A Case for the Technical Artist


Really there are two things that have lead me to write this. The first is an exceptional piece by Brian Moriarty, which is probably the best and most important thing that I've read (and perhaps has been written on games as art). If you haven't you really should read it as it will give a full backdrop to what I am about to write.

As well as sparking some really interesting discussion, the opinion is well presented and, although against my instinctual judgement, I'm inclined to agree with it. The argument is simple - games will never be sublime because of their interactivity. It can be somewhat demonstrated with a thought experiment. Imagine your favourite book, film, piece of artwork and add a small section of interactivity. It ceases to become sublime even for the smallest change. As Brian might have put it, even the smallest dog painted into the Mona Lisa ruins the painting.

Still, this conclusion doesn't seem truly disappointing. In some ways it feels like the pressure has been taken off (perhaps, instead of trying to recreate the Mona Lisa we can focus on just painting some really cool dogs). But more on this later.

The second thing that sparked this post is a recent video by The Escapist game design insight series Extra Credits on "Graphics vs Aesthetics".



Overall it is a good video, and does a great job of the separation of ideas in a way that makes sense. The use of the term Aesthetics works well and hopefully will aid some reviewers in their commentary on graphics - which at the moment tends to go along the lines of "looks good" or "looks like arse".

The only thing I had an issue with was the strongly presented idea that graphics must serve aesthetics and that both were two large, and separate, entities. This is exactly the same thing that tends to happen with discussion on graphics and gameplay, a subject I've ranted about before. The reason is typically this : I don't believe it is easy to draw a line between aesthetics and graphics, and the thicker you draw the line, the more things can suffer.

The main problem is that the more you separate aesthetics and graphics, the more responsibility for the artistic content and direction you remove from the artists and programmers. To truly create a uniform artistic vision everyone needs to be engaged with the project. Everyone involved needs to "get" what the project is "about".

Games with poor aesthetics don't suffer because somehow they've not invested enough into staffing the aesthetics department. They suffer because none of the people involved care about the artistic direction. Big development teams aren't an excuse either - look at Portal, Shadow of the Colossus or a several other examples. An even better place to look is the movie industry where this sort of thing isn't even an issue. The approach to get everyone involved, engaged and understanding the film is the default, and to do anything less is considered shameful.

This is a serious issue:




Any idiot with half a brain cell can see that Tolkien has nothing to do with gatling gun magical staffs, wielded by elf chicks. Tolkien is about being a ringbearer, it is about friendship, and doing the right thing in the face of adversary and temptation. It is about so many universal truths, emotions and experiences - and this is what makes it so magical, not the fact that it features wizards. These artists can see that too, yet they don't care because they're just being paid to make cool weapons.

If the game industry wants to be taken seriously as an artistic industry, it is going to have to start taking responsibility across the board for artistic vision like the movie industry has. It wouldn't have been acceptable for Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings to murder their franchise like so many games have. Even rom-coms, comedies and animated-animal-movies take this seriously.

The second difficulty, in that of drawing the line, is a little more difficult and subtle. A simple example would be the attention to detail in the environments of Crysis 2. This isn't exactly part of the artistic direction, the game isn't about detailed environments and it doesn't add anything to the overall aesthetic - but it does add something to the game, and is a subject of graphics.

A more concrete example is in that of animation. When we think of games like the Sonic series we consider them in motion rather than as stills. This is because must of their aesthetic comes from how the image changes rather than a still screenshot. Often in this department the driving force comes from the gameplay programming or the animation technology, less of a conscious choice by some team engaged with the aesthetics. Ico's aesthetic was heralded for it's famous hand-holding, made possible and perhaps influenced by Inverse Kinematics. Often the beauty (or even the gameplay) of a game consists of the watching (and engaging with) a particularly beautiful programmed system - or the converse - some programmed system implemented by a beautiful graphical technique.



With that as a small introduction, I'll begin my case for the technical artist. This may appear more like a case for graphics in general, which in same ways it is. This an argument for the importance of technical art as a whole, and I mean this in the way that technical artists represents those who provide a means for the artists to create things in real time rendering systems. Don't think I am forgetting all you other enablers - the graphics card designers, academics, concept artists, etc. But what I am really presenting is a case for trying to achieve the sublime in games, and some possible cornerstones for how one might go about trying to achieve it.

Most of my arguments here are not strong; they are based upon anecdotal experience and resemblance, so don't bite of my head. I am not presenting a proof here - simply some ideas to think about.

First I want to tackle fidelity. Fidelity is a term touched on by the Graphics vs Aesthetics video, passed as almost a side note - a graphical product that serves aesthetics. The narrator defines it as the increasing detail provided by more powerful graphics cards. In the sense of audio it means the accuruacy of the reproduction of sound. I like the use of the term fidelity; the idea is something close to my heart. Fidelity is the fine grained detail, the dirt and subtleties of feelings, that make us human. High fidelity is the different between a vision and action; it is the difference between a cartoon emotion and what we actually feel. Fidelity is what has allowed us to move from the cheeky grin of Crash Bandicoot to the confused feelings of Alyx Vance toward Gordon Freeman.

I almost directly associate the intelligent use of fidelity with the sublime. Authors have been using fidelity in this way since literature began. An author does not describe a whole room in intense detail, instead they focus on single important entities. An emotion, an object, or a character can all be described in amazing detail using metaphor, simile, and a deep understanding of humanity. This is what blows us away in literature. Painters, too can do this, with simple effects such as change in colour and brightness or other more complex techniques. All the other artistic industries have been using these techniques flawlessly for years. While we see it occasionally in games, often based around good level design, there is still a long way to go.




Something that often goes hand in hand with fidelity, dismissed in the same ways, is realism. Realism is not uninspired or an excuse for no real art direction - realism is beautiful. This is something I cannot stress enough. Minecraft has excellent aesthetics, but is the ocean in Minecraft in any way comparable to the immense beauty of real ocean? Games are one of the strongest forms of escapism - imagine, if you could be anywhere now, where would you be? Most likely you have chosen your favourite place in our world, somewhere tucked away, by the beach, in some woods, by a stream. Seeking realism has always been associated with hot-headed first person shooters who want to kill people in MAXIMUM DETAIL. We aren't all like that. You should see me play Crysis, I wander around the island like I'm in an art gallery. I'd be happier if there wasn't anyone to shoot.

If you imagine a field of grass with some trees and shrubs. Compare this to one represented in a game world. See how the real grass sways in the wind and swoops around in different patterns, how the light shines off it and how from any angle you see the thousands of blades. See how the trees sway slowly in the breeze and the light reflects off the leaves as they twist and turn. This is beautiful. This is why I want my extra polygons, not because I'm some kind of graphics petrol-head, obsessed with video card specs and shader clock speeds. Realism is beautiful and tied to human escapism. This link to humanity again seems to be a criteria for the sublime. Realism gives us this, and unimaginable beauty, for free.




I believe there are three main areas where we commonly feel sublime artwork arises - literature, film and music. Fine art also offers the sublime to some degree, but I wont be going over it because although I do appreciate it, I personally find it harder to extract the same kind of feeling and emotion from - and I believe this is the same across the general population.

Literature in games has failed. Since the beginning of games we have been trying to create stories and we are yet to achieve anything of any real artistic validity. There have not often been exceptional writers, but writing for a game simply cannot be sublime because of the inherent interactivity. A writer needs the ability to act as a God, to present stories in omnipotent way which manifest itself differently to simple dialogue and graphical cues. The best we have done in games seems to be not much better than the trashy novel - stock characters, badly executed love interests and an emotional attachment to characters simply due to the amount of time that must be spent with them (I'm looking at you Final Fantasy). Due to the interactive nature, most game writers have given up on making any kind of serious point in the story, and we have what is like much a sci-fi/fantasy writing style - a creation process where the author doesn't play god to the story but instead the universe and characters - watching how the story evolves out of that setting.

While this works for some people (mostly sci-fi/fantasy fans), it doesn't work for me, and many others. I can't see games ever becoming more than the soap-opera or encyclopedia if they wish to keep their interactivity.

Film in games is also a tricky business. Both mediums share in the fact of being moving pictures, but any attempt to make games more film like seems to only serve them up as redundant. Technical art is something that can lead toward a more film like delivery, with more realism and stylize effects, but I feel if we are going down this route then more intesting artistic visions need to be explored. I think there are some techniques from film that could be learnt, and exploited to get over this issue of lacking a omnipotent narrator and guide. When I think about possible games in this style I am considering games which resemble Apocalypse Now or House of Flying Daggers more than The Shawshank Redemption. In these movies the storyline is used to build tension and takes a back seat to an intensive artistic style that really speaks what the movie is about.

Perhaps with advances in graphics, and with responsibility and boldness in artistic direction we will see these sort of games. Games that move between intensively emotional settings with fairly unimportant or nondescript events. Perhaps we will see something sublime appear out of this, though it is something I am unsure about. Where meaningful gameplay, which interacts with the emotional setting, comes into these sort of productions, I don't know.



The final area of interest is music. I'm not going to talk about the actual soundtracks of games, because these are almost always excellent and there isn't much else to say about them. More interesting is to look at music as a phenomenon. It is a kind of mathematical system which can be used, observed and played with, to create emotional experiences. In the game world we have a kind of similar manifestation. It is easy to draw comparisons to the feeling of learning of a musical instrument and the feeling of the mastering some game system. You can see obtuse examples such as Guitar Hero but also more interesting examples such as the mastery of a platformer game or a first person shooter. These games, when mastered, give a similar feeling as to learning a musical instrument, but they seem to come without the grounded emotional content that music almost always delivers.

One reason for this could be the lack of self expression and creativity in many of these systems. In games, these systems are geared toward "winning". What if instead they were geared toward self expression such as in music. As for creativity, this is vastly popular in other formats. Modding and custom level/map creation is sometimes as popular as the existing game. What if these creative tools were as beautiful and engaging to use as was playing the actual game, what if, like minecraft, they were the actual game. What if they allowed for distinct self expression too. The case for the technical artist here is in the construction of systems to reward expression. Perhaps we are also looking toward sound artists. For self expression to be rewarding the results must be easy and beautiful. As in movies, I don't know how or if the bridge to the sublime can be crossed via this direction, but it will be interesting to see if anyone makes a serious attempt at this angle of game construction.

Seemingly unrelated to these is something that has been causing a stir in the blockbuster world of game development - LA Noire's facial animation technology. Driven by a host of technical artists - people are saying this will change games forever. The studio has obviously taken an interesting but largely safe route with the implementation. I can think of many interesting uses. What about a game where you look after a disabled kid with some motor condition. Or a game where you break up with your girlfriend or run away from home. A game where you interact with a daughter, or a grandparent. What about a game borrowing from one of my favourite books, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's nest, where you enter a mental institution and deal with patients there.


LA Noire


I don't know why one would make these games, but they feel step closer to the sublime - a step closer and in the right direction. These kind of games feel different to all the possible representations I've presented, because they are what could be considered instances of deep, powerful, possibly sublime interactivity.

As a final mention I want to talk a little about discovering what a game is "about". What a game is about is something I've said to be important without really giving any indication how to know what a game is about. What I mean, is in the same way you might consider what a film or a book is about. This same process can, and should be done with games. The technique is easy - simply consider why something is good, what it resembles, what it makes you feel, why it makes you feel that.

An example I like is Edward Scissorhands (although on the whole I don't really care for Tim Burton). Without really deeply understanding it there is an immediate appeal for this story. This is because it presents its ideas without pushing them into your face, it shows rather than tells, a technique all good authors know about. Without too much trouble we can work out what the story is about - It is about being a teenage and growing up, it is about being awkward, being clumsy with your hands, feeling you are different, weird, useless. It is about finding communication hard, expression hard. All these things are obvious on some basic consideration, and you don't have to be an English major to see it.

The same process can be used to develop games. Consider a childhood game you used to play - your favourite game. Simply think about why this game was good, what made it special? Why was it your favourite to play? In what context was it played? With whom and why? Summarize your findings and now you have two things - a game, and what that game is about.

Games are a young art. The first film camera was made around 1895, Pong came out in 1973. I see developers today going down all of the routes I've talked about above. I expect we'll be seeing some really interesting creations soon. Still, players and developers alike need to stop being afraid to say what a game is about and why they have made particular artistic choices. Let's begin to accept responsibility for our creations and begin to talk about our feelings! That's what I care about and what drives me as a technical artist, not seeing how many polygons I can get to render.