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Video Games as Art

By Rahaan in Culture
Sun Jan 27, 2002 at 02:17:05 PM EST
Tags: Software (all tags)

Gabe of Penny-Arcade fame wrote this article titled "A Digital Renaissance: Video Games and Impressionism" expressing his opinions on video games and how they relate to art and art history. It got me thinking - are video games real art? Can they evolve into something much, much greater than their current Quake3/Diablo/Starcraft incantations?

disclaimer: I am not very knowledgable on art or art history, although I do have an intense appreciation for art in general. Also, Gabe has nowhere near the writing skills of his buddy Tycho, and although he might not express it very well, he is an artist, and he does know his trade.

This article really made me think - where are we going? The current trend in game graphics is 'realistic'; I hesitate to use that word to describe games like Quake3, but in essence, it is trying to make the characters and events on-screen seem less and less cartoonish. Where can it go from there?

Gabe wasn't necessarily referring to games as art, or trying to compare their overall graphical evolution - an impressionistic game would distort the game's own reality so much that it would make gameplay awkward at best. While an impressionistic Pong would definitely be cool, it would be more of an experiment than a gaming trend. In that same vein, the graphics of individual games should continue to improve, but where is the drastic change? The revolutionary new design? Can it even be achieved in the current environment? Will we be stuck with glorified Quake 3s throughout 2002?

The history of computer games, albeit brief, has shown that most revolutionary graphic advances come in the form of new game design. Wolf3d, Warcraft, Diablo, Ultima Online, take your pick. Each one introduced a fairly unique and innovative style of play, and each has spawned a number of sequels or rip-offs that are very similar, with slight adjustments in gameplay and huge improvements in graphic quality. These games, however, are all years old. Many of the truly innovative games (Myst, for example) are really interesting, but have a more "flash-in-the-pan" feel to them, and it almost seems as if the major software companies are content with the status quo of FPS, RTS, and MMORPGs. It seems like all the recent games are just the same old thing with graphics tweaked for the newest video card.

So basically - I'm stumped. Can anyone predict what the Cubism of gameplay will be? Will we (can we?) soon see a revolutionary new game that will have staying power?


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Video Games as Art | 33 comments (24 topical, 9 editorial, 1 hidden)
Pong wasn't impressionistic? (4.66 / 3) (#3)
by Class Zero on Sun Jan 27, 2002 at 06:50:31 AM EST

I always thought of pong as being an inpressionistic game of tennis. Most old video games have that impressionistic, cubist, post modern feel to them, like old Atari boxing or space invaders. Now that computing power has gotten better we see a shift in game graphics from impressionism to realism. That is the opposite of what traditional art has done in the past few thousand years or so. Mebye in the far flung future computer graphics will have devolved to cave drawings. Personally, I think the high point for art in the 20th century was ASCII art... the good ASCII art that you had to back 10 or 20 paces from the screen to see. At any rate, this is a most excellent article. I really hope it goes to the front page.

Nonlinearity in Games: An Excursus (3.50 / 4) (#4)
by medham on Sun Jan 27, 2002 at 06:59:03 AM EST

Computer RPGs, of which I am an avid consumer (being a portly metallurgist, shunted by standardized testing [thank you very much, Karl Pearson] into an inferior education and thus into a meaningless metallurgical-type job, managed by humorless Messrs. Prudhommes without any real interest in science fiction--by which I mean writers like Niven, Pournelle, and Bear [true gods]--and are too interested in their aerobicized, callipygian, and tanned wives to discuss non-metallurgical manners), tend to be excessively linear.

There's been much hand-wringing about this in the CRPG literature. Creating an environment populated with real humans and assigning a degree of control over that environment is one thing, certainly. It's a start, is what I'm trying to say. But how about something different, something like:

You begin your day in your cuticle at your large industrial manufacturing concern. You aren't told this directly, but a Half-Life style intro lets you in on the secrets (it'd be very anti-confluential). You are clipped into the wastebasket. The adventure then begins.

The other cuticle-dwellers (a conscious bacterium--it's best to skim on the details) are hatching a plan about contact with other cuticle-dwelling civilizations. Some of the others are autonmous agents; some are merely on-line players (you'll never know). There's been a Strugatsky-style jettison, and there's some strange objects around the world. You, the cuticle-dwellers, must find them. By moving from cuticle-to-cuticle across the world.

This will depend on finding those who like to chew on their cuticles, or other peoples'. There's a greek term for this, which the designers of the game can look up.

I envision an action-based interface that modulates. Some parts will be text adventure, some will be RTS, some will like that marble game.

More, as I'm inspired by the divine afflatus.

The real 'medham' has userid 6831.

Ick, ick, ick (4.00 / 1) (#19)
by carbon on Sun Jan 27, 2002 at 05:29:54 PM EST

No, I really don't think so. The problem is, this has been tried before. What happens is: it becomes incredibly boring, almost without exception. We don't have the computer power or the skill to simulate a real universe, with all the probability complexity contained therein. Not even a small universe.

The reason RPGs are linear is the same reason that plays and movies and books are linear : it gives you much more control over the plot. Just look at Final Fantasy 7, for instance: in the 45 hours that game takes to beat, it has more character depth and unforseen, emotional plot twists then your average Hollywood movie. It had serious literary quality. In the OSS RPG I'm currently trying to devel, we're attempting to be as linear as possible, because we've seen what happens when game developers put in serious effort to making a linear RPG.

Linear gives all the power over the universe to the artist. A good artist cna create a linear game with replay value (see Chrono Trigger, with it's many endings), with artistic quality, both in the graphics, music, and storyline, and with challenge.

Wasn't Dr. Claus the bad guy on Inspector Gadget? - dirvish
[ Parent ]
premise (none / 0) (#25)
by Ludwig on Mon Jan 28, 2002 at 05:46:12 AM EST

One is not supposed to cut one's cuticles. Perhaps your avatar could be transferred to the trash via the end of an orange stick.

[ Parent ]
I like the cut of your jib (none / 0) (#32)
by medham on Mon Jan 28, 2002 at 04:59:53 PM EST

This game is already beginning to will itself into existence. Remember:

  • To elevate
  • To preserve
  • To cancel
I'm thinking about how to play up the Roadside Picnic angle.

The real 'medham' has userid 6831.
[ Parent ]

ICO - Yes Sir! (5.00 / 4) (#6)
by duxup on Sun Jan 27, 2002 at 07:19:14 AM EST

I'm one of those people who could believe just about anything can be art, so I'll skip the main question and just say, yah games are art.

I'm very happy Gabe mentioned ICO since of all the games I've played (and that's a bunch) ICO immediately comes to mind when someone says art and games. I'm not really fond of puzzle games, in fact I generally dislike them a great deal. However, while playing ICO I found myself just observing it just as much. It as much felt like an active painting of the characters involved as a game.

I wrote this comment several times and never was satisfied with my description of ICO. All I can say is that it has that something extra in it that makes me say yes, ICO is, and games can be art.

Abolish art today! (3.50 / 2) (#8)
by TheophileEscargot on Sun Jan 27, 2002 at 10:20:50 AM EST

Interesting article. I like his point that game-art is quite traditional, in that it's largely an attempt to reproduce the real world using imperfect tools.

Regarding "what is art" and "is this art" questions. I think that the sheer number of these questions is an indicator that the word "art" no longer means anything much. The word art is now so broad and wide-ranging that it has become effectively meaningless. A handicraft, an elegant equation, an effective engineering solution, a random object in a gallery, or the product of a computer algorithm can all be described as art: but that makes the word "art" rather like the word "thing". Asking whether X is art is like asking whether X is a thing: the answer is yes, given that the common use of the word is so broad; but neither the question nor the subsequent debate are likely to be very enlightening.

I think it would be good if we could replace the word art with two different words. You could have craft-art, which refers to an impressive act of craftsmanship, thought or engineering; and concept-art, which refers to the objects displayed in an typical modern art gallery. Some classical art would be recognised as being both. (I mention this purely as an exercise. I don't intend to launch a campaign, since planned attempts to modify the English language rarely work).
Support the nascent Mad Open Science movement... when we talk about "hundreds of eyeballs," we really mean it. Lagged2Death

Since you seem like you might know ... (4.00 / 1) (#18)
by Kalani on Sun Jan 27, 2002 at 05:00:55 PM EST

... why exactly is there interest in "modern art?" I did see one "painting" that was actually the graphical output of an expression entered into Mathematica (and they have a section on mathematica.com dedicated to "math art"), and I would certainly consider it a beautiful, artistic thing. However, random strokes of a brush held in the tusk of an elephant has also been considered "modern art" and has been sold for ridiculous sums. So, mathematical curiosities aside, what makes modern art worth looking at? I don't mean to sound snide, I honestly don't understand it.

"I [think] that ultimately physics will not require a mathematical statement; in the end the machinery will be revealed and the laws will turn out to be simple, like the checker board."
--Richard Feynman
[ Parent ]
Regarding elephant art (none / 0) (#23)
by sticky on Sun Jan 27, 2002 at 08:15:28 PM EST

Your somewhat disparaging remark about elephant art ignores the capabilities of this species. They are a highly intelligent animal, perhaps on par with the likes of chimps, whales, and large parrots. They have a highly evolved social system, a language, and complex problem solving abilities.

I saw a special (on Discovery I think) about elephant paintings. While the paintings might not look like much to us, it is arguable that they are abstract expressionistic in nature. The elephants are aided by humans with brush selection and colour mixing as well as placing the brush in the trunk. One thing of note is that once the elephants decided that the painting was done, they laid the brush down and did not continue. Basically, they were finished what they were doing and they knew it, much the same as when a human artist is finished with a work.

Don't eat the shrimp.---God
[ Parent ]
OK (4.00 / 1) (#24)
by Kalani on Sun Jan 27, 2002 at 11:15:34 PM EST

First of all, the remark was meant to express my confusion. I really have no idea what would draw people to pay for elephant "paintings."

Now I see that if I had an interest in biology, it would express something much deeper than a superficial evaluation would reveal (that is, that elephants are actually capable of expressing things in drawing). In fact, as a recreational mathematician I could even see some intellectual interest in buying several of those (where there is obfuscated meaning there are subtle relations between entities).

Maybe most of my confusion comes from not seeing whatever it is that the person wants to express. When I was in Aspen a few weeks ago (I live near Aspen, CO), I went into an art shop and saw this large glass sphere selling for 30,000 dollars! I wondered why in the hell that sphere would be worth so much. I walked up to it and saw that it was a bunch of headless male and female bodies all intertangled (in a sort of "the world is a big fuck-fest" kind of thing). I could see the meaning there, though I still didn't agree with the price (but then coffee costs 5 bucks in Aspen, so you have to expect that kind of markup).

Anyway, thanks for your comments.

"I [think] that ultimately physics will not require a mathematical statement; in the end the machinery will be revealed and the laws will turn out to be simple, like the checker board."
--Richard Feynman
[ Parent ]
Interesting point... (5.00 / 1) (#22)
by Dallan on Sun Jan 27, 2002 at 08:00:17 PM EST

I think it would be good if we could replace the word art with two different words. You could have craft-art, which refers to an impressive act of craftsmanship, thought or engineering; and concept-art, which refers to the objects displayed in an typical modern art gallery. Some classical art would be recognised as being both. (I mention this purely as an exercise. I don't intend to launch a campaign, since planned attempts to modify the English language rarely work).

A friend and I were debating this over lunch last week. (amazing how philosophical one can get during midterms.) Anyways, we came to the conclusion that the distinction is already inherent in the way most people perceive the term.

Simply put, what someone can appreciate as artful, is art. If you know how impressive the performance of a play, or the creation of a sculpture, or even the execution of a head-shot while falling off DM-Peak playing UT (hey, it was midterms. *grin*) really is, then it's art to you.

Similarly, if you can see the deep concept behind some of that rather odd modern art, then more power to you, and it's art to you.

There's no absolute definition of the term, IMO. Art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
As far from God as heaven is wide
As far from God as angels can fly.
-Garbage, "As Heaven is Wide"
[ Parent ]

on Myst (none / 0) (#12)
by Arkady on Sun Jan 27, 2002 at 01:47:14 PM EST

I think you're underrating the impact Myst (and its sequels Riven and Exile) have at by calling them "flash-in-the-pan". The last I'd heard, Myst still held the biggest-selling-game of all time trophy, and sales of Riven and Exile haven't been slight either, so from that perspective they have at least been very widely played (though to compare Myst &co's sales numbers to, say, the entire 1st person shooter genre they certainly come up short).

Myst, while not really being "revolutionary" from either an artistic or gameplay perspective (I don't know what would be), was at least very different from most of what came before it in its lyrical tone, mental focus and lack of violence.


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere Anarchy is loosed upon the world.

Myst bigger than Tetris? (3.00 / 2) (#17)
by pin0cchio on Sun Jan 27, 2002 at 04:13:38 PM EST

The last I'd heard, Myst still held the biggest-selling-game of all time trophy

Bigger than Tetris? Besides, big sales figures don't necessarily make a good product; otherwise, Windows wouldn't be the best-selling PC operating system.

[ Parent ]
Re: on Myst (4.00 / 1) (#20)
by Rahaan on Sun Jan 27, 2002 at 06:02:18 PM EST

what I meant was - they were definitely great games, revolutionary in gameplay and graphics, but they didn't really change our view of games. There haven't exactly been a bunch of Myst spin-offs in recent years.

you know, jake.. i've noticed that, since the tacos started coming, the mail doesn't so much come as often, or even at all
[ Parent ]
Abstract video game graphics (4.00 / 1) (#15)
by LordCrank on Sun Jan 27, 2002 at 03:25:35 PM EST

While I can't name any games that had abstract graphics by design, there were games that had modified graphics developed by third-parties who thought of video games as an artistic medium. The one that comes to mind right now is Non-PhotoRealistically-Rendered GLQuake, a modification that aims for a more abstract representation of the game world.

Rez for PS2 (3.00 / 2) (#16)
by drivers on Sun Jan 27, 2002 at 03:47:09 PM EST

Speaking of video games as art, has anyone checked out Rez for the PS2. Probably not. It's a new game and I had to special order it, although all the magazines/reviews are raving about it.

/me runs off to read the f*-in article.

Oh ya. That's what he was talking about...

Rez and Ico have something in common. They have simplified the gameplay considerably and focused instead on innovation. For instance, in Ico, even though it plays like an RPG there are no stats, no hit points, very few types of weapons (pretty much a stick, or later, a sword.) Rez is a shooter, reminding me of Starfox in a way, except you have no real control of your position, only your orientation (and then only 360 degree turning on boss levels) You only use one button to shoot. (another button to activate the overdrive powerup, but that is rare.) Rez has the complexity of an atari 2600 game but it the interactivity in terms of music/sound is very fun.

Bah.. (none / 0) (#26)
by rcarver on Mon Jan 28, 2002 at 06:02:41 AM EST

it is more or less useless to discuss wether video games are art without a clear definition of art.

so what is art? well.. the conseptualistic movement that was a reaction to the minimalistic movement, basically ruined the whole concept of art. the whole concept art thing has become so ridiculous that _everything_ is art.

so art is more or less dead. it is really not interesting at all. seriously. trust me on this.

is this bad? nah.. why should it be bad?

people seem to have a need to call something art for some reason or another.. why is that? can't a creation of some kind simply exist and be enjoyed for its esthetic qualities?

my suggestion is: yes, it can.

forget art. art has been ruined by people like Yoko Ono. embrace esthetical qualities. embrace the ability to look upon something and enjoy it without caring if you can or can not call it "art".

go forth and create.

Tranquility (none / 0) (#27)
by Ludwig on Mon Jan 28, 2002 at 06:05:37 AM EST

I don't know if it's Art, as it doesn't seem to illuminate or communicate anything in particular (my loose criteria,) but Tranquility is at least what you'd call artsy. Sort of a trip toy, worth taking a look at.

The evolution of video game graphics (4.00 / 1) (#28)
by mewse on Mon Jan 28, 2002 at 06:27:34 AM EST

It's been the case for the past several years that computer graphic technology has been improving by leaps and bounds. When I started work at my current job four years ago, the main character in our game was given a lavish budget 800 polygons (yes -- that was lavish in those days!) That was a PC game intended to run on a 3DFX Voodoo 1 card. Our current PS2-based game has a main character with more than 4000 polygons (in fact, an early version of the character model had more than 4000 polygons in his hair alone!)

When graphic speed was increasing so quickly, and graphics had previously been forced to be very abstract, the obvious thing to do with extra power was to make the graphics appear realistic, and that's what we've seen happening for the last several years. However, this won't continue for long. Once everyone can do realistic graphics, games will no longer be able to gain attention solely from their graphic realism. In fact, this is already happening. My last released game was 'Looney Tunes: Space Race' on the Dreamcast, for which I developed a cartoon rendering system, to make the game's computer-rendered images look like a hand-animated cartoon (Jet Set/Grind Radio independantly developed a similar system, and released first). Treasure has recently released a PS2 game which also contains segments with a 'sketchbook' look to them (I can't recall the name of the game), and other posters have mentioned Rez, which also has a distinctive style all its own (which coincidentally plays directly to the PS2's strengths, allowing them tremendously improved polygon rendering speeds).

Cartoon rendering is big at the moment, mostly because the algorithms are now widely published and relatively easy to implement, so the R&D costs are very low. And it's still unusual enough that it can make a title stand out from the crowd. But expect to see other, more interesting effects as people get jaded with the cartoon rendering style!

The other arena to keep watching is character animation. It's been very weak, historically, but things are slowly advancing and becoming more adept. I'll again point at Space Race, (since I did the animation system and character coding), and I'll hold that up as a case of 'state-of-the-art' game animation, where the characters can watch each other, talk, wave with one hand which throwing a bomb with the other, and so on, all while shifting their weight and steering their vehicles, all with no visible transitions between animations. Expect to see this sort of seamless animation technology much more frequently in the future!


An interesting article on this very subject. (4.00 / 1) (#29)
by Ranieri on Mon Jan 28, 2002 at 10:14:08 AM EST

A person named crepusculum wrote an interesting article on the subject of videogames and art for a website with the dubious name of iSONEWS.

By drawing parallels to the aforementioned arts it is clear that in games we are not dealing with a novelty or fad, but with an art form in its infancy. Precedents have been set for both art forms that require great investments of time and money (motion pictures) and those are mass-produced (photography). Even now all three major limiting factors inhibiting games from their artistic actualization are waning. The technology that powers games is stabilizing, the critical criteria necessary to define them is being fleshed out, leading to the academic awards for excellence so sorely needed. All of these inexorably encroaching factors point to the fact that games will soon be properly recognized as an art form. Fundamentally, though, it is impossible to deny games' artistic properties.

Go have a look, it's long but definately worth reading.

Taste cold steel, feeble cannon restraint rope!

Game art at the extremes (none / 0) (#30)
by hardburn on Mon Jan 28, 2002 at 12:15:49 PM EST

I don't think we'll see much pure art in games until we get to one of the extremes of graphics (either very low or very high). When graphics are very low (ancient desktops, TI calcs, PDAs, etc.), you must focus more on gameplay than making it look pretty. When graphics are very high (which I define as the point at which the skill of the graphic artist becomes the limiting factor rather than the hardware/software; I think this will happen in desktop systems within a few years), than the industry will be dominated by a few very skilled graphic designers, while everyone else has to focus on gameplay to get ahead.

With games like Quake, the most obvious forms of art within it are graphics, sound, and level-design (which I consider differnet from graphics since the layout of the map is more important than anything else). Gameplay in Quake is limited to the kinds of weapons you can get and how those weapons behave (like the ultra-accurate rail gun or hit-everyone-in-sight rocket launcher). Once everybody has more or less the same graphics and sound, Quake-like games will be forced to focus more on gameplay than anything else.

Therefore, Games as art will be at it's best at one of the two technilogical extremes.

while($story = K5::Story->new()) { $story->vote(-1) if($story->section() == $POLITICS); }

Text Adventures (OT?) (none / 0) (#31)
by Boronx on Mon Jan 28, 2002 at 02:45:30 PM EST

I don't know if anyone here at k5 is still into text adventures, but somebody holds an anual "Interactive Fiction" competition, for which I am too lazy to find a link, that always draws a few entrents that were obviously created for their artistic value.
IF Rules (5.00 / 1) (#33)
by carbon on Tue Jan 29, 2002 at 05:47:28 PM EST

Yeah, Interactive Fiction is great. For those who haven't heard of it, think "Zork", but updated and made very cool :-). You can find the competition entries, as well as an archive of loads of other IF games, at www.ifarchive.org. They also have information on submitting and judging entries there.

Briefly, moden IF generally comes in one of two non-human readable cross platform formats: TADS and ZIP (not zip files, but a format named after the Zork format).

TADS files are interpretable on many systems, including Windows, Linux (with xtads), and Mac.

ZIP is also available with all thse (xzip for linux), as well as on PalmOS with a wonderful bit of software called Palm Frotz. If you have a Palm, this is one of the best ways to waste time on it, though overclocking is a must (even though it's only text based, keeping and recalculating all that state requires a lot out of the little thing.)

In addition, compilers for both formats are available on Windows, Linux, and Mac as well, iirc.

Wasn't Dr. Claus the bad guy on Inspector Gadget? - dirvish
[ Parent ]
Video Games as Art | 33 comments (24 topical, 9 editorial, 1 hidden)
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