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.
Sometimes I go to forums and talk game design theory. It’s just really interesting stuff even if you don’t play games. In the process of one conversation I wrote out a really crazy long reply and I felt like posting it.
So I had a thought I was mulling over in my mind.
Batman has been around 70 years. Comic book characters are revamped over and over and over again. They’re retold constantly, kind of like a modern equivalent of the oral storytelling tradition of mythology.
Many video games repeat in a similar way. That’s a huge part of the Final Fantasy and Zelda series.
Now of course not all video games do this. Particularly in western developers you tend to have more arc based stories with a finite stretching point. And technology changes, and so games series are constantly going in and out of fashion. Sonic has been nearly beaten to death, and despite it being the 25th Megaman anniversary, you don’t see a single game coming out for it this year. Even so I think we can probably expect new games to be coming out for those series.
Zelda, Metroid, Megaman, Castlevania, alot of these games have just celebrated their 25th anniversaries. That’s a quarter of a century. I would bet they’re probably going to stick around for awhile longer.
What I would like to discuss is a little more specific than “What is the future of gaming/these franchises?” I’d like to take the discussion further.
It’s a given that the tech and game design mechanic innovations are going to change, and trying to predict is going to be hard. So what is going to be the future of these games from narrative and mythos perspective.
Think about how Batman has changed in 70 years. Pulpy villians of the week, campy weird TV shows, gimmicky gadgets, brooding macho psychopaths, deep character driven stories. There’s this deep well of history behind this character, just acquired over time.
Where do you think the video game equivalents might go? What would it feel like to watch your great-grandkids play the newest Zelda game? Or hell you play it with them. The name Hero of Time takes on a new meaning, eh? Or Final Fantasy XXVI. That was a hidden joke in Deus Ex, but that might actually come out someday.
I think we can expect Final Fantasy to expand as a brand more and more and more. They’re constantly adding direct sequels and side stories to the franchise. I think eventually you are going to see a dissipation of the hardline numbered series into a vast franchise brand, similar to Disney. Final Fantasy has a lot of affinities with the Disney brand, not just in their Kingdom Hearts involvement. I think the corporate philosophy behind them is also pretty similar. Disney loves to market and monetize their IPs as much as possible. SquareEnix also has a similar drive to create physical loot and swag for their players. They reissue games, they’re more agressive than any other third party on the Nintendo platform for getting their games redistributed. Much like Disney limits the number of DVDs they let out of the vault, Square Enix loves their limited editions.
I think Zelda is probably most analogous to Batman in these examples because the focus on non linear, nonsensical, un connected mythology enables the mythological retelling of Link to go pretty much uninhibited ad infinitum. Batman doesn’t have to worry about continuity because comic book continuity is so freaking crazy that the average fan doesn’t know it and doesn’t care. Batman is recreated so many times that people don’t see him as “a man but a symbol”. The two most iconic version of Batman in the last 20 years have been Nolan’s movies and Frank Millers Dark Knight, and neither of those is even canonical. Link doesn’t give a fuck about canon (though the new timeline is interesting, lets face it. It’s going to get weird again before long). I think in 70 years Zelda will probably be still around, but the number of incarnations will be so huge and multifaceted that it’s going to take on a particularly different tone in peoples minds. Zelda has that repeating mythology at it’s heart and thats just going to grow deeper and deeper.
Mario? I guess he’ll be around, but I don’t know how. He’s called the Mickey Mouse of video games, and that’s probably a good clue. Last time I check Mickey doesn’t come out in anything new anymore, but I don’t think Nintendo is just going to stop making Mario games. Though maybe they will. Mario already is beginning to take on an absurd level of abstraction in his stories. At the beginning of Galaxy 2 you can practically hear him groan “Ugh. Not this again.” While Mario World felt like it took place in a real kingdom with continents, geography etc, Mario Galaxy 2 has you running around blank space riding on a ship made out of your own head. Which is pretty absurd. Maybe he’ll just be like the Monopoly Guy or something, where no really pays attention to him, so abstracted and repeated that he ceases to be a character and just becomes a trademark.
Metroid, Castelvania, and Megaman all have much more tenuous futures I think. They haven’t been given quite the same attention or esteem as the rest. I’d say we might very well see Megaman become like Felix the Cat. Everyone knows him but doesn’t really care.
But then again, what do I know? I’m not a wizard.
Eyes that can see for 3 miles, under any conditions, with GPS readouts and facial recognition software. Ears that can hear nano vibrations and can hook into visual software for echo location feedback. Fingers with no fingerprints. Thermal sensors. Neural networks with fiber optic speeds. New cranial firmware. A spine of steel. Straight jacked hypoallergenic full broadband internal ports. In Chrome or Gold. The hottest trends fly off the shelf. New eyes. New faces. New brains. The revolution is here. I’m just left out in the cold. This is a world where I can upgrade my mind, my body, my soul. If I have the cash. Which I don’t. Some things never change. Being poor is one of those. However. Today I’m getting my first implant. I’ve been saving for three months for this. Three months of cleaning up vomit from drunks who drank too much and overloaded their cheap nanotech livers. Three months of cleaning up leaking brain fluids from stupid college kids experimenting with new neurotoxin viruses and need to be rebooted. Today I’m getting my first implant. I feel like Charlie in the Chocolate factory. Hanging around me are carbon-fiber arms that can crush concrete blocks, hydraulic legs that can pump harder and faster and jump higher than any human Olympian. Over in the corner, in the half off bin, I see what I came here to have plugged in my head. I walk over and pick them up out of the dusty cardboard sale’s box. Empathy Emulators implants. Their made with cheap plastic. Safe for the head but old. Their gray and dusty like the Super Nintendo cartridges that my grandfather had in his attic. I go over to the surgeon/cashier and check them out. Prompt by Daily Fix: That’s right, ladies and gentlemen. The biotech revolution is upon us, and for today’s prompt you’re going to write a scene where you introduce a character who is just getting/has just gotten their first implanted piece of biotechnology.
Eyes that can see for 3 miles, under any conditions, with GPS readouts and facial recognition software. Ears that can hear nano vibrations and can hook into visual software for echo location feedback. Fingers with no fingerprints. Thermal sensors. Neural networks with fiber optic speeds. New cranial firmware. A spine of steel. Straight jacked hypoallergenic full broadband internal ports. In Chrome or Gold.
The hottest trends fly off the shelf. New eyes. New faces. New brains. The revolution is here. I’m just left out in the cold.
This is a world where I can upgrade my mind, my body, my soul. If I have the cash. Which I don’t. Some things never change. Being poor is one of those.
Today I’m getting my first implant. I’ve been saving for three months for this. Three months of cleaning up vomit from drunks who drank too much and overloaded their cheap nanotech livers. Three months of cleaning up leaking brain fluids from stupid college kids experimenting with new neurotoxin viruses and need to be rebooted.
Today I’m getting my first implant. I feel like Charlie in the Chocolate factory. Hanging around me are carbon-fiber arms that can crush concrete blocks, hydraulic legs that can pump harder and faster and jump higher than any human Olympian. Over in the corner, in the half off bin, I see what I came here to have plugged in my head.
I walk over and pick them up out of the dusty cardboard sale’s box. Empathy Emulators implants. Their made with cheap plastic. Safe for the head but old. Their gray and dusty like the Super Nintendo cartridges that my grandfather had in his attic. I go over to the surgeon/cashier and check them out.
Prompt by Daily Fix: That’s right, ladies and gentlemen. The biotech revolution is upon us, and for today’s prompt you’re going to write a scene where you introduce a character who is just getting/has just gotten their first implanted piece of biotechnology.
It’s the anniversary of the day that Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong first stepped on the moon. I wan to talk about what I remember from that day.
I’m outside Kennedy Airforce Base and I’m five years old. I saw the rockets take off, and it was as bright as the sun, as if it had fallen off the sky onto the ground. I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut.
I’m in my house in front of the TV and the President is on and I’m five years old. He is talking to the whole nation, the whole world and everyone is stiff in rigid in shock and sadness. My parents don’t say a word.
Everyone wants to be an astronaut. It’s pretty much the best job. If you are an astronaut, you’re an epic hero. It’s the best of brain and brawn. You have to be as smart as any scientist, and as physically fit as any sport star. You’re invincible. You’re a real American hero.
Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong went up to the moon today. The President is on the screen talking about it. This is the first TV we have owned. It’s was on half price, and Dad got it for today. He got it to watch the moon landing. It’s just a black and white model and it makes an audio fuzz that only I can hear because I am up close. The President is talking about what is happening to Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong.
They won’t be able to make it off the moon. I don’t know why. I was only five. I do know they won’t make it off the moon. They are up there, still in radio contact with NASA but they won’t be coming back down.
The widows-to-be are sitting up on the stage behind the President. Mrs. Aldrin, and Mrs. Armstrong. They look very nice, and they aren’t crying. I think they have probably been crying, because their eyes are red. Buzz and Neil won’t be coming back down to them.
After the President finishes and a clergyman commends their souls to the “deepest of the deeps” the screen goes blank to the station test image. My parents sit there in the cathode grey glow and finally my dad gets up and snaps the knob to the off position. My mom looks at me and give me a hug and asks me if I want to talk but I don’t, because I am five and I mostly want to know why the Lone Ranger reruns aren’t playing tonight. She seems like she wants to talk, but I can’t help her.
We did eventually go to the moon, but it wasn’t for a couple of years. Every time I look up at the moon at night I think of a gravestone. I wonder if, from here, with a big enough telescope I could see the final resting place of Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. I sort of know that they probably took the bodies back with them when we finally reached the moon but that doesn’t stop me from thinking of the moon as their last will and testament. It’s a constant companion, every late night when I look out the window and no stars can creep through the light pollution and only the moon is shining.
When my parents were kids they had slow ass computers. My mom had 8 gigs of RAM and a hardrive with only a single terabyte. What the hell? They told me is was worse for their parents, bukt that’s hard to believe. Fucking stone age.
When my mom was 15 the first computer hit 1.5 petaflops, which was the estimated processing ability of the human brain. Then by the time she was 25 they already had personal home computers running at 1.7 petaflops. My newest computer has more processing power than the entire human race put together.
Which is pretty impressive I know. Last year my computer only had half that power. Downloading items took foreeeeeever. Like if I wanted a sandwich I had to wait something like 30 second before it would spit one out. Like what the hell? I have stuff to do. I have to plug into Facebook, and I can’t multitasking it printing physical objects and also hook into a worldwide neural network hive mind at the same time. If I do that it starts fragging out, and I have to get brain replacement surgery or something. Which is like a real hassle you know?
With this new computer though, its super fast. I plugged into my mom’s computer, and I was looking through her files. She barely uses her machine, like 10 hours a day at most. She doesn’t even sleep with it on, which I think is weird, because that means that when she is asleep she isn’t really doing much anything with her brain. That’s the best time to get on tumblr. But yeah, she did get a huge harddrive because she has a lot of stuff she hoards. She says that she is just sentimental. She keeps all these mementos scanned in to her hard drive, all just dumped on the desktop background. The postcard she received from my dad when he was on study abroad in Thailand, my first birthday cake (she always jokes about how we can now “Have our cake and eat it too, har har har” as if that joke is new every time she says it), her wedding dress, or pictures (physical pictures? Like whats the point, you know?) of things from when she was a kid.
I wanted to put my new computer to the test, so I picked the biggest file. The wedding dress. I transferred and printed it, and here it is. I was just curious. I mean, I am not weird or anything. Its not like I am into physical clothes or something. I’m not a prude, and my mom says guys used to wear dresses too! That’s what my mom says at least though she always smiles when she says it. I barely see anyone wearing actual clothes anymore. Most everyone wears what ever firmware version of the new digital smart wear is in style at the moment. Having actual cloth on me feels a little weird.
That’s when my mom nearly walked in on me. Luckily I just thought about the delete key and it fizzled off me in a second. Thank God my new computer is so fast. Trying to delete a file like that in the past would have taken at least a couple of seconds longer.
Prompt by Douglas Chin:I want you to write about how things go from extraordinary to ordinary. For example, sometimes in the future, humankind will discover faster-than light methods of traveling. In the present, that’s a concept we can barely wrap our heads around. What would it be like if you grew up in a world where it was a common thing? Conversely, way back when, people thought cars were a crazy invention. Now cars are a part of our everyday lives. How far, will humankind go in its advancements? Tackle the when, what, how, and if of us hitting our limit. Or just write about the time you were almost caught trying out your mom’s wedding dress, yes, I know all about that.