Action Painting Pro: The mechanics of art

Action Painting Pro is a prototype inter­active exper­iment that allows the player to harness video game mechanics to create their own works of art. Randomised colours, paths, and art tools allow for great variety in the final artwork produced, while the gameplay itself acts as a sound metaphor for the artistic process. We sit down with its creator, Ian MacLarty, to learn more about him, his vision, and how Action Painting Pro explores what inter­activity can offer to the world of digital art.

Tell us about youself:
My mom is an artist, so there was never a shortage of art books and materials when I was growing up. I always enjoyed painting and did a lot of it when I was a teenager. I think I found it a helpful emotional outlet at the time. I studied computer science at university, and I currently work as a (non-game) software developer, but I still enjoy drawing and painting.

Exploring inter­activity
I started making games about 5 years ago in my spare time. I can’t believe I didn’t start earlier, because it combines so many things I love doing, and it’s very grati­fying to make something that other people can interact with and enjoy. My first game was called Tappysack and featured hand-painted illus­tra­tions by me. Boson X was a recent game I made with a friend of mine, Jon Kerney. It’s been quite successful, receiving positive reviews and being featured in the “Best of 2013″ section on the app store. Boson X was the first game I really made an effort to tell people about and it paid off.

Action Painting Pro Screenshot

I feel it’s a very creative time in games right now with more people making games as a means of self expression. I found game developer Anna Anthropy’s book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, really inspiring, and I’d like to spend more time making more personal games like Action Painting Pro.

Action Painting Pro
The initial version of Action Painting was done in a day for a short game design course I was doing called Glitchmark​, with Melbourne-based game maker Harry Lee. I’ve always been inter­ested in the idea of player actions manifesting as a piece of art telling the story of those actions. I like the idea of giving the player a piece of self-made art as a “reward” for playing, instead of a high score or pieces of a pre-written story.

In an earlier version of the game I labelled each of the bars “health”, “money” and “inspir­ation”, but I changed to symbols, because I prefer to let players project their own meaning onto them. The heart in particular is quite ambiguous — it could mean health or love. Love of what? Love of your work, or perhaps the love of a supportive partner?

Constraint and distraction
For me the mechanics are all about constraining the player. The constantly decreasing stats limit the amount of time the player can stay in one place. The random positions of the platforms constrain where the player can paint, and the randomly spawning “art supplies” constrain what gets drawn to the canvas. The only thing the player always has full control of is when to stop. In my exper­ience, constraints — whether external or self-imposed — are an important part of the creative process and have a profound effect on the end result. I want players to exper­ience this and be surprised by the effect of these constraints.

Action Painting Pro Screenshot

Another function of the mechanics is to distract the player from seeing the work they’re creating as a whole. I wanted to simulate the feeling of being “too close” to a work. When the game is over all the distrac­tions are removed and the player can view the completed piece more objectively.

I’ve already had requests for a save button, but I think it’s kind of cool that the pieces are transient. These are little one-off works of art that you’re creating for yourself. Of course it’s easy enough to take a screenshot, but I think adding an explicit share button might dilute that feeling of introspection.

You can download and play Action Painting Pro for PC and Mac at Ian MacLarty’s website.