TJ Hughes on Video Games as Art & Keeping a Dream Journal

Oui.Gallery Interviews TJ Hughes from St. Louis.

Introduction of the artist

TJ Hughes is a game designer, digital artist, and aspiring video artist from Saint Louis, Missouri. He created an experimental food art game called NOUR that is played on a midi fighter. This game is heavily influenced by Asian culture - visuals include bubble tea and ramen - and the game has a vibrant and colourful aesthetic.

Interviewing TJ is interesting and inspiring work. He is always happy to share every single concept and idea behind his process of creation. Due to his love of digital technology, his artworks often convey a sense of futuristic style as well. He is committed to developing videogames into a form of art to be recognized by the public, challenging the boundaries of traditional art creation.

Donuts II, 2019
TJ Hughes, Donuts II, 2019. 80 cm x 123.5 cm, Archival ink on glossy paper.

You called Nour an experimental food art game. Did you consider yourself as an artist when you make this game?

Yes, wholeheartedly. When videogames started hitting the mainstream, for the longest time, videogames weren’t treated the same as other art forms. Games weren’t protected under the American first amendment right of free speech until 2011, which is disturbingly recent. Videogames are art in every sense of the word; they’re the accumulation of so many different art forms, assembled using math and logic, and made interactive. I don’t think there exists a viable argument against games being art.

Drink, 2019
TJ Hughes, Drink, 2019. 30 cm x 53.3 cm, Archival ink on glossy paper.

There seems to be no ‘right’ way to play Nour, and you can’t ‘win’ the game. Why did you design a game like this and what do you want people to gain from it?

When I decided To stray Nour away from the traditional mechanics of a video game, I was thinking about what actually made the experience fun, and what would challenge the medium of videogames. I found that if I put in artificial restrictions and try to make it goal-oriented, it made the experience a lot less relaxing and uninhibited. There’s something freeing about not being told how you “should” play the game. I also was thinking about accessibility. A “Game Over” screen would have made the game a lot less inviting, because a lot of people are afraid to play games in general because of fear of negative feedback, and facing that “game over” screen face to face. I find that once people realize that there is no wrong way to play the game, they start pressing buttons a lot more freely, and without worry.

How did you decide to programme a midi fighter for the game? Why a midi fighter? Can people play with keyboard? Or just on touch screens?

The game is compatible with any midi controller with trigger buttons, keyboards, as well as the Midi Fighter 3D. It’s to encourage experimentation and to further challenge how games in this medium are controlled. The midi fighter seemed ideal for the project, because Nour is all about the feeling that the graphics and audio/visual feedback give you. Having an array of large, satisfying buttons to press only adds to the experience. Pressing a punchy button and getting immediate feedback is very gratifying.

Many of your inspirations come from your own dreams. Do you have a dream journal? Where else do you get your inspiration for your visuals and colours?

Yes, I always try to catalog my dreams after I wake up because our subconscious likes to string things together in this story like manner that’s very intriguing to me. I also get a lot of inspiration from other artists I follow online, and mediums that are very far away from video games. Like a lot of times my ideas come from photography, or food blogs, or documentaries on weird looking sea creatures. It can come from anywhere, really, as long as you stay diverse!

Ice Cream, 2019
TJ Hughes, Ice Cream, 2019. 80 cm x 123.5 cm, Colour print.

Nour contains lots of Asian food items, such as bubble tea. What makes them so attractive or important to you?

Part of the game’s inspiration comes from the way food is portrayed and lovingly rendered in Japanese animation. A lot of times these foods will be Ramen noodles, or an intricately animated sequence of an anime character making sushi. Seeing these painstakingly drawn animated scenes inspired me to pursue trying to make these kinds of renderings in real time 3D to see if video games can give food the same kind of love. That explains the leanings towards Asian cuisine in the game, as well as the playfulness and visual appeal of the foods themselves. For example, Ramen is an extremely playful food in that it has so many different shapes and colors and physical properties going on at the same time in one bowl. There’s the bendiness of the noodles, the buoyancy of the broth, the refraction of the jewels of oil that sit on top. There’s a lot to appreciate across many different senses.

Describe a day in your life! What it’s like to be a video game developer?

Since I’m working on my own projects full-time, my days can vary a lot. I kind of make my own schedule and will some days work out of a café, or I will be lazy and simply work from my desk at home. I try to invite friends over as often as I can to work on creative projects alongside me, as it can get fairly lonely not having any co-workers!

Meat Grind, 2019
TJ Hughes, Meat Grind, 2019. 30 cm x 53.3 cm, Archival ink on glossy paper.

Have you thought about changing the visuals for your food items? Creating your own ‘food’? Or have you considered presenting your food art in other forms? Prints? Sculptures?

The game is grounded very much in the recognizability of the foods so I try to keep them fairly idealistic-looking! Everyone has memories attached to food and I think that’s what makes people able to connect to the game so well. I have considered expanding my intrigue of food to other mediums, definitely. I would really like to try making a bubble tea painting with watercolor paint, or trying to draw a really nice looking bowl of Ramen. I find that there’s a lot of ways to present food in a way that looks really appetizing in many different mediums.

What’s your plan for the next step?

I’m working on releasing the game this year, so that anyone may download it and play with their food. A lot of people are looking for it so I hope that they’ll all enjoy it when it drops. Beyond that, I plan to do more experiments with interactive 3-D and midi controllers, and I hope to branch out into other creative mediums like music production as well. We’ll see how that goes!

View Artwork by Tj Hughes

Oui. Gallery is an international gallery founded in St. Louis, Missouri in 2018. Later, Oui opened a new space in Central, Hong Kong. Oui. Gallery is devoted to cooperating with emerging artists and making innovative shows.