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In this reprint from the final (June/July 2013) issue of Game Developer magazine, Steve Theodore says farewell to the magazine and its art column mainstay, reflecting on how the nature of discussing art in games has changed in the past ten years.
I've spent a lot of the last decade at Pixel Pusher repeating the mantra that game art is a business where nothing ever stays the same, and you need to constantly redefine yourself to stay relevant. This final printed issue of Game Developer is, sadly, a perfect example of the principle. Honing your craft as a purveyor of news and information printed on former trees is not, alas, the path to a prosperous future. Of course, the skills that go into writing a good article aren't dependent on the print medium (any more than core art skills are tied to a particular bit of software), so hopefully the astonishing blizzard of erudition, wit, and artistic insight that is Pixel Pusher will find a new home on the web. However, it's fitting that we spend our last few droplets of ink trying to make some sense out of the amazing and maddening things that have happened to our profession in the last decade.
When I started writing Pixel Pusher back in 2003, the column was primarily technical in nature. Most of the articles were how-tos and surveys of different techniques. This made sense at the time: Much of the toolset we take for granted today was just emerging. Today's staples, like subdivision modeling, blended animations, and programmable shaders, were all newsworthy back then. In those ancient days (MySpace debuted just a couple of months before I took over the column) the 'net did not offer a lot of specialty information for computer artists. However it soon became clear that the Internet was going to provide a better medium for doing tutorials and walkthroughs. Hyperlinks, multimedia, and downloadable support files are just hands down a better way to teach advanced graphics techniques than 2,000 words of print and a couple of images.
As that became clearer, the column evolved into a running meditation on what it means to be a game artist. We've looked at the question philosophically, artistically, economically, and technically -- but after more than a decade of poking and prodding, I'm happy to admit that I don't have a pat answer. The games business -- particularly our end of it -- is completely and unabashedly mental. We try to hide it with solemn discussions about art and art history, with grand pronouncements about the future of media, or with high-tech wizardry. At the end of the day, though, we're people who make talking mushrooms, freaky deep-sea-diving cyborgs, and laser-armed zeppelins. Our profession is gleefully absurd even while it gropes for meaning and a chance to leave an imprint on the history of art. We combine the best and worst traits of adolescents: unfettered imagination and lack of common sense, incredible energy and ridiculous inefficiency, soaring passion and grumpy resignation. It's a puzzling life -- but one we're very lucky to be living. Don't forget that part.
The craziness is a constant, but a lot of other things really have changed. We're a much more self-confident and ambitious bunch than we used to be. In 2004 I snarked about games that were naively hung up on the gimmickry of photorealism:
"Somehow one doubts that kids are sitting around the cybercafes of Seoul saying things like 'Halo's subversive use of lens-flare radically deconstructs the notional game space.' So why does our industry devote such phenomenal energy to recreating the artifacts of other media?" (Pixel Pusher, May 2004)
Nowadays, of course, we've witnessed a great flowering of post-photorealist art. It would have been nearly impossible to get a publisher to listen to a pitch for games like Journey or The Unfinished Swan a decade ago. Even triple-A titles like Team Fortress 2 and Borderlands would have seemed too daring for the mainstream back then. But today we've overthrown the tyranny of photorealism so thoroughly that it's hard to remember the way the industry used to lap up grainy phototextures and choppy mo-cap in the name of "realism." At the other end of the spectrum, genres that used to be locked into big-eyed pastel trance colors have found different ways to tell stories too: Games like LittleBigPlanet and Limbo have shown how platforming games can build on the legacy of Super Mario Bros. without being hobbled by it. In 2003, it would have been hard to imagine that all the fancy hardware and software of what we so quaintly called "next-gen" would be used to create Viva Pinata. Even if you hate every one of these games -- though if you do, you're crazy -- it's a great time to be doing what we do: There are a lot more ways to sling pixels than ever before. It's okay not to give a damn about space marines or chain-mail bikinis or exquisitely accurate PanzerKampWagens. The tent is a lot bigger than it used to be.
While toting up the positives, it's also a good time if you've got the old-time artistic urge to Make a Statement(™). The "can games be art?" debate is wrapped up more conclusively than Mass Effect 3. There's endless, acrimonious debate about the nuances -- the mixed critical reception of BioShock Infinite is a case in point -- but the mere existence of that debate proves the point: It's worth arguing about, therefore, it's important. Even the sentinels of high culture (most notably, the Smithsonian) have conceded the point that what we do occasionally rises to a level beyond peddling amusements. We knew that all along, of course:
"As you read these words a kid somewhere is daydreaming about growing up to become just like a character you created; a group of friends is reminiscing about the great time they had visiting an environment you built; somebody is training their body to move in real life with the grace of an animation you created. People give a damn about what we do—sometimes for deep philosophical reasons, sometimes for complex personal reasons, and sometimes out of admiration for the dexterity and skill with which we do our jobs. That's what counts." (Pixel Pusher, March 2009)
But it's nice to have it down in writing.