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The art of video games

Are video games art?

Are video games art?

Some of our readers may still have some Superbowl adrenaline left in their system, but today I want to talk about another kind of game… video games. Like contact sports, these games sometimes get a bad rap, but having grown up in the 80′s with my trusty Atari, Nintendo, and Sega Genesis, the games I played served as creative inspiration. In fact, without those games, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I do now. Inspired by Noelle’s post last week, I thought I would explore the various ways that creativity can be expressed in a video game. I’ll take the framework that has been used by game reviewers in the past and break it down into the facets of graphics, audio, gameplay, and story. I’m also going to focus mostly on console games.

Starting off with perhaps the most obvious, graphics in video games have evolved considerably since the 80′s. Pong, one of the earliest arcade games (from the 70′s actually), graphically consisted solely of linear elements; two rectangular paddles, a square ball, a dashed line for the “net”, and numerals for keeping score. Progressing from there, Asteroids (another 70′s game) made use of 2D polygonal shapes. The games that I played on the Atari, Nintendo, and Genesis made heavy use of sprites, which Matt covered earlier in his great post on Pixel Art. That pixel art is what inspired me to sketch my own sprites and those of my favorite games on graph paper, in order to use in my own attempts at making games on the family’s 286 generation PC. I then had my first taste of computer science. The next big shift that I experienced was with Star Fox, which made use of 3D polygonal objects for the first time. The beefier graphics processing power of the Playstation made these games more commonplace. Because the storage medium for the Playstation was a CD, it also had the capacity to play pre-rendered full motion video. From there on out, graphics hardware improvements in consoles and PCs have been providing more and more options for performing advanced texturing and shading techniques, to the point where it can now be difficult to determine which video clips from a game preview are pre-rendered and which are in-game, and almost any special effect imaginable can be achieved.

The ability to express creativity via audio has progressed in much the same way. The earliest games only made use of sound effects, while most games from the Nintendo generation had background music. Although these systems were not capable of playing truly natural-sounding tones, background tracks from games such as Megaman and Castlevania had their own distinctive timber. When the Playstation came along, CD-quality music could be played as a background track, and since then the biggest improvement has been the addition of Dolby Digital quality output on the PS2 generation of systems. Now, the Video Games Live concert celebrates the rich diversity of video game music.

While video and audio quality have steadily progressed, gameplay is a tricky beast. Some might argue that the early generations of games thrived in the golden era of gameplay. If the controls were not well thought out or the tactics uninteresting, a game didn’t have much else to rely on. Pac Man, Frogger, Dig Dug, Tetris, and Breakout are a few great examples. These days, it seems that gameplay can get lost in the dazzle of sound effects and eye candy. On the flip side, I also gained great respect for game designers and developers when I realized how difficult it is to combine an idea for a game with graphic design, sound effects, and background music. Gameplay has seen advances recently as new peripherals have come out. Key examples are the Dance Dance Revolution pad (allowing players to “dance” to music), microphones, Taiko drums, guitar controllers, and the Wii Remote and Balance Board. In the most modern games, online multiplayer interaction is becoming a must-have feature. As a result of these new modes of interaction, Rock Band has actually improved my appreciation of rock music, and the Wii has opened up a new realm of creative flexibility. I have to admit that the thought of all of those plastic peripherals is a little unsettling, from an ecological perspective. When they become obsolete, will they be recycled? Can manufacturers take a cradle-to-cradle approach to design in the future?

The last aspect I’ll mention here is story. It doesn’t apply to all game genres, but I couldn’t leave it out because just about every game from my favorite series, Final Fantasy, excels in all of the categories I mentioned previously in addition to weaving some of the most interesting and moving tales in game history. While my impression is that most fans go nuts for Final Fantasy VII, I can’t get over the way in which Final Fantasy VI wove together the paths of fourteen distinctive characters. Another series known for fine storytelling is The Legend of Zelda, although the character development is not quite as deep. I’m wary of losing myself in another Final Fantasy story (they tend to suck you in for hours at a time), but I’m very tempted to pick up the next installment.

I hope this has been enlightening to some of our readers. As I mentioned earlier, video games inspired my interest in computer science, as well as my interest in Japan, which led to my interest in Japanese art, language, and culture. So who knows what I’d be doing if not for their influence? If there are any other video game fans out there amongst our readers… what are your favorites?

Filed under: Art, Technology

12 Responses to “The art of video games”

  • avatar
    Matt Says:

    Nice post Ed! I too, credit most of my career ambitions and inspiration to video games. ColecoVision will always hold a special place in my heart! Zaxxon was and still is amazing (though I’m terrible at it), DigDug was great too. I remember a Smurfs game I had for Coleco that was also on Atari I believe… not to mention the classics like Frogger, Donkey Kong, Q*Bert, etc. Ah man those were the days!!

  • avatar
    Keith Says:

    Video games. I must say I am addicted to it, so must so I created blogs on that. Still remember the days of Atari… That’s pretty old school. Nonetheless, love it. NIce article. Good day!

  • avatar

    I still love the old skool Nintendo. Castlevania is my favorite game, by far, and I’m also fond of Legend of Zelda and Mike Tyson’s Punch Out. I used to enjoy Skykid too—my brother and I would play two player, and instead of working together as a team, I’d always shoot him down.

  • avatar

    Video games pretty much raised me (including Sky Kid). But it’s the designs of these games that really stand out – Super Mario Bros, Grand Theft Auto, FIFA, Grand Turismo – the look and creativity behind the development is amazing.

  • avatar
    Phil Says:

    Ed, I’m with you on the Final Fantasy VI tip. Steampunk ftw. Just so happens the wallpaper on my iPhone is an illustration by Yoshitaka Amano, the FF VI character designer. Also, I’m not sure this makes anyone “cool” but if you played six on a Super Famicom, in Japanese, then my mind may blow apart. What are your thoughts on Chrono Trigger? I might say it’s perfect gaming.

    Anyway, MIS and New Media brothers/sisters, we got to, got to, got to, geek out over this stuff sometime. I’m serious.

  • avatar

    I still love the old skool Nintendo.

  • avatar
    Charlie Says:

    Remembering Q*Bert brings a tear to my eye.

  • avatar
    Ed Says:

    Awesome comments, everyone! Here’s another great tribute to retro gaming: MegaMan 9 for the PS3 and Wii. I was just playing the demo version yesterday.

    Phil, I didn’t play Final Fantasy VI in Japanese on the SNES (i.e. the first three or four times). Since I bought my Playstation in Japan and ordered a Japanese PS2, I have played VII through XII in the native language (minus XI, which I played in English on the PC). And I started playing VI again in the Japanese Final Fantasy Collection, but like I said, I don’t have as much time to play RPGs these days.

    Chrono Trigger is another classic from Squaresoft. I also really enjoyed Chrono Cross.

  • avatar
    Amber Says:

    I still have Nintendo hooked up at home. Now the music from Dr. Mario will be stuck in my head all day, thankyouverymuch. The picture in this blog is from the opening of Ingrid Calame’s show, November 2007. We had a racing themed party and decided to hook up the game on the wall – it was a HUGE hit. Anyone want to bring Wii in for the next Forefront opening? :)

  • avatar
    Tim h Says:

    The museum of the moving image in NYC has had two separate exhibitions dedicated to video games. One aboutvthe history and the other featuring contemporary artists working in the medium.

  • avatar
    3snake3 Says:

    Ed, if you could invite some notorious person in the field to come and speak about the larger issues related to video games, who would it be?

  • avatar
    Ed Says:

    That’s a great question… it would be amazing to have someone like Shigeru Miyamoto. Then again, is there anyone else like Miyamoto-san?

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