As I sit here and start to write this, I feel like there are some skills I need to brush off. I haven’t written a review in a while, and so it takes a bit of time to work through a kink or three to feel like I know what I’m doing.
ART SQOOL, at first, did the same to me with drawing. It’s like if my ability to write my first review in a while would be hindered if, say, some of the keys on my keyboard had been moved around. Imagine trying to write “review,” but writing “riveiw” over and over instead because someone went and swapped all your vowels. That’s kind of how it feels to play ART SQOOL, a game that asks its players to sit down and make complete drawings using a mouse.
It pulls you in with its distinctive style pretty much immediately. The game uses surrealist visuals with a minimal color palette that all comes together to feel a bit like you’re playing a vaporwave music video. Our protagonist and journeyman artist is FROSHMIN, a new student at the titular and vibrant ART SQOOL, simply beaming out of that weird, doughy face about starting off their studies at this most prestigious academy. The meat of the game, is doing exactly that.
QUERTZ, the AI construct that serves as ART SQOOL’s sole professor, will dole out a series of drawing prompts, one after another; 50 in all. The batch I got over the course of my first playthrough started out pretty tame, like painting a dramatic horizon or a toy from childhood, but got progressively weirder, like asking me to draw “the ideal worm” or “one of your peers at ART SQOOL” (a place in which you see no other students).
The prompts all roll out at just the right pace that I assumed, at first, that they would always be the same. That would be fine in itself, and part of art is learning to approach different prompts in different ways, but developer Julian Glander was ready for me on that one. In starting a second run, I immediately got some prompts I hadn’t had my first time through the game, so that was fun.
The game is all about drawing, but gives you plenty to explore and a fair bit to collect as you do so. The ART SQOOL campus is comprised of different floating islands set against a soft pink static backdrop. Each time you’re given a new prompt, you spawn on a random island. They also hide a variety of different color swatches and wacky brushes, so exploration is worth any artists’ time. You can draw inspiration from any of the shapes and forms around you, or make your way to any the other islands by simply jumping forever until you reach one. Yes, FROSHMIN can fly. The only rule at ART SQOOL is that there are no rules.
ART SQOOL, then, is really about being prompted to draw things that often have very loose senses of meaning, in that you can interpret a lot of prompts in any number of ways. Your drawings get graded by QUERTZ on a few different points, but a lot of this judgment seems fairly random. The four meters that fill up seem to produce whatever grade from A to F suits the moment.
That randomness is part of the heart of the experience, I think. This is not a game that you win. This is a game that you invite to throw stuff at you; both the weird prompts and the equally strange campus. I only wish that drawing with the mouse were more enjoyable. I can see the limits of that format being framed as an extra layer of challenge, but for me, it was just a nuisance. I wound up deviating from what I was trying to accomplish, mid-drawing, because the perspective just didn’t work for me. If you have a laptop with a touch screen, that might be the best place to play.
ART SQOOL deserves praise, though, because at the end of the day, it’s there to do what actual art schools are there to do. It’s there to push you to make things, sometimes frustrating you in the hopes that you’re able to use that frustration as fuel. I wasn’t an art student, but I was a creative writing student, and some of my best teachers were the ones who worked in the same way.
None of them dressed exclusively in pastel pinks and blues, or were a giant floating letter Q, but I guess you can’t have it all.