How Islamic Art Can Influence Game Design

By Dave Owen on at

By Dave Owen

Islamic art can be subject to restrictions that should hobble most video games. Under Islam’s strictest tenets it must be aniconic, so any depiction of nature – humans, animals, trees, etc. – is considered a sin against God. As a result its artwork traditionally took the form of attractive shapes, intricate patterns, and complex geometry designed to inspire the human mind. Islamic­ influenced art and imagery has cropped up in games from Journey to Prince of Persia, but now a couple of game developers are out to prove that despite its conspicuous rarity in the medium, Islamic art lends itself brilliantly to game design.

“It sounds like a huge and difficult restraint, that they can’t depict humans,” says Hamish Todd, creator of the Islamic-­art inspired puzzle game Music of the Spheres. “But actually something really nice came out of this in that it pushed the culture in the direction of incredible mathematical sophistication.”

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Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Iran.  Flickr: American_Rugbier

This is evident across a range of Islamic art forms, such as calligraphy, painting, architecture, and ceramics. “In all of them geometry and patterns are important,” says Mahdi Bahrami, an Iranian game designer currently working on geometry puzzler Engare. “They seek to portray the meaning and essence of things, rather than just their physical form.”

Over time the taboos binding Islamic artists have been stretched and reinterpreted, leading to art that does depict people and nature. But strict adherence in the ancient world forced the vast majority of artists to express their feelings through abstract mathematics. The link to video games might appear tenuous at first. But both Todd and Bahrami believe that the spirit of Islamic art can be an effective model for game design. “After hundreds of years those abstract shapes still seem interesting, beautiful, and mathematically meaningful,” says Bahrami. “Maybe we can design games in the same way.”

Launch trailer for Music of the Spheres

Todd’s Music of the Spheres is a laid back puzzle game that asks you to make sense of complex patterns via simple shooting and rhythm mechanics. While its puzzles can leave you scratching your head, they are designed for contemplation rather than frustration. This is informed by the nature of Islamic art.

“You’ve got this lovely pattern and you sit and look at it for a long time,” Todd says of both Islamic art and good video game puzzle design. “You eventually realise that there’s something surprising or special there. Almost by definition puzzle solutions are surprising, very much like the mathematics in Islamic art.”

Todd is now working with Bahrami to make Engare. The game was inspired by a geometry question once put to Bahrami’s high school class, which made even the mathematically indifferent strive after the solution.

“[Engare] is a puzzle game asking questions about the movement of objects. In each level a specific shape is shown to the player and they are asked to find a point on moving objects which moves the same as the shape given to them,” says Bahrami. “It’s easy to play but hard to explain.”

Engare teaser trailer

It sounds complicated, but the goal is not to be obtuse. Islamic art is about expressing something, and needn’t be challenging. “It’s about showing you a lovely pattern, or sharing something you didn’t think could happen with lines or certain shapes. That’s the relationship between Islamic art and puzzle design,” says Todd. “With Engare, Mahdi has found a way of bringing together a mechanic that is easy to express and leads very swiftly to some good level design, and it lines up really well with this theme of Islamic art and its lovely patterns.”

The games industry in the Middle East is growing rapidly. In 2012 Iran alone boasted more than 95 active studios. Yet we still see very few games explicitly influenced by this culture. There are a number of reasons for this; if we take Iran as an example, the stressful political climate in the country can make it difficult for developers to reflect what is going on around them due to the danger of agitating the government. Although more people than ever have access to the resources necessary to make a game, publishing remains a huge obstacle. It’s not only a risk; trade sanctions keep major western publishers out.

The result is that many Middle Eastern developers bypass their native culture in favour of established Western design. These are, after all, the games they grew up playing. “It’s hard to break away from your influences. It’s easier to make a game like other games,” says Todd. “Especially when you need to make money.”

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Another image of the Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque, because it’s incredible. Flickr: DavidStanleyTravel

Their political isolation may also mean that many developers fail to recognise the value their culture could offer the medium. Bahrami believes leaving Iran for a year to study in the Netherlands was invaluable to his perspective. “[It] helped me to be able to understand the difference between cultures. If you stay at the same place you were born and grew up it can be difficult to distinguish the difference between your culture and the rest of the world.”

There is another side to this: no rule dictates that Western developers should not display Islamic influences in their games. It is, however, exceedingly rare. Again, there are many potential reasons for this. Bahrami believes that some of the blame can be placed on the media for only ever focusing on the negative aspects of a troubled region. “The media in the West doesn’t usually show the right picture of the Middle East, and that’s the reason most developers and artists in the West are not familiar with Islamic art.”

Some Western-developed games have caused controversy by, often inadvertently, featuring Islamic elements. In 2008 Sony had to delay the release of LittleBigPlanet so that a song featuring lines of the Qur’an could be removed. In 2012, a Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 map was taken down and altered to remove a quote from Muslim prophet Muhammad that featured on a painting in a bathroom. Outside of Islam, the Church of England threatened Sony with legal action in 2007 over the use of Manchester Cathedral as a setting in Resistance: Fall of Man.

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Manchester Cathedral in Resistance: Fall of Man

While these controversies were relatively small and were each swiftly resolved, religion as a hot-button issue may cause Western developers to view them as cautionary tales. Even a fairly low­key release like Music of the Spheres quickly attracted derogatory comments about Islam and 9/11 on its Steam Greenlight page.

Both Bahrami and Todd hope this would not be enough to deter Western game developers from engaging with other cultures. If sufficient care and respect is exercised, problems should not arise. Todd is not at all religious, but his passion for Islamic art ensured he treated it respectfully. “I’ve got to be aware of my privilege when making a game that involves things from other people’s cultures,” he says. “I have a responsibility to be respectful.”

This is, of course, only considering the influence of Islamic art in video games in the most literal sense. While the physical art itself is geometry or architecture, the spirit of this work can reach much further, and might offer guidance for one of the more significant problems faced by the games industry today.

“The problem people have been thinking about for a while is, how do we make video games that can move you towards deeper considerations?” says Todd. “Islamic art has a sense of trying to inspire you to think about higher things. There are very few games that you could describe as sublime.

“It’s hard when you’re making a new art form,” says Todd. “It’s really hard to truly inspire someone and to make something that talks to them in the deepest possible way about the deepest things in the world.”

This is exactly the intention of Islamic art. It’s necessary here to draw a distinction between the aesthetic of Islamic art and its spirit. The Prince of Persia games are one of the few ‘major’ titles to prominently feature Islamic art in the form of temples and decorative artwork, but its focus on combat and acrobatics means you’re unlikely to say it embodies the spirit of contemplation and deep thinking.

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Prince of Persia image that shows combat on a backdrop of Islamic art

Music of the Spheres on the other hand uses the aesthetics to evoke this spirit through the ponderance and surprises of its puzzles. Perhaps a better-known example is Journey. It features a character in an outfit similar to a Muslim hijab, architecture inspired by temples and mosques, and shades of patterns and geometry in the abstract diagrams that offer glimpses of the game’s backstory. It uses these, and other aspects of its game design, to invite you to think on topics such as life, death, and the afterlife.

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Image from Journey

The rules of this ancient art form have been subject to reinterpretation for centuries. At a stretch this spirit could be taken as a metaphor for game design: code and maths, patterns and shapes coming together to offer far more than the sum of those parts.

For Bahrami, though, the aim is simpler. “I just want to focus on making something interesting,” he says. “I hope it inspires others to make games influenced by different cultures, different sciences, different arts. That would be good.”