson in art history and a supposed rivalry between Mondrian and his friend and fellow artist Theo van Doesburg, with arguments between the two over how the paintings the player is puzzling through ought to be composed.
Though there’s certainly a layer of art history in Please Touch the Artwork, it would be wrong to think of this through the unfortunate lens many kids (myself included) grew up with, which is that art, art history, and museums are boring and dry by necessity. Please Touch the Artwork is a spirited game, with puzzles that reminded me of The Witness but without the intense frustration and lack of guidance. It’s calming and open-ended, but also jazzy and, importantly, very excited about the art it’s showing me.
The joy is in approaching these paintings with just enough context and theory not to spoil it. Like a trailer for a movie.
That’s part of the goal, Waterzooi tells me. He firmly believes art should be accessible to everyone: widely available, understandable, and approachable. Even with the element of art history present in Please Touch the Artwork, Waterzooi says he made a point not to do so much research that he came off as pretentious or too complex.
“I wanted to dive just deep enough to approach art like an average person, without extensive art knowledge,” he says. “The joy is in approaching these paintings with just enough context and theory not to spoil it. Like a trailer for a movie. Play my game, then go to the museum if you like it.”
“…I wanted to express that art is much more accessible than the industry makes it feel like. You could take art, turn it around, mix it up, and make it your own. Don’t keep it in the high spheres. Bring it down. Bring it to everybody.”
He hopes Please Touch the Artwork will encourage its audience to become more interested in art culture. He suggests, for instance, that children will play it with their parents, or that people without easy access to galleries or museums might enjoy it. Or perhaps those who do have that access, but who haven’t taken advantage of museums near them, might feel inspired to do so.
Waterzooi also wants to express to his audience that art is messy and subject to interpretation, including the interpretations he’s offered in Please Touch the Artwork.
Some people think art is always a positive word by itself, but actually it’s not true. There’s good art and there’s bad art.
“You should be able to accept that some art is bullshit,” he says. “It’s true! Some people think art is always a positive word by itself, but actually it’s not true. There’s good art and there’s bad art…to say ‘This is art,” in the public opinion it does, but it shouldn’t, imply that it’s necessarily good. It’s just a work produced by an artist who wanted to express his opinion or his inner ideas or struggles with something. Whether that’s good or not, that’s purely subjective.”
With Please Touch the Artwork out in the world, Waterzooi is far from done with art-based video games. He wants to add an infinite zen mode that will generate procedural painting puzzles for players to solve as long as they want. And he’s working on a real-life art installation based on the game, featuring both versions of the De Stijl puzzles that can be played by touching an actual canvas, as well as other interactive elements that he cut from the game itself.
And he’s not stopping there. Waterzooi wants to make more games like this, with more painters. He already has a few in mind he’s thinking of exploring: Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Kazimir Malevich come to mind. If those names aren’t familiar, don’t worry. Waterzooi wants to help fix that.
“I can only hope that other people want to join me in this, maybe collectively each tackle a different painting,” Waterzooi says. “Maybe smaller games, but just more games always with the common theme of being relaxing, skill-free, there can’t be any time pressure…It’s this upcoming thing, ‘wholesomeness’ it’s sometimes called…That’s my design philosophy.”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.