Want to know something weird about video games as an art form? They’re all backwards from the rest of art. What I mean is that while painting, sculpture, film, and books have progressed from realism to abstraction (Leonardo Da Vinci ——> Picasso), video games have progressed from abstraction to realism (Pong ——> Gears of War).
Lets look at one of the first video games.
That’s Space War, one of the first games made. Way back in 1961 when a bunch of dudes at MIT were fiddling around with computers that were meant for entirely different things. Kind of like how middle schoolers like to spell OBOE and BOOBS with their calculators.
That stuff is really sparse. It had to be. There’s limited resources and coding even that rudimentary game was a real pain.
Let me compare this minimalism to painting.
Here we have a painting by Mondrian (1921)
And here we have a game of Pac-Man (1980)
Okay so maybe De Kooning or Jackson Pollock aren’t drawing animated fruit and hungry ghosts. There’s a connection in abstraction though. By necessity video games were when they first began, abstract. Not only in a visual sense but in their narrative sense. The atari game “Adventure” has you playing a colored dot, moving around colored shapes, to hit or avoid other colored dots. Pointing out the weirdness of a plumber fighting turtles to save fungus or yellow mouths eating spirits goes without saying.
Abstraction to Realism:
This seems pretty opposite of how the rest of art has gone. Compare here a Wilhelm Achenbach (1850) painting:
and a Skryim (2011) screenshot:
Look at film. 1941 Citizen Kane takes great pains to create the illusion of reality while newer works like Tree of Life deliberately subvert that. Classical music attempts to create a rational structure for music while Noise Rock attempt to subvert the very concept of music. The relationship here has too large extent been pretty hostile too. If you don’t know much about art, then I’ll just let you know that modern abstract expressionist tend to take a very poor view of realism, while on the other hand realism tends to call all the abstract fellows as snobs.
The Real Point:
I must make a confession. This narrative I’ve been weaving is exactly that. A narrative. A story. A lie.
There are true aspects to what I’ve been saying here and the parallels I draw aren’t entirely void. But it’s an over-simplified story. There has always been abstract art alongside realistic art. The history of art doesn’t have a nice easy 3-act structure. While often times that’s the way it’s portrayed, art has gone up and down depending on the needs of the culture. Here’s a very good example:
Zelda. The Legend of Zelda like all other games of it’s time progresses from abstraction to realism as technological boundaries are pushed. And yet… and yet it can draw parallels to a much different kind of art than Picasso or Rembrant.
Check this out:
Medieval and iconographic art is interesting. They don’t really try to be realistic, at least not in the Renaissance tradition of perspective and proportion.
See how the figures sizes don’t change depending on how far away from the foreground? There is some limited difference for things in the far flung background like the castle but the figures in this picture are rendered on a non-realist perspective.
This was an important tool of iconographic art which was more a symbolic art form than a literal pictorial representation.
See how the abbot is bigger than all the little guys? That’s because he’s the HEAD GUY not because he reigns over a monastery of devout dwarfs. (though that would be cool)
So lets look at Zelda. If I asked you what perspective the original games were from, what would you say?
Overhead view right? Or maybe “top down”?
Woah! What the hell is going on here? Nothing is in perspective, see?
Ganon and Link are from some kind of 2/3rd view, the floor seems to be seen from straight above, while all three of the walls are themselves being viewed as if slightly from their opposing side. And if you look at the bushes outside they’re from straight above too while the rocks are only slightly tilted
Zelda’s perspective wasn’t some clever reference to medieval art. It was an demand of function. They were trying to make as much of the game visible for the player. Cubist work flouts expectations trying to go against the realist tradition. Medieval perspective however is primarily a demand of function. The need to show figures clearly and establish their hierarchy of importance. You could say in more ways than one that Link really is an Icon.
Non-realist perspective and rendering isn’t only limited to postmodern paintings. In fact a large proportion of art falls in this tradition.
So what’s my point here? Maybe nothing at all, except a couple observations about the history art in video games and the options that are still wide open for exploration. Games don’t have to shoot for realism to make engaging immersive experiences. This is becoming more obvious as we begin to hit the peak of technology with diminishing returns.
I’m a fan of realism. I’m a fan of abstraction. Perhaps though what I love the most is the kind of sincere and magical art of medieval tapestry and the Zelda games. Where it isn’t a painting about painting about painting, or art about art, but instead just a story. Monks in the field, or a boy with a sword, those pictures which hover between worlds are the most inviting. Between the Real and the Unreal.