A videogame in motion is an object that can be felt but not touched. Videogames exist, curiously, but their physicality is tempered by mostly universal conduits, you know, controllers and other apparatus. Their materiality is just outside standard perception. Play is abstracted; visuals which communicate effect are symbolically distanced from their aesthetic inspiration. This is a concept of phenomenology: a game’s aesthetic is felt through play and is different from nonplay observation. I’d argue this spacious relationship, this psychic distance, is a fundamental power of videogames. It feels radical to state as much as tech tries to close this duality, where acting and action are indiscernible from the other. Though it isn’t necessarily negative to strive for accurate models, I would argue it limits avenues of artistic expression. Doing and seeing can be two different-but-entwined expressions.
Game art exists in action, it’s a response to stimulus. It’s a material that exists because of play, while in play. Though in some cases there’s an inverse: there are play aesthetics that exist as material. This is a convoluted definition to pin down found aesthetics like the crayon graphics of Kirby’s Dreamland 3, the watercolor of Beeswing, and the chalk graphics of, uh, Chalk. These are approximations of materials—or sometimes, scanned, literal captures of these materials—they lack their nondigital physicality. Videogames interpret these found and created materials with tactile sensations. Aesthetics which have a basis in how things look in actual life, instead of being a representation or stylization of a living sphere, contain a weak but ever present dissociation. They could be rendered 1:1 outside of software, yet they feel and exist in ways in software they never could outside it.
Chalk pairs the light disconnect of a found material artstyle with a purposefully disorienting playstyle. A game inspired by shmups, clearly, as environments scroll horizontally, vertically, even diagonally. Character designs are simple and cute, contrasting a staticky, droll, enveloping gray of interlocking shapes in its background. A feeling of entrapment, but in no way menacing. For those not familiar with shmups, a very useful skillset is an ability to play with peripheral vision. When in relative safety or when many, often distant, threats need to be monitored, centered vision is imperative to keep tabs on multiple moving threats. Though Chalk is not a threat intensive game, it’s an exclusively peripheral one, because of its ludic alternative to shooting. Chalk has cursor support, turning the pointer into a piece of chalk. Clicking and dragging draws with it, a brief amount based on a preset energy meter (like paint in Kirby: Canvas Curse). Simultaneously, the player has to control a witch girl avatar with the arrows while connecting objects and shielding her with chalk. Dodging obstacles and attacks while drawing is incredibly demanding; it’s natural to lose track of play and become overstimmed.
There’s a generous healthbar and plentiful lives—challenge is optional and comes from a grade system. Core difficulty gradually increases like a Nintendo game, accompanied by many changeups and setpieces, like setting a clock to the right time, is similar to the irreverent modal play exhibited in treasure games. Altogether chalk contains a consistent duality of soft and harsh aesthetics: the real-and-yet-playful-fiction of the found chalk art, the deep, messy grays with buoyant and optimistic enemies, the multitasking which is incredibly difficult to learn and yet maintains a gentle grace by nearly avoiding being too much (though admittedly I would enjoy too much).
Interfacing with the chalk is feels strange, like breaking a sacred rule scrolling shooters’ formal presentation. Defense and minimization of threats is enacted at my own pace, at anywhere on the screen. Not limited by physical parameters of an avatar, so specifically, I’m capable of acting at any point on the screen. Though in intervals, my propensity of effect still blisteringly fast. I know the game and its challenges are all predetermined, obviously, but with the drawing mechanic, I feel like I’m altering the fabric of the world itself. With the aforementioned clock setpiece, and like in another example of needing to keep rewinding a clockwork cage from closing on the witch-girl, all while dispatching threats, Chalk‘s own world invites being tampered with. A strange facilitation, perhaps necessary for clear communication, but also overtly optimistic with the power a drawing tool wields. If a clear and present avenue can be changed by art, seize it.
Chalk is not a shmup though (maybe a post-shmup), like how walking sims aren’t “gunless first person shooters.” These verb dominant genres fall apart when verbs change. Playing Chalk a player creates, cleans, and protects: all nurturing and protective actions. Though the game is not nonviolent, each resolution of violence depends on an enemy being violent first, overstepping their boundaries, becoming smashed with hubris. It’s a game of being shot at, not of shooting. On many levels it’s a wonderful subversion of what necessitates a shmup, holding a naturalism of this effect by either being unware of its satire or at least not diegetically drawing attention to it. Though I spent my playthrough embodying a role rare in action games, it wasn’t until later reflection that I realized how different those verbs were.
Chalk, and this time I mean the processed rock, is often portrayed as being crude and transient. It’s something that is used by children or used to teach them, valued for its ease to clean and remove, rather than any kind of permanence. I would guess the material was chosen for its cutesiness, its playfulness in a sense. Chalk asserts ability to such an unassuming aesthetic, a greatness that can come about despite very specific definitions of proper use. An immediate difference, even if it isn’t permanent, can protect lives. Chalk as a guidance and a shield; legitimacy and goodness need not be judged by appearance.
Felt action in Chalk is being capable and yet overwhelmed, it’s a game of management and minimizing, of avoiding and squeaking by (though the latter is common to shmup-styled games). There are often multiple lines that need to be drawn in varying orders. Reflexive thinking, being able to process your quickness relative to what needs to be dispatched, happens in multiples of five or more. Personal management is this kind of rapid understanding and delegation. When I consider my sizable workload, or when I wake on a particularly painful day, I know I can soldier on, I know what I’m capable of, but there’s blips of being completely lost and spiraling. Levels in Chalk require an adjustment period, though they incorporate mostly familiar challenges than new ones, fostering acclimatization rather than possible drowning. Often though there is too much, I don’t input quite right, I lose track of my avatar, I judge what to dispatch incorrectly, and I take damage. But some damage is okay and likely inevitable, as long as I learn from it.
My only personal gripe with Chalk is that its overpolish, miyamotoist nintendo-resemblance, clashes with a lot of its naturally expressed dissonance and warring aesthetics. Instead of amplifying the discord, it’s a very smooth videogame, carefully made with little excess. This might sound like I’m complaining that it’s too good or functional, and on some level that’s true, but I think it is a touch too safe, lavishly relying on its influences rather than confidently projecting a singular stylistic vision.
Still, Chalk is a testament to videogame experimentation I couldn’t dream up myself. Useful conventions can also be artistic chains—these boundaries can and should be pushed, broken. An experiment of this stature appears slight, but they definitely modify the history of possible expression in a form. If experiments are recognized their increments will be felt. There’s untapped potential in stylistic forms, in genre videogames; more kinds of games than our methods of understanding them.
chalk’s developer, joakim “konjak” sandberg is probably better known for noitu love 2, website konjak.org