The appeal of Thomas Waterzooi’s first game, Please, Touch the Artwork, is much more than its white-walled art gallery setting. It’s part psychogeography and part “Zen” art puzzle collecting, but also a full-fledged descendant of classic video games like Snake and Pong.
Despite its cold exterior vibes, Please, Touch the Artwork is a challenging game that taps into the same vein of hypnotic, obsessive engagement as Snake, the staple smartphone that came preloaded on a billion Nokias in the late 90s and 2000s. Snake (which you may know as Nibbles, a variant that ships with MS-DOS), your snake grew after consuming dots on a small monochromatic screen, and once you ate your own elongated tail, the game was over.
Phone games were so rare at the time that Snake became a shared experience that defined a formative period in mobile phone culture and the idea of what casual gaming could be. Please Touch the Artwork is not a Nokia game (although it’s available on smartphones as well as Steam and itch) but it goes back in history to pull the same threads that made some games like Snake and Pong so appealing.
Waterzooi uses lines, blocks, primary colors and negative space to create a minimalist wall to project ideas onto. It’s not just about getting from point A to point B, but about making sense of your explorations. In the Boogie Woogie gallery, you’re introduced to two “characters” (really just dots on a screen) and the rules that govern their relationship, while in the New York gallery, your movements mimic the bustle (and sometimes, the isolation) of living in a big city.
Using the abstract art of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian (you almost certainly know him even if you don’t know his name), Waterzooi pays a layered homage to art history that taps into our innate attraction to sharp shapes and bright colors. The flashy hand slider also attracts cats.
The psychogeographic aspect is strongest in the New York gallery, which interweaves Snake-like puzzles with a loose poem about a decaying relationship. By far the most conventional linear narrative in the game, it’s also the most conceptually cohesive. While the inspiration clearly comes from Mondrian’s series of New York City paintings, it is also reminiscent of Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda, who designed the iconic New York City subway map in 1967.
The minimalist setting immediately transported me to 2006, when I moved to New York: navigating the MTA, the mazes of one-way streets, and the rat-king of the intense personal drama that is life in your early 20s. . It’s a visual piece that works even if you haven’t been to New York because through movies, TV and books, the subway map has become a cultural representation of what we believe to be New York .
The journey through this particular representation of New York describes the familiar story of a long-distance relationship where one of the partners moves to the big city: the feeling of surpassing themselves socially to distract themselves from dormant problems; the feeling of comfort at each visit and the loneliness when the other returns “home”.
Colors and subway lines distort and decay over the course of the chapter – a claustrophobic fisheye lens effect, a dreary film of rain, a gloomy “winter” time, and rhythmic cascades of commuters (stylized as dots) moving across the map add life to the grid. Some basic but effective framing tricks complement the highs and lows of the poem, like stepping back to reveal a massive, impersonal map, or having the camera trained tightly on your crosshairs, unable to pan around to see the big picture.
It’s a wonderfully effective – if slightly tedious, at least towards the end, as some relationships are – use of abstract art to tell a story that feels both personal and universal. The sense of visual and conceptual disharmony on the “maps” is balanced as you travel through the subway lines to the correct nodes, revealing more of the poem and ultimately pushing the story to its wistful end.
The other two galleries aren’t as well-constructed as New York (Boogie Woogie certainly wasn’t the most appealing of the three), but The Style is where I really felt the brunt of the puzzle difficulty, as well that a great potential sense of Wordle-like community. In this gallery, Waterzooi breaks down the paintings of Mondrian’s Neo-Plasticism, borrowing from the painter the visual language of simple geometry and primary colors to tell a theatrical story of creation (and eventually, a goodbye).
Mechanically, it suffices to replicate a given painting on a blank canvas. Sounds simple, until it’s not.
Mondrian’s Neo-Plasticism movement was about using a common artistic language so that everyone was on the same page (no green, no curves, no masters). And so, armed with the same visual vocabulary, The Style plays the same siren song as Wordle – I can absolutely imagine doing one puzzle a day and comparing the results with friends on a bewilderingly colorful grid. Play the same thing separately, but together. We have gone from an anchored geographical experience of the place to a figurative shared space. And the puzzles get devilishly difficult as you go. There are diagonals, directional lines, and all sorts of things to create a delightfully masochistic experience.
Of course, as a self-proclaimed “zen” relaxing game, Please, Touch the Artwork has no scores or metrics (although The Style does show you the perfect/optimal number of moves). There is no time limit. You can move from one gallery to another and visit them in the order of your choice, like walking through the different wings of a museum. But stepping away from it, there’s a distinct feeling that you’ve touched a part of art history in a whole new way, while riding a zeitgeisty wave of small shared experiences told through a language simple visual (hey, there’s that Wordle feeling again). I hesitate to call it “wordle art”, and to be fair, that shorthand description only applies to the style, but it might be the easiest way to get you to try it out for yourself.