GamesBeat

The Soul of Video Games: Art Direction

You are reading this article right now with a most remarkable construct – the human eye. Even the great Charles Darwin was confounded by the complexity (and although he didn’t use this word, the awesomeness) of the human eye at first, imagining that something crafted so magnificently was near impossible for natural selection to produce. He ended up agreeing that in the end, natural selection was even more powerful than the organized chaos of cells and signals that make up our eyes and that to reach this stage – to see the way we see today – it would have taken millions and millions of years of slight refinement. In the same way the eye evolves, so does the technology behind video games. Slight refinements to the technology bring about great improvements to the video games. If we look back forty years, the technology of the day only permitted us to view simple white lines. Perhaps this is what our early, early ancestor’s saw when they crawled out of the primordial ooze. Perhaps they were directed by simple flashes of white. I used the example of the human eye because now, video game technology has accelerated to the point where we are rapidly approaching complete and accurate replication of human vision. If Sir Charles was around today, can you imagine how long that beard would be? I am sure he would be amazed.

I guess that rather long winded introduction is my way of saying: video game graphics will improve to the point where we can no longer distinguish between human and machine. That’s evolution, baby. Many will see this as a positive step toward creating real virtual worlds that we can interact with, in addition to providing other resources hitherto unknown to the human race. For instance, think of the opportunities for creating training programs for surgeons, pilots, marines etc. – one would assume the level of immersion and thus, the level of training has no parallel in today’s world. I agree that true-to-life graphics (TTLG) would be a huge accomplishment technologically, but as it stands, I would prefer if that level of graphical realism stayed out of video games.

I guess that rather long winded explanation of my long winded introduction is my way of saying: “Hello, men and women of the future. I see you reading this with your retinal implants and flipping the pages with the power of your mind. I am glad you have stumbled across this relic of a by-gone time. Can you please remember that we don’t always need graphical realism to make an entertaining video game? Oh, and have you guys worked out the real meaning of LOST’s finale?”

This all started after I was made aware of Stoic’s Kickstarter for The Banner Saga, a turn-based-strategy-RPG-adventure based on Viking culture [maybe we shouldn’t try to define it by genre]. I strongly advise watching the trailer for the game, which you can find here. One thing that immediately stood out to me was the visuals that, by the developer’s own admission, were painstakingly hand-animated. Indeed, the developers go so far as to point out that they kept coming back to one man in particular, Eyvind Earle, who worked on Disney’s Sleeping Beauty in 1959, when developing the art style for their game. The comparisons become apparent immediately. The calculated line work of the dead trees melts into the peculiar characterization of the living ones. Each snowflake-like leaf gives the tree a unique existence.  The rich white of the snow feels like it may actually make your breath cold and the banner that sways in the wind behind your caravan cuts a crimson throat in the mouth of the sky. It is a very-large tip of a very-wide-brimmed hat to Eyvind’s work, especially his landscapes, and it is a pure and engrossing art style.

What truly captured my attention though was something that Alex Thomas, creative director at Stoic, mentioned during the trailer for the game:

“Good animation is really one of the major things that brought us to making this game – I think there’s a real soul to animation …”

Yes, Mr. Thomas, I totally agree.

There is something about animation, especially hand-drawn animation, that is unmatched by the 3D modelling and graphics of today (and I suspect, the future). Yes, yes, shhhh. I am well aware that those 3D models usually start out with a simple sketch before being translated into the 3D models of humans, orcs or what-the-hell-is-that-thing’s we see in video games today. However, in the transition from paper to pixel, I feel like the soul of that work is commonly lost*. That isn’t the fault of the developers, or the artists, or the 2D-to-3D guys. It’s just what happens. It’s unavoidable, like pulling out your mobile phone when you see an ex-girlfriend/boyfriend. It just happens.

For instance, comic books are largely hand-drawn; you can feel the artist’s and writer’s soul on every page that you turn. It makes something that is created by a human seem more than human. It unshackles imagination. Yet the moment we translate those hand-drawn images to real life scenes, ala Iron Man or Hulk or The Dark Knight, the humble brushstrokes that make up the character’s suits, homes, friends, emotions… they all become simply human. We confine them, and hold them down, with the shackles of reality. They may still contain outlandish superheroes in sculpted-pectoral costumes or purple shorts but we siphon the soul out of them when we place them firmly in our reality.

ImvIM

That’s the thing with TTLG. They constrain us to act within the realm of our reality. Video games are often about smashing that reality and art goes a long way in achieving that. Art helps us escape. Art helps us blur the boundaries between real and fake as much as any graphical power does. Sure, my character in Journey is essentially a faceless, cloaked wanderer, but I am not captivated by its realness. In fact, how real the game is doesn’t even factor into my thinking when I am playing it. I am captivated by the art – and the ability that art gives me to imagine while conveying its story. Art captures the soul of a situation. For instance, with Journey, if a human that looked just like me, walked just like me and talked just like me was traversing through the desert alone, it would no doubt be an intriguing image but it wouldn’t resonate with me like it has. I’ve seen photos of a desert before, I see human beings every day. They are boring, bland vessels [even in all their diversity, soz Darwin] because they are so common, so real. Human beings can’t walk effortlessly across the desert forever. Human beings also need to drink. In this way, the art of a video game allows us to construct our own notion of the game-world, and we can all appreciate it in a different way.

Moreover, it demonstrates the idea that the more real we get, the more confined to reality we have to be. Reality is boring. No one survives in a desert without water. No one shoots twenty-three enemies in a row, directly between the eyes. If we push toward such graphical power that we can’t tell the difference between reality and virtual reality what will happen to video games? It seems contradictory but by making things more realistic, we actually will end up stealing a lot of the realism from them.

The art direction of a video game gives it a soul and allows that video game to plant a seed in the soil of the mind. It is the mind that allows that seed to flower. Every seed sprouts a different coloured flower, sometimes even a different species. If TTLG ever takes over as the dominant graphical baseline for video games, you can find me in my room, replaying Shadow of the Colossus, replaying Journey and more than likely replaying The Banner Saga, as I try to escape the dull reality of our world, supplanting it with my own vibrant recreations of the worlds that I spend just as much time in.

You can thank art for that.

 


*honourable exceptions to this rule are usually found in Pixar films, especially Up, Toy Story and Monsters Inc. where I feel that the emotion conveyed by the 3D models stir up as much vivid imagery as a hand-drawn piece would, while still allowing the mind to roam and imagine what it will. Animation of this quality, that forgoes realism for a deeply considered artistic direction, is just as magical as the hand-drawn animations I am commonly referring to.


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