As it’s title suggests, in Painters Guild, you manage a burgeoning guild of painters at the beginning of the Italian Renaissance; hiring apprentices, completing contracts and, on occasion, bailing your employees out of trouble with the law.
It’s a tight system, one that attempts the holy grail of design simplicity: not having a tutorial. Yes, this is something that stands out and sets the context for reviewing the game, not for having some ill-conceived notion of “bringing back hardcore gaming” (though the game’s renaissance setting would have made for some perfect puns on the part of games journalists who long for a ‘hardcore renaissance’), but rather that it makes a bold statement on the part of the designer, who must accept that any criticism is valid past the point of mechanical confusion in its player.
So what do you do in the game? While the main mechanic is simply ‘dragging and dropping artists around a (sometimes poorly defined) grid’, the addition of several time-management requirements make the game’s simple drag-and-drop interface, in actuality, a front for a reasonably complex simulation. Clients will arrive and wait outside your guild until they are either attended to, or they become fed-up at leave, deducting points from your prestige rank; canvases will count down towards to time they are due to be completed, ratcheting tension when unattended; painters will tire and require sleep and, occasionally, medical attention; and paint supplies will dwindle, often running dry the moment before a work needs to be completed. If you envision those as the subtractive elements of the mechanics (elements that are required for the game to continue), the supplementary elements are the “leveling up” of your artists and guild, through accruing money and buying furniture and tools, to training apprentices in particular styles, having them work with a specific master to gain experience, before sending them traveling to attain the rank of journeyman and continue on their artistic career. All elements, subtractive and supplementary are presented in the same way (with timers and progress bars), making every addition to them instantly understandable in its operation, though possibly different in its outcome. There were few times, whilst playing Painters Guild, that I was unsure of what some element was either used for, or indicating to me.
And it is testament to the game’s presentation that so many elements that require constant and precise observation and interaction can, too, be so effective at conveying mood and setting. Perhaps it is inherent that a setting such as an artist’s workshop could be so easily understood in terms of what is, in its essense, a production line of clicking and dragging, however, I feel that this would be knocking the game’s crowning achievement: it’s wonderfully personal, emergent narrative.
Where ‘casual games’ like Tiny Tower and Fallout Shelter (Painters Guild‘s most visually obvious contemporaries) fail to create characters who grow according to the players actions, Painter’s guild fosters an emotional connection and growth with the player, by first simulating one between it’s characters. Games such as XCOM:Enemy Unknown and Valkyria Chronicles are often regarded highly for creating a playground of narrative possibilities through the player’s creation of characters and the driving of their actions, but where Painters Guild both differs and succeeds, is that the play doesn’t create, nor control the characters actions. It is, in some ways, similar to The SIms, in that, while the player may place all the elements needed around a character, it is the character and their personality and abilities that will define where events move from there. You do not make your painters paint; they will paint if the conditions are right, you cannot make a painter paint differently, they will have a style of their own and each will be different.
This is not to lay too much praise on the game’s narrative or characterisation mechanics, this is still a simple system that is presented in a way that can be manipulated by the player. For instance, a character’s personality boils down to two of about a dozen character traits that affect how quickly they will fill up certain timers. This is no complex, Democracy 3-style simulation of cause and effect, but it is effective in being both complex enough to create unique characters and experiences, while transparent enough to be understood to a degree that prevents the desire to reload an earlier save file when calamity strikes.
The narrative is not entirely mechanically driven, however. There are predetermined (and historically accurate) dates on which events will occur, though these events, while perhaps academically intriguing, offer no change to gameplay, and on occasion draw attention to a disregard for historical context. It seems odd that the works of Machiavelli or the tumult of the Di Medici family have no impact or bearing on your guild, despite the game actively telling you about their effects on art, science and philosophy. This brings up a second, more glaring failing on the game’s narrative, that of the inclusion of real-world figures, such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli. At historically appropriate dates throughout the game’s timeline, these famed artists will become available to be hired for your guild, however, their initial cost is so prohibitively high, that it is practically not worth the expense, which beckons a second question: if these artists are to become great, why is it that they are so expensive now? This is a problem of context, as we, in the present day, know Leonardo Da Vinci to be one of the greatest painters and thinkers in history, but on the date that he becomes available to be apprenticed in the game, he was no more special than any other boy (in-fact, he was probably less desirable due to his many quirks). The game goes to such lengths to alert you of historical events, without providing a modern context (such as explaining why certain events were so exceptional) and yet breaks its own internal narrative by elevating these painters above others without explanation past their name.
Additionally, the reason the renaissance is named as such, and held in such high regard among historical periods, was for it’s unprecedented blend and appreciation for both science and the arts occupying the same space in human development. Da Vinci was not simply a great painter, but an equally great engineer, as were many other figures at the time able to transcend one discipline and affect progress in another. The game presents some gameplay elements that reflect this, but very few, and all within the context of painting being these figure’s primary discipline. Cadavers, camera obscura and study desks can all be purchased and used to improve your artist’s abilities, but this improvement is only shown through an increase in painting speed or the like. This may seem petty or irrelevant, but it begs the question: why set this game in the renaissance in the first place? The reason it is regarded as a great period in art history is because of it’s scientific and humanist qualities, which are mostly absent from this game.
Painter’s Guild is a triumph of design and narrative cohesion. It’s gameplay elements create a balanced, engaging and somewhat educational experience that has the ability to create well-realised and rewarding emergent narratives, however, it’s setting omits the parts of itself that make it interesting and that were likely the inspirations for the game to begin with.