Art Sqool was created with non-gamers in mind, according to an interview with Eye on Design magazine. “I hope people who maybe don’t see a lot of games out there for them will like it,” said the art game’s creator, Julian Glander. In that sense, it’s perhaps easier to see Art Sqool for what it is: an unconventional medium for encouraging bursts of creativity, contained within a psychedelic, interactive world – or rather, an otherworldly school campus for a single student.
Here’s a school – or sqool, if you will – you can enroll in to hone your creative drawing skills, meander around to search for sparks of inspiration, and get your assignments graded by your faculty advisor, a neural network named Professor Qwertz. Having been put together by a bunch of scientists, so the Prof is surely a paragon of unbiased, constructive criticism.
That’s the gist of Art Sqool; just like the universities and graduate schools in real life, it’s mostly up to you to make meaning out of your learning experiences in this virtual campus, for there really isn’t a lot to busy yourself with. As a bright-eyed, aspiring artist named Froshmin, you’re here to make art under the tutelage of the one and only Professor Qwertz. They’ll assign you drawing prompts, and ask you to submit them so the drawings can be graded according to their arbitrary standards.
What these prompts can be are up to the whims of the AI professor, who prompt you to doodle with something as straightforward as “Draw a plant’, to more abstract ideas like “Draw something you’ve heard of, but never seen”. At the same time, the ever-eager Froshmin is initially equipped with an extremely rudimentary palette of colours and brushes, but you can expand these by looking for more of these tools, which are strewn across the school grounds. Once you’re done with your assignments, there are always more to complete – such is the life of a student.
As a game that’s mostly about getting people to start doodling, it’s a relatively successful one – just look at the #artsqool hashtag on Twitter, and you’ll see a lively community of artists sharing their works. There’s also an intrinsic appeal to etching out your masterpieces with the clunky, MS Paint style-tools; you aren’t here to pick up complicated techniques, or learn about more advanced illustration software such as Photoshop or Illustrator.
By paring the tools down to the most fundamental, Art Sqool snaps you out of the dreaded blank canvas paralysis so you can start drawing whenever inspiration hits you, which you may be able to find as you wander about the peculiar campus grounds. This is particularly so once you realise the grades Professor Qwertz doles out are thoroughly inconsistent and offer very little guidance or feedback other than an alphabet grade. Coupled with the game’s gentle, atmospheric soundtrack and the soft, inviting environments you’re immersed in, drawing here becomes a relaxing, meditative experience, even for the most amateur of artists.
After I grew weary of sketching, I found greater joy in simply wandering about the sqool, and discovering the ethereal artefacts and surreal structures of the campus. I chanced upon a massive wire sculpture of a dog, a floating island designed like a chess set, and even a miniature building with the barest of furniture on it: just a chair and table. It’s all incredibly odd and fascinating. But despite the quirky environments, which are filled with candy-coloured lumpy hills and kickable, oddly-shaped objects, and the occasionally thought-provoking prompts by Professor Qwertz, it’s a pity there isn’t more to unveil about Art Sqool’s universe. I wish there was more to see and more to do here.
You can’t make friends with other genderless blob students (for there isn’t anyone else other than you), connect with industry peers, or collaborate on art projects. It’s just you alone in this vast and strangely empty campus. Between assignments, the adorable Froshmin sings, in their characteristically scratchy, high-pitched inflection, about missing their mum and on difficult assignments, wondering aloud if they’re truly made for the rigors of the creative industry. Having some company to commiserate over these affairs with, no matter how mundane they are, would have been nice, like that of the toy-like critters in Glander’s previous game, Lovely Weather We’re Having. To be honest, It’s a tad lonely in this captivating and confuddling place.
Perhaps that’s Glander’s intention all along. Creative work can sometimes be a deeply solitary and isolating business. While I’m not an artist by any stretch of the word, I dabble in writing and music, often devoting hours to expanding on some drafts or remnants of a revelation, and knocking them into more feasible, presentable works palatable to the public. Perhaps that’s the point of Art Sqool as well. Perhaps the game’s grandest ambition is to tell aspiring artists like Froshmin that they don’t always have to deliver their most outstanding works, and that they should also take pride in the half-baked ideas that usually don’t see the light of day. Just take a look at the above self-portrait of me playing basketball; Glander himself gave it an A+. That’s a higher score than Professor Qwertz can ever award.