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Videogame Aesthetics: The Future!
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Videogame Aesthetics: The Future!

October 14, 2005 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Depending on your point of view, photo-realism is either a scourge or a grail. The drive for it has come to dominate the visual aesthetics of videogames, and current technology seems to be pushing us very close to a peak. Limited markets and rising development costs, however, seem to indicate a gaping abyss. So will photo-real games be well crafted marvels of technology, or feats of economic hubris infused with mediocre gameplay? Will they be the ferryman to conduct yet more development studios across the Styx?

The photo-real push is obviously important to many people within and surrounding the game industry, as demonstrated not only by the persistent trend in commercial development, but also by work such as the System Shock 2 mod Rebirth, which replaced some of the models with curvier versions, designed for more powerful machines than the original game.

Yet increasingly, the push is sneered at. Among some of the gamers I know, the latest graphical offerings get little more than apathy. Critics cite rising development costs and the potential of different artistic goals, and are generally scornful of industry resources being poured into visually superior concrete and monsters. Nonetheless, they seem dangerously close to drowning under the effusion of marketing departments and most players.

In what appears to be a fit of turnabout, gamers often murmur "Of course, it's all about gameplay" when graphics blunder oafishly into the conversation. Well of course, interactivity is more fundamental to the medium than most if not all other parts of it. We'll always stand by gameplay: but it's graphics that will be handcuffing us to the bed during our next "business trip."

The industry and the market are bewitched by the idea of more pixels and polys. Higher visual quality is fair enough, but why is it equated with better stabs at photo-realism? What's the point of aesthetics at all? If they don't matter, how come E3 can sucker-smack a "wow" or two out of so many gamers each year? Why, after gushing over how good stuff looks, do we hypocritically trot out that almost apologetic load of bollocks about gameplay moments later?

I'm guilty of it. I think it's time that particular conversational old dog was taken out back and shot. By no means am I suggesting that aesthetics are the very substance of games, but obviously, "it" is not all about gameplay. I suspect even the most fanatical ludologists have been watching tech demos with the curtains drawn.

We may not know a great deal about what they are or exactly what they do, but aesthetics are clearly important to us. As a phenomenon, aesthetics have manifested in every culture and sub-culture throughout history, and furthermore survived the demise of each. From food through to music and architecture, all of our possessions and many of our experiences are purposely shaped by designers for aesthetic as well as functional purposes. Aesthetics pervade all media, and games are no exception.

The general value of aesthetics is not derived from any one particular style, as evinced by the massive variety in historical and contemporary design. So why do games seem to focus so singularly on photo-realism? Could it be that, because games lend themselves to simulation of reality, their aesthetics meekly follow? Are designers choosing a default option at the expense of aesthetic variety and potential?

Join me for this not entirely thorough survey of the visual aesthetics of videogames.

Fantasy & SF Affliction

So what's going on at the moment? In addition to gritty real world settings, games suffer from a lot of default Fantasy and SF imagery. There have also been many 3D cartoons around for the past decade or so in the form of Crash Bandicoot, Spyro, et al.

This seems to copy the aesthetics on show in a large portion of other screen based media, and maybe this could be instrumental in popularising the relatively new cultural form of games. However, are games really limited to "video" and "cartoons"? Pared down to just those two categories, games may seem tragically limited when compared to the aesthetic variety of other visual media.

Easily said. Trawling my memories of film for aesthetic variety is a somewhat barren endeavour, and it seems like a worrying omen for game aesthetics that I have to ferret around outside of mainstream cinema. Rotoscoped orks in the 1978 Lord of the Rings certainly weren't a high point, though the technique was used to much better effect in Waking Life, where live action was not only made to look like animation, but also actively distorted and enhanced by it. Films such as Run Lola Run and Amelie exhibit warped, surreal colour palettes that would translate easily into current game worlds. Sin City was a significant and radical modification of the Film Noir aesthetic, and furthermore was expertly translated to film from the comics of Frank Miller. It's in that field that we can find significantly more aesthetic variety.


The work of comics creators shows massive diversity: Jim Woodring, Tom Gauld, Chris Ware, Paul Pope, Peter Kuper, Mary Fleener, Robert Crumb, and Kyle Baker differ greatly in terms of colour, line, effects, and viewing angles. They represent a fraction of the variety in comics, which in turn are a fraction of the print media surrounding us. Within that vastness is found a staggering array of visual aesthetics, most of which can translate fairly comfortably into 2D games. Good examples are Orisinal, N, and De-Animator.


Of course, though a graphic design tool such as flash easily lends itself to aesthetic experimentation, the potential illustrated by print translates into any 2D game, for instance Project Rub, Spheres of Chaos, and Vib Ribbon.

Vib Ribbon

Clearly, games do not preclude aesthetic variety. Furthermore, the aesthetics of games are not merely to do with HUD and menu graphics, but are about the way in which game worlds are presented. There's a lot to explore, as we're no more aesthetically limited to photo-realism than we are bound to simulate realistic processes with our game mechanics.

So why is there no renaissance of imagery in computer games? The kind of games shown above seem to be a distinct minority in comparison to War FPS Iteration Y.

With regard to 3D game aesthetics, the strongest traditional media connection is sculpture, which has luckily become jam packed with aesthetic variety in the last century or so. Michelangelo may have produced fantastically realistic marbles, but even a cursory glance into the recent annals of sculpture reveals the work of Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Andy Goldsworthy, Joan Miró... the list spirals outward, widening with it the staggering aesthetic potential of three dimensional craft and representation.

Take just one example: Marino Marini, who, among other things, was known for sculpting young men riding horses. Some are fairly traditional representations, somewhat realistic and heroic, but his later work on the same subject developed into nightmarish and decidedly abstracted forms. Far from "realistic", nonetheless still recognisable as horses and riders.

The tools a sculptor or painter uses to make abstracted work can be the same ones with which they might strive for realism. The same is true of 2D and 3D game content production tools: they are just as usable to produce abstract and symbolic content as they are for photo-real work, perhaps even more so.

Taking a historical perspective though, could the peak of realism in any form of media also be a plateau that acts as precursor to wider experimentation? The push towards "realism" is visible in many forms. Film has climbed from silent, grainy, low resolution black and white to high definition imagery accompanied by surround sound. Sculpture and painting both emerged from rough neolithic beginnings to the eventual high fidelity representations of the Renaissance and following periods. Similarly, because in the beginning hardware limited representations to simplistic abstractions, the pixelated sprites of early game design are the equivalent of cave paintings.

So how is our progress toward photo-realism? We obviously aren't there yet and won't be for some time to come. Take anything that's currently at the leading edge of the photo-real push, such as Project Offset or Unreal Engine 3. You'll certainly find some very pretty and visually impressive stuff, but it's still not quite good enough to dupe. Despite claims of cinematic quality, you can still see polygonal outlines on models, if you look. Photo-realism will have been achieved when, as a photographer and level designer, I can swap those two parts of my portfolio and actually fool people.

All 3D games that have so far been a part of the photo-real push are actually cartoons of an oddly lit, particularly angular style. That style could always have morphed in various directions, yet at each iteration of Moore's Law, developers threw what they had as far toward realism as they could.

The photo-real push is almost as established a part of game culture as shooting or driving, and for some it is becoming just as tired. Maybe though, games have to push all the way to photo-realism before intentionally pushing away from it becomes more than a marginal pursuit.

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