A Brief Thought on the Artistry of Games

This is most definitely not an "are games art?" piece.

In fact, just take it as presumed that I think video games are art in a very general sense, and realize that whether you agree with me or not, I am operating comfortably from that assumption.

What I want to briefly consider is the evolution of art in games and the net good that brings as a whole.

Since I have no art history background, I am far from equipped to measure the relative qualities of art design in games, but as a consumer I can tell you that while games like The Path or Flower may be a little hoity-toity for my general tastes, I like that they make broad attempts to evolve the medium. I think independent and subversive effort to recast games into something beyond the standards we have become achingly familiar with is a valiant, if occasionally misdirected, effort.

As a result, I genuinely believe that the modern era of games, even the big budget blockbusters, more often operate from a position where a strong visual aesthetic, an artistic vision for a game, is core to production. And, in a visual medium such as this, that can only make games better.

The explicitly artistic indie games that have begun to see exposure within the industry, like Braid or even Love, are rarely up my alley from a gameplay perspective. Like many people I find a lot of what games like these do to be antithetical to my game playing preferences. I fear, however, that by making a statement like that I am giving the impression that I condemn the games as having some kind of negative impact.

The opposite is true. I don’t want to play them, but I like the influence they have on the industry as a whole.

It wasn’t so long ago that I felt like every game was painted in the achingly familiar palettes of earthen colors. The vision of every world seemed to be an endless set of brown hallways cluttered with a preposterous abundance of crates. I realize, of course, that part of the reason for this was technical limitations, but I think writing all advancements in art direction of the past decade away as tied to technology is grossly underestimating the evolution of the way the industry thinks about portraying worlds.

In the same way that I think something like Video Games Live highlights the genius of creativity in the soundtracks of gaming, the same spotlight should begin to fall on the wealth of talent in the visual arts throughout the medium.

I don’t want to belabor the point, it is after all a simple one, and I keep beginning to write paragraphs that wander needlessly into the familiar mire of fiery, self-annihilating debates about the nature of art. Tis a silly place.

My point is simply this. As you are enjoying whatever game you choose to play tonight, tomorrow and in the days to come, be that Starcraft II, Team Fortress II or Mario Galaxy II, take a moment to appreciate how far the visual design of games have come. Look not simply at the technical achievements, but see the artistry of the game as well.

Comments

I think that this issue of having to stop to appreciate the artistry of the game is, itself a fault of the artist making the game. Film makers don't film some awe-inspiring piece in the background of an explosion and ask you to appreciate it. If they want you to see it, they'll put it dead center.

Many games are designed to put you in that front seat, particularly games like Mass Effect 2 and God of War types which are essentially you going down a series of very long corridors.

In these designs, the game makers have good control of the action and they can place your view in just the right ways so you can appreciate a vista at just the right moment. When the Big Fat Spaceship in Mass Effect 2 takes off at the end of one of the starter missions, you can miss it in all the action, but you won't miss the beginning cliff view at the start, nor the crater view at the end.

This is also true in something as prosaic as Street Fighter 4. When you do an Ultra, it doesn't really matter how long it takes. The effect is the same, more or less, once you get past a certain point. However, by doing the close up and the elaborate move animation, the game designers set a certain narrative pace to the game, and mark the Ultra as a kind of artistic high-point. An Ultra executed at just the right moment is just that much more dramatic when you get a close up and a dramatic flourish.

I want game art to compliment the gameplay cycle, not supersede it. Like Larry and others have said, it's no good having a very pretty game if the prettiness does not contribute in any way to the act of PLAYING.

If there's a pretty vista, I want to be able to go there. If there are numbers popping out of a bad guy every time I smack them, those numbers better be invaluable feedback that informs worthwhile and meaningful choices in the way I equip my character. I want more powerful attacks to be more visually stunning than routine ones (Final Fantasy games do a good job with this, reserving their biggest animated punch for summon attacks. Of course, you then have to spend a great deal of time WATCHING the animation, which is a pretty good example of what Larry mentioned above - "stopping to appreciate the artistry of the game".).

I think Limbo is a good example of a game where the art contributes to the gameplay. The game is based around puzzles, each usually involving 2-5 elements that work together in some way so that you can progress. Each element is easy to see, thanks to the game's art direction. Because the game is in greyscale and uses stark black outlines to delineate objects and things you can interact with, you rarely feel 'cheesed' on puzzles because there was a hidden crate you were supposed to use that blends in cleverly with a complex background.

By making each puzzle element nice and apparent, the game's challenge then becomes what it SHOULD be: combining the elements in the correct way to progress, not getting stuck because a crucial piece of the puzzle is obfuscated.