There’s a lot of chitchat and handwringing about the state of arts education—its prohibitive cost, questions around its history of curricula, the overall usefulness of the whole thing (or not). Thankfully, someone’s come up with an innovative solution to it all, rendered in charming pinks, blues, cuddliness, and hilarity: welcome to Julian Glander’s Art Sqool.
The Brooklyn-based illustrator and animator (who, incidentally, didn’t go to art school, but instead studied creative writing) has created this outlandishly cute game for Mac and PC, which sees players star as the genderless “froshmin” and complete various art school assignments—such as the simplistic “make art,” and the holy grail for all art-types, “achieve creative fulfillment”—which are then graded by AI.
“I’ve wanted to do something with a drawing pad for years and years—I love the feeling of drawing on a computer with a bad chunky computer paint brush,” says Glander. “I have a [Nintendo] 3DS which has a little stylus and you can only make the worst possible drawings. I told myself that this year I was going to write a feature film, but I ended up making a game instead.”
The game is set in the “beautiful, mysterious, sprawling Art Sqool Campus”, as Glander describes it, with players collecting various art-making tools, such as paintbrushes, throughout. The art-trained neural network Professor Qwertz is the one setting tasks (many are completed using an inbuilt drawing pad) and grading them. The idea is that the video game will help people be a little more creative, as well as just being a ton of fun.
“I wanted to design it so that it’s hard not to make art,” says Glander. “You have prompts to get you over the blank canvas-phobia that a lot of people have. It’s silly and it’s simple.”
The campus was designed like a mini-golf course—though it was also inspired by the Pratt campus and sculpture parks like New York’s Dia Beacon—with different “splat shapes” staggered and floating in space. The color choices are characteristically Glander: candy-like pinks and blues, everything effervescently joyful. Eagle-eyed art-nuts will love spotting references to the likes of Ed Ruscha and Yayoi Kusama, though we won’t give too many of those away.
It certainly seems like an exciting time for gaming, especially for the more DIY side of things—the art-led, playful, slightly daft brand of games that Glander so delights in. “It’s easier now to make games and easier to get people interested in them,” says Glander. “This idea was more suited to a game than a film—I can’t think of many games that use creativity and making as the central mechanism.”
A few precedents, Glander ponders, are Mario Paint (“just a painting application for the Super Nintendo”), as well as Pokemon Snap, a game from around 2000 in which players take photographs and are graded on them. The idea is that Art Sqool will hold as much appeal for non-gamers as the more first-person-familiar. “I hope people who maybe don’t see a lot of games out there for them will like it,” he says.
“I told myself that this year I was going to write a feature film, but I ended up making a game instead.”
While Glander has previously worked on a number of web games for Adult Swim, this is his second full-on game release (the first was 2015’s Lovely Weather We’re Having). “I learned how important it is to watch friends playing it, and then make tweaks,” says Glander. “The games community is really different to the film or design community—there’s lots of people who are really openly critical. I got some crazy emails from my last game. This guy wrote me paragraphs and paragraphs about how I could make it more what he wanted. He’s like, ‘in Grand Theft Auto you can change the camera angle!’”
Glander is at an interesting vantage point when it comes to making games, sitting squarely between the art and design community and the full-on gamers. “Some people treat games as art objects, and some people think of them as a product, like a hamburger,” says Glander. “It feels more exciting than any other medium you could be working with, and the tools are accessible to everyone.”
“Some people treat games as art objects, and some people think of them as a product, like a hamburger.”
Glander used Unity to build Art Sqool, and claims to “know nothing about code,” instead hiring developers when necessary. The whole thing is deliciously DIY: Glander even does the sound and weird glitchy computer vocals. One thing he’s also open about–and which perhaps adds to the palpable sense of fun and ludicrousness of the game—is his own lack of experience when it comes to actually going to art school. “It’s just my guess of what it’s like,” says Glander. “It’s that cliche of hanging out on campus with sculptures all around and doodling all day.”
Art Sqool is going to be heading over to Day of the Devs in San Francisco, for a bit of testing and feedback, then is set to launch in full next year.