Taking The Art Out Of Games
The Fries Museum’s New Horizons exhibition frames game artistry in an entirely new way
The Fries Museum’s New Horizons exhibition presents game art in a new context
During the past few years, museums across the western world, such as Washington DC’s Smithsonian and London’s V&A, have begun to examine videogames in a new kind of cultural context. Typically these exhibits have chosen to chart the medium’s evolution from its initial tentative emergence from the bellies of American tech universities into the bars and arcades of the 1970s, then through to the vivid complexity and variety of today. But the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden, The Netherlands, has used a different kind of lens for its examination of games in its New Horizons exhibition. Its curators, Tim Laning and Maarten Brands, chose to focus not on the medium’s technological advances, but on the art that is contained within and presented by games, as well the ways in which games have influenced contemporary fine artists.
New Horizons is diverse and largely unplayable. You can, for example, view stills of the exquisite environments of Battlefield 4 or Need For Speed Rivals, offering a moment’s peace in which to admire the craft of their world design. Likewise, the show explores how the impossible mazes of MC Escher have influenced games such as Echochrome and Monument Valley, while also examining how games have informed the work of contemporary artists such as Harun Farocki, Monica Studer and Christoph Van Den Berg, and Jennifer Steinkamp. By removing the controller from the equation, the intent is to make the art of games more accessible (even if, arguably, the medium’s main artistic worth is lost in the divorce).
As one of the first examples of this kind of exhibit, New Horizons poses as many questions as it answers. At times, the well-presented screenshots and concept art can seem like pieces of merchandise dressed up as something else. Likewise, the emphasis on blockbuster titles shows off a medium apparently obsessed with a particular kind of tech-focused realism. We gather several of the contributors – BioWare art director Derek Watts, Naughty Dog concept artists John Sweeny and Nick Gindraux, along with Thatgamecompany systems engineer Mike Lester – to discuss how they feel about their work being shown off in this unfamiliar context.
Why did you each decide to make videogames your chosen medium, as opposed to more traditional artistic outputs?
Derek Watts My background was in graphic design and advertising. I still incorporate some of that in my work. I designed [ Mass Effect’s] N7 logo, for example, which is a graphic design logo. I’m still into signage and architecture. But I left advertising for a few reasons, not least because people quickly bypass a lot of the stuff you produce. I stumbled into games by accident, actually. I wasn’t going in that direction at all. I was doing odd jobs and trying to sell fine art when a friend of mine who worked at BioWare encouraged me to apply for a job at the company. I had enough experience from drawing science fiction to secure the job. It was a lucky accident, really.
John Sweeney My interest in games started long before I went to art school. When I was a kid, I had the opportunity to go visit the studio that was working on Twisted Metal: Black. I met one of the concept artists there. At the time, they didn’t use computers; he was doing work by drafting titles. As a 12-yearold, I knew that I wanted to do that, and it set me on the path to art college.
Nick Gindraux I stumbled into games. I thought I’d major in business, but while I was at college I was watching a lot of movies, and the ‘making of’ sections on the DVDs. There was always a segment that looked at the concept art and something sparked for me there. I thought, ‘I’d rather do that and make art for living.’ That’s when I started looking into art colleges. I found out there that there’s a huge market for game art nowadays.
Usually when museums examine videogames, it’s in the context of the medium’s technological evolution. But more recently there have been a couple of exhibits specifically focused on the art of games. There’s also been the emergence of artists and curators such as Olly Moss and Gallery 88, who play with videogame iconography. What do you think has changed to create an appetite for this kind of work?
Tim Laning I think there is more of an acceptance, because games are everywhere now, when they used to be tucked away. People had an odd definition of what a game was. But with smartphones, games are more accepted and understood. Parents have started
to understand that there’s more to games than just shooting – there’s art and craft and discipline. That was one of the driving motivations behind this exhibition. We didn’t just want to have a conversation about whether or not games are art. We wanted an exhibition celebrating art in games.
JS As games have become more mainstream in culture, I think they [have become] more visible. People who, 20 years ago, might not have encountered games are now playing them. That’s bringing more attention to games, and as a result of that increased engagement, more people are noticing the art and production values within games.
People then become attached to the images through their experience with a game. When you’ve spent a few dozen hours with a character or place, you can look at those images and feel something profound. This kind of event is exciting because when working on a project as a concept artist, you can feel like you are just a part of production pipeline. So it’s great to see that people connect with our work in a different kind of way. Obviously, that’s what we want as artists, but sometimes our job isn’t first and foremost to make an image that’s hung on the wall and celebrated.
With that in mind, how much is this placement of videogame stills or concept art in frames simply an extension of merchandising, and how much is a true aesthetic reaction where the viewer’s appreciation isn’t simply because of an attachment to the IP?
NG That’s interesting. It’s hard to remove an image from its broader context. With games, each image has a connotation. But that being said, if the image is strong and it says something, then it can perform both functions.
TL It’s always been this way in fine art. Rembrandt’s painting The Night Watch was a commission; it was applied art paid for by a captain and 17 members of his guard. Everybody who saw that painting recognised the context of the art, and maybe even the people it depicts. But 200 years later the work stands alone and has a different meaning. I think that will be true of the videogame art we’re displaying here.
JS Someone who played the game will have a particular association. I’m curious how people who haven’t played the games these images are taken from react to them, and whether or not they’re getting something from the imagery that has been removed from the game. They might not recognise the character and environment, but they still feel attached. I think that’s when this work proves itself as being able to be associated with the art world.
Mike Lester I actually like the merchandising aspect of this. I collect Olly Moss prints and while his work is related to games, it’s not art from the game. I also collect fine art prints that don’t have that context, but because of my experiences within a game, I like the extra context. I tend to associate more strongly with prints that come from a game.
Broadly, there seem to be two directions videogame art directors take. In the blockbuster space, the work usually curves toward realism, while in the independent space it tends toward nostalgia. Can art teams, particularly on today’s bigbudget games, find new aesthetics, or do you think that end of the industry always tends toward realism?
JS The medium of games is just the next evolution of how we’re choosing to represent the world around us. We’re constantly striving to explain our world through art. It’s interesting to look at games now: as they strive to become more realistic, they are still interpretive. Even how grass looks and sounds, for example, is an interpretation by the artist. There will always be people who choose to represent the world more abstractly. A lot of independent games are choosing to do that with how they present reality. As tools become stronger, and more kinds of people become involved in game [creation], these new routes will open up. ML It would be nice to see more stylised blockbuster games. DW That’s tough. With triple-A games, the amount of staff you have and the amount of money you need to spend on them usually dictates the single art direction of realism. It’s easy to sell that idea to a larger team. It’s easier to sell realism than a particular style to 50 artists. As you deal with more and more people who are outsourced and freelance, realism becomes a common goal that everyone can aim for.
Perhaps this will stop when we reach something that is so realistic that we can feel like it’s been done. But we’re not there yet. There’s a lot of technology striving for that endgame. Perhaps we’ll get there in a decade. But with large teams, it’s easier to
“It’s interesting to look at games now: as they strive to become more realistic, they are still interpretive”
coordinate everyone charging in that direction. I can look at some of my concept artists and imagine what a game in their particular style might look like. But to get all of the concept artists to follow a certain rival’s style is difficult.
You identified two reasons why stylised art in blockbuster games is difficult. First, that it’s difficult to convince and coordinate a large art team to follow a singular direction, which is a production issue. Then there’s a commercial issue of taking a risk on an aesthetic when such vast sums of money are involved. What if the audience rejects the style? Which of these is the greater issue?
ML The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker was probably the last blockbuster release that went for a singular art style and I think it’s true that the game proved hugely divisive because of its art style.
JS Journey was beautiful, and my family agreed. It seems to me like the public bought [in to] that unusual style, so it’s not impossible.
ML Well, even with Journey, there are still a lot of teenage girls who found it creepy. Any time you pick a style, there’s the artist’s ego to deal with, but also consumers. Everyone can get behind realism. But when you divert from that, you’re subdividing your audience.
The argument makes sense, but looking at the more recent Zelda titles, The Wind Waker is among the most recognisable and the least dated. The evolution of realism dates games so quickly. Do you ever feel frustrated that you have to make realistic games that will inescapably age?
DW Yes, the most frustrating thing is how quickly they age. That is depressing. I’m also not sure that updating with HD versions is always the best idea… When does it stop? How many HD versions are you considering? Often a game is a moment in time and you should leave it there.
JS I find with HD versions that they look exactly as I remember them! I’ll go back and look at the older version, and the update undoubtedly looks better, but it’s not remembered like that.
TL I had that same feeling with the Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus remakes. The only difference I noticed was the higher framerate. It wasn’t different to how I remembered. Sometimes this kind of remastering work can be detrimental. On XBLA, for example, I bought the R-Type collection [ R-Type Dimensions], which had a button to switch between the original graphics and the 3D remake, and the original looked far more pleasing to me. ML I think they go overboard sometimes. With the recent
Oddworld remake, there is so much nostalgia for the original 2D version, so when you switch to the new 3D version, even though it’s more contemporary, it’s quite a lot different. It usually works better with 3D to 3D, as in Halo: [ The Master Chief Collection].
How much room do each of you have for personal expression in your work? There are often many creative people involved in the creation of a blockbuster game, not to mention publishers, who have their own say. Do you find that things are flattened to homogeneity by feedback, or can you still recognise your hand and intent in the work?
NG I think we get a lot of freedom with the original images we create. We have a group of artists all working on the same game and I’m still able to distinguish between the different artists. We’re all aiming for a realistic goal, but there are differences.
JS We get left alone enough to get our ideas and aesthetics in there. We’re working under somewhat of an umbrella of direction, but we have quite a bit of freedom at the creative stage. It’s when it makes it into the game that it becomes more of a straight collaboration.
DW Often the freedom comes at the earliest stage and this work doesn’t make it out to the public. It’s called Phase One at BioWare when the artists have the most freedom. But by the end of the process, the question of ownership can become tricky. The final image often contains a great deal of feedback – even design and programming avenues have had their say and fed back. It becomes hard to take full ownership of anything in a game. For example, I designed the Normandy ship in Mass Effect with Casey Hudson. Someone else painted it and did a lithograph. Another artist builds the model; another, the effects; another, the interior; and another, the cinematics. Trying to track those changes and authorship is a challenge. JS We also have that blue-sky phase – we may just be talking to the art director. But once we’re in production, we’re often painting over a designer’s mesh and the characters have been placed. The general aesthetic from the blue-sky phase is carried through, but there’s far less ownership once you get into production.
How do you feel, as artists, about audience feedback during the production phase? Is there a sense of irritation at
having to account for the audience’s taste when you have a particular artistic vision? And, if so, how do you manage the conflict of artistic vision with commercial imperative?
JS Whether or not the feedback is coming from the art field or not, it’s all valid. Ultimately, you can decide what you do with it. I’m not sure how much user feedback we get from the userbase in terms of art, but personally there have been The Last Of Us fans who have contacted me privately to ask why I did certain things. I will think about their feedback and look at their credentials and decide what to do with that. Art is so subjective and people will always have opinions; you won’t always just receive praise. You have to roll with it.
Fan feedback you can take on or leave, but what about when it’s a publisher’s directive instead?
NG Well, that’s the job. It’s a fun part of what we do, though, trying to find ways to answer this kind of challenge. Also, it’s tough to complain when you get to draw for a living. All of the design challenges are fun and come with the job.
DW You can get caught up on that testing phase. Worrying about whether the game is being designed by ten guys in a shopping mall who look at the concepts and pick the game cover. But we don’t know everything, so feedback is valuable. Big decisions by higher-ups can get tricky. They don’t come up too often. They tend to be forced by changes to the schedule, whereby we have to make adjustments in order to meet new deadlines. But you’re right, it’s our job.
JS Most of the time we come to an agreement with a director or art director. There’s always a conversation behind these things.
ML Thatgamecompany is a little different, because we don’t have anyone at the publisher level who can rain down orders. We do a lot of testing with people who don’t play games. We’re only 12 people, but when we have play testers in, you see all kinds of different comments and reactions. We once had a guy fall asleep. We often have an overreaction to this [external] feedback: we fix whatever they say.
But usually we later back off those changes, as we explore them and see what they are really worth. Sometimes you have the challenges of someone who is funding the game showing it to their children, and passing on their kids’ response to the team. In every case, we have a knee-jerk reaction and then back off a bit. We prototype a lot; we cut a lot of things, too. Often we prototype the feedback, and in many cases cut it later. We have a kind of design-by-committee approach, but without the negative connotations.
What do you think the mainstream industry can learn from independent games at the moment in terms of art design?
JS Just the simplicity of the art. Looking at Journey again, the shapes it uses – applying that simplicity to realistic games can be useful. Sometimes more stylised games do that best, and there’s lots that can be learned.
ML I have to give kudos to Mirror’s Edge. It’s both realistic and stylised, and felt like it was trying to bridge the gap between indie and blockbuster. But the game didn’t do so well, so perhaps the style held them back. DW I’m not so sure. I think people were pretty open to the look of the game, but rejected some of the gameplay. It was too punitive and I think word of mouth went around. For me, there’s a large variety of games and it’s hard to follow some of these independent titles in the larger studios.
JS It would be interesting if Naughty Dog made a
Journey- style game on the scale of an Uncharted.
DW I think that would only be possible by splintering down into a smaller group. ML I agree. It’s all about scale. DW BioWare tried that a few times, but it’s hard to get right.
JS Would it not be possible with a large team?
DW Perhaps, but you have to start with a small group and build up from there, I think.
NG I think Sunset Overdrive does quite well with this. It has a stylised, independent look which I think proves that you can do this kind of unique approach if the entire art team is behind it. You need the entire team to be willing, of course.
DW Time will tell with that game.
Is some of this perhaps tied to the hardware cycle? We’re just over a year into this console generation, and people are still looking for games to look more realistic to show off what their new technology can do. Do you think that stylisation typically happens later into the console cycle?
DW I think that’s true. At the beginning of the hardware cycle, you’re worried about whether people will claim you can’t push the technology unless it’s visible onscreen.
ML I’m not sure there’s a strong connection between the two, but if there is then it’s probably financially motivated. The launch titles are carefully curated to appeal to the largest possible audience, both in terms of genre but also style.
TL At the same time, I find it’s not necessary to do things in that way. I love Alien: Isolation, and that’s a game that looks broadly the same on the previous generation of consoles and the newer ones. It’s not so much a matter of seeing extra polygons. What sold it to me were the lighting, the atmosphere and the style.
Now that faces can be modelled in such exquisite detail, capturing the likenesses of actors such as Kevin Spacey, what do you think are the great challenges in character design?
DW Well, we can make the faces look pretty realistic, but we still can’t animate them to look realistic. The nuances in facial animation are problematic.
TL Even with prerecorded, motion-captured stuff, [a lot of animation] still looks uncanny.
JS That said, I had a hard time killing Kevin Spacey in the new Call Of Duty.
ML I think Call Of Duty: Advanced Warfare is definitely the state of the art in this regard. Even so, while the faces look great, we still seem blocked on facial animation.
How about the approach taken by LA Noire?
ML I don’t know. I heard of lot of people talking about the uncanny valley with that game.
DW Yes, but you get that a lot. The question is: do you stop, or try to blast through the wall and continue going? A lot of people are aiming for this, so it will be figured out at some point. But the challenges are significant. With a game like Dragon Age: Inquisition, where you have 80,000 lines of dialogue, how do you define standards? There’s a lot to be thought about with cinematics and the player-designed characters that star in them.
Also, if you choose motion capture, sometimes the technology can be too intrusive for an actor. Like, if you have to tape balls to their faces during a take: “I’m trying to act and I can’t move my head!” Ideally, you want all of the actors in the scene together and acting in a room, but right now you have to break them up.
Procedural generation is becoming more prevalent for world art creation. How does your artistic oversight work with procedurally generated worlds?
JS For me, it provides a good jumping-off point. You set up random world elements that can then be moved by hand later. Putting the control into things afterwards is a good way to art direct things after the fact. DW Yes, you hope for happy accidents and choose the best bits. ML It’s a bit like our world, where people pick out the best spots and build houses on them.
What do you hope the audience will take away from the New Horizons exhibition?
NG The realisation of how many artists are involved in game creation. I hope that will build appreciation for our work and the process. For me, it’s an education thing, demonstrating that artists put themselves into the games as well. JS [I’m hoping for] exposure to people who might not think they are interested in videogames, but who catch something in the art they see here. That would be amazing. I would be delighted if there is a kid who goes to the exhibit, sees a piece that speaks to him and then decides to pursue this as a vocation.
DW We’ve all done tours of our studios where you take kid around and they’re totally silent, then you later heard from the parents how much they loved the work. Sometimes these things can lead to a career.
TL I hope that people get to understand the mixture of influences, both from fine art into game art and vice versa, and that people will broaden their horizons at both ends of this.
DW I like the idea of removing the controller as a barrier. So often, people don’t approach games because of that barrier. Removing that is a huge step.
TL That was the hard part about the exhibition. How do you build an exhibit that is open to everyone? If you have controllers, some people will walk past feeling excluded. How to exhibit this kind of work correctly is a difficult question. I think we’ve made a good start here, but there’s more to go.
ML I like that it’s pushing accessibility. I think whenever you see something on a wall, it’s given credence and stature. And perhaps people who didn’t grow up playing games will see that and realise that these games aren’t made by super-violent people, but people who have other ideas and ambitions.
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