Can a video game make you more creative? Art Sqool poses the question without making any promises. The title is a mixture of an art game and an adventure game but that doesn’t quite do it justice.
The premise of the game is simple. You take on the role of Froshmin, a new student at an art school. The school is run entirely by artificial intelligence. This A.I. professor — who acts as a mentor, judge, and quest-giver all in one — is the only other “person” you see.
The professor takes form as a living letter Q and hands out your assignments. After taking on an assignment, you are given a random prompt and asked to draw it. You are left to your own devices to find extra materials and inspiration. Once you are finished, the professor gives it a grade and you are given your next prompt.
This process repeats 50 times until you graduate from school. It is as much a commentary on the idea of educating creativity as it is a functioning game. While Art Sqool can be thought-provoking, it also misses far more than it hits.
Obviously, the most important aspect of an art game is the way you transfer your thoughts to the chosen medium. As a PC/Mac title, Art Sqool restricts you to using the keyboard and mouse. Essentially, the art tools are a replica of those found in MS Paint. The basic nature of them means you won’t be creating anything too complex.
What you do manage to draw is not going to be a flowing masterpiece either, as drawing with the mouse is fiddly at best. Support for other types of controls would have been useful, or perhaps even the ability to upload drawings done on paper.
As an art project in itself, Art Sqool is a beautiful and interesting looking game. Indie reator/animator Julian Glander has infused it with his own visual style, giving it the look of an abstract painting. Landscapes want to make you explore the world. Each has its own bizarre and quirky characteristics. Moving throughout the different islands is something you really want to do, just so you can get closer to the fascinating objects and environments you can see.
Just as compelling is the soundtrack. It does a wonderful job of creating an almost otherworldly atmosphere as you move around the different environments. There is a great variety of instruments that come in and out that add to the weird world. Even though it seems to continuously be playing in the background, the music never gets repetitive.
The major problems with Art Sqool come with the gameplay. It has one of the worst control systems of any game I have ever played. From the very first time you try to move around, it becomes clear that the developer is not an experienced game designer. For instance, the camera system is very flawed. You cannot move the camera around and instead are locked to only look at the direction the character is facing.
Getting around feels completely unintuitive. This is an even bigger issue when you consider that you need to fly around to the other islands to reach different areas. When it becomes a chore to explore the world around you, most people are not going to want to do it. Art Sqool pushes you to investigate it but effectively hampers you from doing so.
The other issue comes with the grading system. Art Sqool promises an A.I. professor who can grade work. Yet, it woefully fails to deliver in that regard. The grading is completely arbitrary. Submitting the same work multiple times will give random marks on each occasion. Even if the developer is attempting to make a point about how critiquing art is an entirely pointless endeavor, it makes the entire experience feel somewhat pointless.
What Art Sqool does best is to make you comfortable in creating. While it does judge you, it never attempts to put you down. The entire experience has been designed to get your imagination flowing and inspire you to draw. In that respect, the game is a huge success. Even those like me, who would normally struggle to know where to start, will find it easy to get motivated.
Unfortunately, this comes at the cost of other areas far too often. Some of the choices in terms of level design and controls actively make playing it harder. You would practically think that Art Sqool was trying to hamper your progress rather than encourage you to explore. What was a neat idea on paper doesn’t stand up as a game. At least not in the way it is implemented here.