I will tell you a few things, I love video games. More importantly than that. I love video game ART.
(I'm actually still not sure if it's more important. I need to get some fact checkers in here on that.)
I've studied game art for a long time now. During my secondary education I considered working in the industry under that field as a career path. While I've determined that might not necessarily be for me, I will do something which I've developed sort of a knack for along the way, talk. I love talking to people, also I love talking to people about stuff. And what is more fun than to write and discuss the STUFF you love most?
So, long story short. I'm an art-nerd-man-thing.
If reading about the art direction for various video games and game industry trends interests you, then you're in the right place!
A little about me!
Top 3 games:
- Jet Set Radio Future
- The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim
- BatMan: Arkham City
Current Location: Tempe, AZ
Place of origin: Lakenheath, UK
Currently Playing: Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Feature in progress: Conventional Art: Trade Shows and colored spot lights - a study
It demands prowess, it demands precision, but it demands your attention even more. Sine Mora just came to PC. You’ll know that because I’m finally getting around to talking about it. Created by Grasshopper Manufacture and Digital Reality, this “shmup” as they have slurringly been labeled, is a shining example of how art can still be the focus in such a technical game. But that’s not why we’re here, we’re here to discuss the art of discussion. Especially the variety which no one understands.
I must point out that though the language of the game, Hungarian, is a completely legitimate language, my previous research led me to believe that the developers were moving forward with a sort of made up dialect. As it has been pointed out to me after playing, this is not true. I traversed this entire game thinking of the language as made up as my ears picked up on absolutely no familiar verbal cues. I do not mean to insult those in the audience who are, or speak Hungarian, it's an awesome language. There has been much that I've had to omit from the original draft due to this fact, but the thoughts invoked here-in are still legitimate to myself.
Though it takes place in a completely fictional world, with completely fictional characters, speaking a language, that seemed to the untrained ear as fictional as peter pan’s scrotum (a fact I would later learn is simply not the case), I feel that they are trying to draw you into a someone emotional experience. I had basically zero connection to any of the characters or their trials and tribulations. Maybe I’m just a cold hearted and callous jerk, but I’ll tell you, it was easier to pay attention to how loud my computer was while running the game, than any emotional strife they may have impressed upon me.
The main story beats struggle for a number of reasons in my opinion; this is mainly due to a good portion of the campaign being read to you by text. I’m not going to say that I hate text in games. I think it’s an affordable and effective way to convey a narrative. Except when you’re trying to read and someone’s speaking a foreign language at you at an incredibly high volume. The developers decided to use Hungarian as the language of choice, and then proceed to voice it over the mission briefings before some missions. This was fine DURING the mission scenes when it almost seemed to add a bit of incomprehensible charm to the between-pilot-communications banter, but when faced with a black screen full of white text at about a 14 point font, things become difficult.
And so it was that it became harder and harder for me to concentrate on these mission briefings. And harder and harder to care about what was happening in the story. Then eventually harder and harder to even understand what was happening, to the point where it was tempting for me to simply skip every portion of the game when I wasn’t unloading bullets into something
I began to contemplate this idea very heavily. This concept of games and fictional languages. Even though Hungarian is no where NEAR made up, I was struck with many thoughts revolving around why developers choose to give a universe its own made up gibberish language?
- It’s cheap -
I believe first and foremost in a lot of publisher’s minds, the idea that they will not have to spend exorbitant amounts of money to translate a game (at least in audio form) across multiple platforms is paramount.
- It’s unifying -
Think about a universe where everyone speaks the same language and automatically understands each other. Games in which people speak made-up nonsense talk give us a small window into that. The characters in the game seem to understand each other across ethnicity, age group, and social class. A game which comes from a different country, where the characters all speak English, or Japanese, whether their words have been translated through text or NOT, is bound to leave someone out. A game where everyone says crazy whacked out phrases that do not make any sense is unifying on a global scale because to everyone across the globe, it’s un-interpretable nonsense.
- It’s interesting -
It’s undeniably full of character. We’re probably twice as likely to have our ears pick up some speech in a game our friend is playing across the room if it’s something we don’t understand, then regular boring old people-talk. As well, it can be humorous, something EA development houses understand implicitly. Hearing and discovering the made up dialects throughout the pc game, Spore, was very interesting to me on its face. I know plenty of people hated that design choice, but I know that Maxis have had plenty of legitimate reasons for doing this over the years.
After considering all of these facts, I began consider why it would and wouldn’t work in a game. I think it all comes down to placement and priority. Though I know now that the dialect chosen is infact Hungarian, my prior knowledge of Suda 51 and his team's predilection for the bizarre pointed me in the direction of thinking the language was made up. This fact is especially hammered home when you consider the fact that the characters were originally intended to be human, but that idea was nixed when the creative director for the game, Theodore Reiker, who has officially gone on record as saying they didn’t think that was “crazy enough”. And while unique and special character in a game is something which should always be cherished and accepted, I don’t think the words “weird”, “bizarre”, or “strange” should have to come out of anyone’s mouth on the cutting room floor. I think unique genius is an immaculate conception, not an artificial one. But we’ll discuss that more at length another time.
All in all, Sine Mora is worth checking out. From an artistic stand point, it is gorgeous in more ways than one. I will spare you the textual details and just give you a few pick-a-chures to hammer my point home.
Sine Mora has just been released on steam for 10 dollah. Get it while it’s smokin. Those diesel-punk dishes are best served piping hot!
Thanks user Grethiwha for pointing out my major mistake. I figured I'd make some mistakes on my first steps into video game writing and journalism, just hope I didn't come off as too ignorant. :D
XCom: Enemy Unknown – G.I. Joes without the ridiculous PSAs, or cheesy names up for artistic Review.
I’m going to start off by saying I’m not much for strategic games. Alright, I said it, now on to more pertinent things like why I decided to play this game. I’ll be quite honest with you, it was the hype. It was every person on the internet whose opinion is worth two nickels in a dog’s bungus telling me that that I needed to play this game no matter what my race, creed, or crime. It really wasn’t that simple though unfortunately; let’s just say it wasn’t feasible from a financial stand point to make such an acquisition at that particular juncture when that game’s “zeit gheist” was taking place. So yes, I’m a little late to the party, and no, I don’t have the super in depth backing on every aspect of the story beats late in the game, but I was extremely excited to write a piece and have accumulated just about…
(checks steam library)
… six hours on the main campaign. I’d say that’s just about enough to look a game up and down, fun or not, and give you more or less the gist of what the artists possibly had in mind under development. As well as that I hope to give you some insight into what I appreciate about its plastic goodness as well. Let’s get started shall we?
So my first impressions of the game overall were definitely good. Hell, I had impressions of the game before I even started playing, not that I was immediately predisposed towards saying I was going to love it or not, I just had faith. Tentative, caring, tender, faith.
Fortunately, my trust was rewarded. XCOM is amazing, from its head down to its toes, it is everything you want from strategy. It is engaging, has a balanced risk/reward system, and some would say most importantly of all, it’s true to its roots (I only played the original for all of about 30 minutes, but from what I’ve seen and heard, it pays homage in multitudes) I booted the game on up, watched through some civilian massacre at the hands of tools they have no comprehending the true power of, and then with bated and shallow breath, I began the tutorial. Six hours later, I’ve created twelve of my closest friends, and fiancé, as characters in the game. Watched her, and three others die. Found that too much to bear, then wiped everyone’s identity. (Knowing full and well I couldn’t stand to let another person so near and dear to my heart die at my hands even in a fictional sense)
After sufficiently moving through the simulated grieving process and paying homage at their shrine, I have picked myself up by the boot straps, captured me some mutons, and developed myself as quite the alien tukus-mashing machine. I love this game, but I know full-well that it’s the sort of thing which when spread out over the course of a week in 3 hour periods, is not going to turn out well. No. This is the sort of game for dimming lights, putting on your over-sized head set, lowering the mic and talking into it at your fictional characters as you give them words of command and encouragement they have no way of hearing. I would be spitting in the face of every single father in my blood line for the last seventy generations if I lied and told you I haven’t said the phrase “Alright boys, lets do this one by the numbers.” At the beginning of the last four missions, feeling an exponential sense of coolness each time it is said.
And overall, I feel like that is a good way to sum that game up. “Let’s do this by the numbers. That way we don’t get dead. That way we buy sat-um-uh-lahts. That way we get more money to do things by the numbers with.” The only thing is, instead of it becoming some routine, the game throws you so many curveballs you’d be a fool to make any mistake close to settling into any patterns or schedules in the game other than the magical key word every scared-shitless “commander” knows and loves. “Over watch” Use it. Know it. Look at it from across the battle field and shoot at it without any fear of penalty save for a slight accuracy hit.
Now for the fun(ner) part, the part where I babble on and on about this stuff I claim to know a delicately perched saltine cracker box full of. Art. I’ll let you in a secret. I so dearly wanted to be a character artist when I was in college. So much so that it was all I ate, slept, and did when I wasn’t on Facebook or playing flash games. Hours a day spent in front of programs like Zbrush, xNormal, Autodesk Maya, and 3DS max, and not a single one I regret. Training myself and honing my abilities as a 3D artist, over time, I began to analyze and see games, specifically character art differently. Things like poly budget, texture resolution, shader usage, and other trickaroonies employed by the passionate and talented development teams became like a second language for me. For this reason, my appreciation for the art that goes into characters, and the work I know those people are fervently pushed to put out is heightened to a degree. (only a slight one though really) So you’ll know when I say that the character art is possibly the weakest creative link in this game, you’ll know I mean it out of love. I say that though, then immediately turn around and contradict myself. Let’s watch.
Really though, when I say that, what I mean is that it is weakest only in the sense that the assets really weren’t meant to be seen up close. I game on PC (cats out of the bag now I guess) so when I play a game, I play it seeing it at its highest resolution. Because of this, I can determine that the artists who developed for this game obviously meant for most assets to be viewed primarily from a distance. This is a common and fairly vanilla tactic in budgeting data flow for your game. If someone is going to see something so far away that it will be hardly viewable at any other resolution than 500980X3288472, then it is hardly worth the time and effort to place work into refining that texture or poly count to a higher number. It goes without saying that Civilization and most other Sid Meier-based games are meant to be played from a near-top-down perspective. After considering this however, you begin to realize how they almost work it into their favor. Not even almost, I’d say they completely pull it off.
In showing close up views during cut scenes and briefings in conjunction with a softer, less detailed environment and model, you begin to see something come together. Action figures. I’m not sure about how many of you players out there got three hours into the game, unlocked your first laser weapon then thought. Jesus Christ, didn’t Cobra something have something exactly LIKE that, but in red?
Apparently I’m not alone in this thought pattern. The art director, Greg Foertsch, proudly admitted to a direct influence from 80’s miniatures and G.I. Joes as this was an integral piece of the aesthetic for the first game. Browsing through the concept art book, you begin to piece together a modernized militia of hokey yet endearingly sincere members of an elite team of alien killers.
“XCOM! SATURDAY MORNINGS. ONLY ON FOX KIDS!” (Not sure if fox kids is even a thing anymore. But they’re who would play it I assume.)
I think back to that terrible nineties era as well. Back when things like Godzilla got an entire 26 episodes or so of animated cartoon time alongside other movie spin offs such as EVOLUTION. YEAH. WHO REMEMBERS EVOLUTION? I do. As a moronic preteen corn syrup based life form, I watched the crap out of that show. I remember they had over sized guns with very vague details and “widgets” on them, and they fought a villain that sounded remarkably similar in tone to Tim Curry… I think. I could just be making up a cartoon show for children based off of the classic 2001 hit movie from Columbia Pictures Corporation AND the DreamWorks special effect team, that’s right, you guessed it, Evolution.
(You actually guessed it because I just said the name of the movie three sentences ago in all caps so don’t go getting a big head.)
(Also Julianne Moore was in that movie. What the hell? You see her ass I’m pretty sure.)
But I digress. (Get used to that) The idea that half of this game’s art direction was taken directly from Saturday morning cartoons makes me want to boot up and log a good 30 hour session tomorrow playing every character by name and roll from M.A.S.K. While I’ve not known anyone to speak about the game who was an adult when the original was released back in the early nineties, I do know plenty of people who have gone back to play it currently who were kids when the shows it’s based on were popular. I have to say, subconsciously planting that artistic seed in the gamer’s head from the beginning is a master stroke on behalf of Firaxis.
After all has been said and done though, the character design as it stands by itself is incredible in my opinion. The form and silhouette of each class and role impeccable. Manly characters stand tall and proud ready to defend the nation and be plastered onto what could have been hundreds of sensationalist propaganda posters promoting the game I’m sure. And the Women, appropriately proportioned curvaceous battle bitches ready to kick ass and tell that alien scum to “Get your hands off her, You Bitch!” only to be followed shortly afterwards by gratuitous amounts of rocket fire. Many people applauded Firaxis for their strong-stand-on-feminine-realism in their game. And that’s all I’m going to say about that. Really though, people should look at their design overall and take a few tips. I haven’t even started talking about the aliens.
AND THE ALIENS. Dear god. Such nostalgic pop-culture beauty has never been attained in such a tremendous fashion before to my knowledge. Sectoids, who will come to be known as “fodder”, basically are inspired directly by the “little grey men” of urban folk lore. Every character has something interesting about them, and even the most basic troop in this game is no exception. Complete with enormous glowing eyes and chest patterns, these guys stand a mere three-to-four feet tall in your wake, but their feral stance and lope gives them something strangely more menacing to their demeanor. You realize very quickly when they don’t hesitate to blow a few of your dudes away in the tutorial that they’re not messing around.
I won’t spoil too many other enemies for those who haven’t played, but it is evident that internet culture as well as grind house sci fi and past classics have influenced many of the way these villains’ look and feel. Fighting them on the battle field, you never obtain more of a heart stopping moment than when you realize you are up against something COMPLETELY different. It is in my opinion that the silhouettes and color swatches employed during development really hammer that home. Your Sectoid looks different than a Thin Man, looks different than a Muton, looks different from a Chrysalid, which SURE as hell looks different from a goddamn Cyberdisc. Goddamn Cyberdiscs. Basically the developers made sure you never THINK you’re shooting at something you can kill, when you actually can’t. Profile and silhouette are shotgun blasting you in the face even when you don’t realize it.
Seriously, next time you’re playing the game, stop for a moment and look at how each Alien has near completely different posture, emotional animation range, and color pattern. Firaxis pull a design choice like this off with such grace and ease that it would make your head spin. That is if it weren’t already due to some consarned floater making what must’ve been a twenty percent shot from across the field.
This extra layer of attention pays off in spades even from the first moment you see a unit on the field. Friend of Foe? Infiltration, support class, or big ol bruiser? (Sounds… cough… familiar TF2… cough cough…) This is something I will probably harp on consistently throughout this blog: The importance of profile and what a characters looks like from fifty yards away. Chances are if you can’t tell what their general purpose or roll is, then the artists weren’t trying hard enough.
Finally from the artistic roster, I would like to gather a great round of applause for the environments. Civilization did an amazing job of combining elegance and concise accuracy in the objects on their maps. XCOM replicates and displays this ability to near perfection as well with some slight caveats. On the battle field, cover is almost always clear and obvious, but that is not always the case. There are times when I was not sure if something was cover or not and wound up just placing my badass sniper, who’s nick-name ALONE was cooler than 1960’s-Neil-Armstrong holding a Ruger Blackhawk in one hand and a beef Chimichanga in the other, out in the middle of the field next to what turned out to just be a pile of dumb trash. I’m probably just a moron. Either way, we honor the death of Major Lazer Eagle, may he forever Overwatch us all, taking reaction shots on all who trespass against us. Honestly though, the vagueness of certain foliage and other battlefield elements were the only artistic problems I really had with the game’s environmental assets. Colored lights and tense placement of set pieces such as collapsed bodies and pre-decimated buildings initiate you into setting unlike any other. I often sat and just stared for a good thirty seconds or so before moving a unit just to get a lay of the environment. Whether starting outside of a coffee shop, a half destroyed bridge, or German forest, you knew each scenario would bring something new and dangerous.
The second and final environmental point I wanted to draw attention to was the base. Now before I had played the game at all, I had plenty of mental images from what people had told me, but no WAY did I imagine such a place of wonderment and joy would so quickly (read as slowly) unfold before my eyes. AGAIN, the theme of Saturday morning cartoons and action figures breathes a heavy moist breath on the back of your neck the entire time you’re managing troops from your Thunderbirds Era underground Hive Base. I’ll admit as well, my fiancé I sat in amazement watching the little characters move around, running on treadmills, observing captured aliens, and generally doing the best they could to look busy when all the while they were probably thinking to themselves “Holy Crap! Holy CRAP! Aliens are actually going to lick our buttholes with razor tongues if we don’t launch a satellite over Russia by the end of this month.” Really the whole thing felt like some amazing human-ant-farm full of interesting actions and lighting, as well as that same plastic-coated low-LOD that gives it such a unique feel. Closing in on any one room revealed that there was rarely more hard surface detail in place than there needed to be, again, focusing as much on form in the environment as well as the characters, and leaving the rest up to our childhood experiences.
The soundtrack to the game was helmed by Roland Rizzo, who had been with the series from the beginning. An ominous tone, and plenty of heavy synthesized notes are undeniably traced back to Michael McCann. The man responsible for Deus Ex’s cutting edge audial line up. Browsing through the base and picking out whether to research plasma rifles or cut open some asteroid-bound-butt-smacker has never felt cooler than when you’re doing it to this song. I’ll let the music speak for itself.
Obviously the moody and brooding tones match the feeling of the situation you face in that game for more than one reason. There are those who would argue that the music is drab and boring. I can tell you my pulse only QUICKENED when I ran across my third set of Floaters in one match only to have the battle drums bound through my system once again. There are definitely OSTs which are nearer and dearer to my heart, but Rizzo and McCann have made the noise that stands for dimming the lights, made the noise that sounds like flicking on the blue neon, and audibly transported me to a world where I am needed more than ever.
I believe to many people, XCOM is more than a game, it’s a calling. It’s a call that asks the question, is better to be feared? Or Respected? Then shoves an alien rifle in your mouth and blows your head off before you can mutter “bo-..”. XCOM demands that you play by its rules, and I can do nothing but respect it for that. It is a game that, in the wake of a newer generation of unforgivingly “hardcore” experiences, makes no mistake of letting you know, to “Remember, We, will be watching.”
Over and out.
Wait… no actually I have a joke.
And a question. Joke first though.
Okay. What do you call an extra-terrestrial who loves alcoholic beverages?
But I'm curious. What was your favorite enemy unit from the game? And which room of the base do you think it'd be easiest to hide a stash of 40 year old porno mags in? Your answers I salivate for!
Also, are you interested in reading a bit more. Here's an article complete with rather awesome video interview featuring Greg Foertsch himself! Ch-ch-ch-checkit!
So. Where do I start? This is my first post obviously, and any man/Jay leno/sentient-brocolli worth his/her salt ALWAYS has the notion to point that out. Isn't that kind of strange? How everyone draws attention to that? People who write novels don't say "Well this is my first novel everyone, hope you like it... One day Jennifer got a call from..." And so on and so forth.
Anyways. Blogging is weird. Bloggers are weird. This is my first foray into the trenches, so be gentle with me (if you must).
SO. Art direction, what is it? Who is it? I suppose the hyper-generalist would point out the fact that he's pointing out the fact that normal people who start blogs or write things about a subject always begin with a definition of what they're writing. I'm not going to do that I guess. I'm pretty much going to display what I define as art direction in the best sense that I can.
As you can see in the images above, that art direction can go any number of ways.
There is color, there is texture, there is an innumerable amount of factors to consider when it comes to determining how a game will look, sound, and feel. I plan to apply my limited experience driving art direction in the games I've worked on to help glean this information in a more scriptually digestible way. Google is now telling me I just made up the word scriptually... whatever.
No but really, I plan on covering wider sweeping genres, as well as specific games themselves. Games which are considered "art games," and those which some may consider "artless".
What you can expect to see in any given game-art review:
Overall game experience: I will give my over view of why I decided to pick the game up. If it appealed to me because it sounded interesting from a story perspective, or if the game play mechanics caught my attention. I won't go too in depth here as I don't intend to rate games based on their mechanics or game play, merely their artistic merit and if they are nice to look at. Which isn't to say I'm going to slap a sticker on it and say "GOOD GRAPHICS A+". Any art student worth his/her salt knows that just because some one is capable of adding scads of detail to a picture does not denote godlike artistic ability.
Character and Environment Art: These sections somewhat speak for themselves and will be judged on a separate basis. They stand as two of the major production branches of the artistic pipeline and I think they each deserve analysis in their own right as they are both unique and contribute in a very special way to the feel of a game.
Sound: I'm not a musician, but I think anyone with a cd collection can be a music critic. I love music ALMOST as much as I love art, and I intend to pick apart the nuances of most soundtracks for the games I play. I'm extremely fond of the quality audio material we see coming out in both triple A and indie titles today so I'm super excited to report on this artistic branch of games as well.
Final words: This will be a recap of the style and impression the game left on me. I will cover important themes and things to keep in mind while playing, as well as any quirks or tidbits I caught during play which I will suggest you keep an eye out for.
As well as this, I will possibly post my thoughts on any concept work, or art direction news which emerges as we go. I'm not sure, this is just as much an adventure for you as it is for me!
Whatever I'm covering, I hope you guys enjoy my articles and give me plenty of feedback on what you think.