Archive for the ‘Art Direction’ Category

Drawing the Line

January 8, 2013

I’ve always been a fan of such aesthetics that rely heavily on thick outlines and strong contrasts like, for instance, so-called street art and graffiti in particular. The latter ones especially are often based on the use of outlines with variable thickness to accomplish visuals that have the ability to catch the viewer’s eye from a distance and in an instant, which is indeed the whole point of the exercise.

The other medium that is known for outline-based visuals is, of course, comics and graphic novels. The reason for such a visual device, I presume, must have originally got to do with the early printing technologies that lacked fidelity to reproduce sophisticated shading, and later on, the style has remained merely as a visual language of the graphic novel. Or, perhaps drawing with outlines is just dramatically faster and thus makes economically more sense (think of traditional animation). And it looks cool.

In any case, the whole concept of outline is fascinating to me since it’s, in a way, a pure abstraction of solid matter with no real world counterpart in contrast to other graphical phenomena like, say, silhouette. Nevertheless, we decode such lines as solid objects with relative ease, and in some cases, even more so, which is why technical manuals are more often than not illustrated with line drawings instead of realistic renditions.

What’s even more interesting is the fact that small children tend to draw objects as outlines, not as solid objects as they appear in the real world. One would think that a child would lack such a cognitive function that reduces the phenomenal world to mere lines, but it seems that the reality is quite the opposite: we have to actively learn not to draw everything as outlines and meticulously train how to depict the world through shading and texturing without the lines.

So, as said, outlines are indeed a result of human creativity and ability to abstract, not something we encounter in the natural world, which is, in fact, the core problem when trying to simulate such imagery within the realm of computer graphics. The challenge is that mathematical algorithms can deal with natural phenomena, such as physics or light, rather straightforwardly, but not quite so when it comes to simulating artistic sensibilities. Creativity seems to be solely a domain of the human mind and we are yet to see an algorithm to produce something even comparable to genuine imagination, even when looking into the near future.

However, a rendering technique that traces the edges of 3D geometry, popularly known as Cell-shading, is one endeavor in trying to mimic human ingenuity that is the comic book/graffiti aesthetics, one of the most iconic use-cases being Jet Set Radio (2000). The results still vary and even the best Cell-shading algorithms cannot produce completely error-free outlining or, let alone, artistically interesting line variations and nuances. We are getting closer and closer, though, with landmark titles like Street Fighter IV (2008) or Madworld (2009) who combined beautiful Cell-shading outlining with highly stylized texturing, especially the latter one.

Speaking of stylized texturing, what Telltale Games’ celebrated The Walking Dead (2012) did with its art direction must have been one of the cleverest things yet in the company’s history. The thing is, Telltale’s games have been generally sub-par in terms of technology, especially when it comes to the mere visual surface. However, The Walking Dead concealed that deficiency by adhering to a highly stylistic, “low-end” visual scheme (the comic book look) that, paradoxically, elevated the visuals to a whole new level. The Walking Dead wasn’t indeed so much of a compromise anymore like the earlier titles using the same tech, but a competent piece of real-time imagery within that particular visual, not technological, framework.

What saddens and frustrates me, though, is the fact that Telltale didn’t go all the way through with the visual scheme. The genius and the tragedy of The Walking Dead is that they only stylized the textures in order to create an appearance of a comic book, which, I’d assume, required only a few, if any, modification on the graphics engine. Indeed, I would’ve loved to see some kind of Cell-shading technology in place in addition to the stylized textures (see Borderlands, 2009), which would’ve made the graphics that more authentic and visually complete.

Games like The Walking Dead are a testament for how thoroughly technological the real-time medium is by nature in that it can take an appearance of something completely novel and unprecedented, but also, something familiar and established. To me, it’s indeed the simulation of style that oftentimes makes the largest impact, not necessarily strive for realism.

One Man Band

July 14, 2012

In retrospect, it seems unbelievable that there was a time when one man, just one, could produce an AAA game which not only took the hardware to its limits, but delivered an intransigent artistic vision as well. An epitomic example in my mind of such is Andrew Braybrook who designed and produced some of the brightest Commodore 64 hits that are now considered as milestones in home computing, namely Paradroid (1985) and Uridium (1986).

Even though I love both Paradroid and Uridium, I do have a special relationship to the latter one, which still amazes me how well it took advantage of C64’s hardware and even some of its disadvantages, like horizontally doubled pixels. Uridium indeed was a looker in many regards, not least of which being the silky smooth 50 Hz scrolling that put some of the arcade games of that time to shame. Also, the multi-phased ship explosion looked nothing like ones in previous games I had seen so far. Uridium was a visually perfect C64 game, if there’s such a thing as perfect.

Uridium is one of those rare, magical occurrences where a right person collided with a right technology at a right time. Braybrook knew the C64 inside out, had a vision, the skills and determination to carry through that vision, which resulted as a game that basically blew the competition out of the water on that platform, at least what comes to the mere visuals. Unfortunately, the success of Braybrook stayed on the C64 and didn’t translate to more advanced systems that followed it, like the Amiga 500, which is often the case in success stories that involve right timing and profound knowledge of right technology. Uridium 2 released 1993 on the Amiga 500 platform was indeed just another shooter that barely left a mark on history.

Nevertheless, I can only imagine the power trip Braybrook must had been having when designing and coding the original Uridium, that one man could make such a big contribution to the gaming community and real-time imagery at large. That’s something, as said, that most likely will never happen again in any platform. Not even in the so-called indie-scene that has found a new foothold on downloadable market places such as the App Store, Xbox Live Arcade or Steam.

Indeed, small one/two men operations today simply can’t push the medium forward through technology in multiple fronts like id Software, Epic or Crytek do. Instead, they can do it through a distinct visual style that makes it possible to produce, in a sense, an AAA game within that particular artistic framework. Consider some of the most celebrated indie games of late such as Limbo (2010), Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP (2011) or Fez (2012), what they all share is some novel, breakthrough visual paradigm that is easy on the hardware, but which pushes the medium artistically to its limits at the same time.

Small developers have to pick their battles if they are planning to go against the big boys, there’s no question about it. With Uridium, Andrew Braybrook didn’t have to. He was the big boy back then.

What Does Pain Look Like?

April 16, 2012

The challenge of how to visualize the internal world of the human psyche through artistic efforts has been one of the key endeavors in the art scene for centuries now. The question is both artistically and philosophically intriguing since it deals with the ultimate subjective experience instead of one based on our senses we all share. Sure, we can and should empathize with the feelings of others, but we can’t really feel what they feel in the same sense we can see or hear what they see or hear. That’s just not possible.

So the feelings we go through every day are extremely personal and usually beyond description. However, most of the feelings, such as fear, joy, anger, or sadness, to say a few, we can provoke somewhat collectively through simulated experiences by watching a movie, reading a book, or, say, playing a video game. There’s one psychological state, though, that cannot be simulated only by watching, listening, or reading a piece of art, which is physical pain.

There’s hardly any question about whether pain is something produced solely by one’s mind, even if it’s mainly an effect of a physical contact imposed by an external force. Consequently, physical pain is simply unfeasible to simulate with “fake physical contact” like, for example, joy, sadness, fear, or even antagonism that are quite straightforward to arouse using fictional narrative. Fiction indeed can touch a person, but not, thank God, hurt one.

The problem, then, in the video game realm is that many of the titles are nothing less than based on the premise of inflicting violence on others in order to progress, and at the same time avoiding getting hurt oneself. Violence is such a fundamental mechanic in a myriad of games that dealing with pain the player is supposedly experiencing seems inescapable.

Now, this all comes back to the initial question of how to illustrate a psychological phenomenon so abstract, subjective, and irreproducible through simulation as pain is in a video game of which narrative is based on avoiding it? Okay, one could argue that the health bar, which is now partly obsolete due to the regenerating health, was there to visualize pain to some degree by altering the length as the player got hit, but that was more like a pure statistic than a visual representation which is under discussion here.

I believe Doom (1993) was one of the first notable games to use flashing red tint indicating the hurt caused by bites and bullets coming from the enemy. And it seems that red has ever since been the color of choice depicting pain, for the reason, I guess, that it’s an abstraction of blood, which itself is something of an epitome of hurt and violence, if there is one.

On that note, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009) received a notable amount of flack and ridicule for using somewhat photorealistic blood for that purpose, in addition to the blurred vision. Mostly people complained about the blood “pouring from one’s eyes” being unrealistic as if there was a realistic alternative available in the first place. Granted, the blood effect was a bit excessive at times, but, as said, I’m positive it was never meant to be realistic but rather symbolic in nature.

Personally I liked what Mass Effect 2 (2010) did with this issue from the aesthetical standpoint, which was to use imagery resembling retina blood vessels whenever the death was nearing. The solution in question grasps quite elegantly the fact that pain comes down, more than anything, to the workings of the human nervous systems, and that pain can be conveyed without splattering blood all over the screen. Interestingly, this approach received a surprising amount of whining in the forums, too.

However, the way Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days (2010) dealt with pain was one of the most peculiar ones to date. As K&L 2’s visuals were based on simulating a low fidelity digital camcorder, the bullet hits manifested as various glitches and artifacts distorting the image accordingly, giving it a very gritty and dirty look.

In the end, there’s no “realistic” way depicting pain, or any other phenomenon of the human psyche for that matter. Developers just have to use their artistic intuition to find a way to visualize something that abstract, but at the same time very real and graspable.

Playing Beautifully

March 1, 2012

It could be said that my central argument here and in my thesis is that the real-time image as a medium is ultimately about the question of what is achievable in terms of definition and simulation in real-time.  So, it doesn’t come as a surprise that I, for one, am a sucker for tech demos in general, but those in particular that fundamentally alter the said paradigm drastically for the better.  As in, “there’s no going back” better.

Also, I love when a demo is presented before a live audience of which audible reactions contribute to the overall atmosphere. In fact, those kinds of presentations are often most effective and convincing ones, as there is immediate feedback from the supposed end users. This is, of course, something infomercials exploit unscrupulously with their hired audiences, but when the positive cheers and gasps are born out of legitimate excitement, the presentation becomes that more powerful and spectacular. One has only to reminisce the introduction of the iPhone back in 2007 to see where I’m going with this.

So, to find a live demo of equally epic proportions from the realm of real-time imagery, I would argue one strong candidate would be the Half-life 2 demo at the E3 2003 expo. In retrospective, it’s extremely fascinating to watch the presentation to unfold as the excited audience eats and swallows everything that is fed to it, trying at the same time to interact casually with the Valve representative with awkward jokes and giddy remarks. It really is demos like this that turn adults into kids, professionals into enthusiasts, and most importantly, the reason why I follow the industry in the first place.

Besides the mere technology that was briefly showcased at the beginning of the demo, I found, and still find, the gameplay portion itself quite interesting, not only for the visual content per se, but the elegant fashion the game was played. Indeed, the demonstrative gameplay wasn’t by any means a realistic portrayal of how people actually play such a game, but rather an ideal concept of how playing HL 2 should look like at its best.

This kind of “aesthetic gameplay” was achieved by carefully choreographing the hypothetical player to act far more spectacularly, or cinematically, if you will, than would’ve been necessary from the pure game mechanics standpoint. The overly stylistic and smooth camera movements, extensive use of cover, impressive utilization of various physics based objects and overall pacing all made the demo seem, in some sense, more like a machinima than genuine gameplay. It becomes even more evident when playing the finished product oneself that some things the supposed player does in the demo indeed don’t make any other sense than look cool.

Which raises the essential question of what other reasons there are to play video games other than to make cool looking things happen on the screen?

The charm of real-time image is that in the end it is what the player makes of it. One can choose to burst through the game as efficiently as possible, like they do in so-called speed runs. Or, to play the game like a musical instrument, with care and thought, and perhaps even fantasizing an audience to which the gameplay is purportedly being presented. Like in the HL 2 live demo.

So, what I’m trying to say here is that perhaps one should play video games more like an actor on a stage, than, say, an athlete on a 100m dash.

Perfect License

November 27, 2011

It may not come as a surprise that I was a huge fan of Legos as a kid and spent countless of hours putting them together and fantasizing of making ambitious structures that never ended up realized, just like every other kid. As the time has gone by, I’m starting to see increasingly clearer not only the connection between the fascination of video games and Legos, but the structural similarities in the mediums as well.

The first and most obvious similarity is the “Legos as pixels” parallel, which can be seen, for example, in The White Stripes music video directed by Michel Gondry. Of course, using physical objects as pixels isn’t solely a Lego-specific exercise, since a myriad of other house hold items will do as well, such as Rubik’s Cubes, Post-it notes, or cross-stitching, to name but a few.

There is, however, more substantial similarity of a higher order, if you will, that has got to do with reuse and recombination of a certain set of base components. This is most apparent in sprite-based games of the 8/16-bit era where the effect was quite in-your-face, but the concept still exists even in modern graphics systems such as of RAGE that is indeed celebrated, and partly marketed, for its non-tiling nature.

The Lego brick-ish nature of video game graphics is more often than not an inescapable fact that stems from the limitations regarding system memory and workload of the artists. And as I concluded in an earlier post, this phenomenon of tiling and reusing makes the unique assets or “blocks” appear so much cooler and precious than they perhaps otherwise would. But that’s beside the point.

The point is that in the light of everything said above, the Lego games of recent years, such as LEGO Star Wars or LEGO Harry Potter, developed by Traveller’s Tales make so much sense that it’s almost ridiculous. In a way, Lego is a perfect license for a video game, and actually one of the few that doesn’t exceedingly compromise the original concept that is Lego. Obviously a strong movie IP doesn’t hurt, but the real magic lies not in the IP, but the aforementioned correspondence of video game graphics and Lego as mediums. As a fan of both, it makes at least my imagination run wild of the possibilities.

And on top of it all, plastic, the sole material of Legos, must be the most straightforward material to simulate with real-time graphics. There’s just no need for sophisticated shaders, and for once the often-used derogatory term “plasticky” works in favor to the title, not against it.

In the end, the brilliance of the Lego license comes down to the advantages of a low-fidelity visual principle I previously wrote about. Consider, for instance, how little effort it must go into creating Lego versions of Harry Potter or Indiana Jones once the generic base character is done, in contrast to more realistic approaches. Minecraft says hello, too.

Of course, I’m not saying the Lego games by Traveller’s Tales are good, as they have generally been, merely by the virtue of the Lego license. I’m saying in the right hands a license like Lego is an enormous benefit and an asset to the production on the whole, especially in the case of a smaller studio.

Mod Nation

July 15, 2011

It is often said that one of the most essential strengths of PC gaming is the ability to make modifications to the games, and I do agree to that sentiment to an extent. I believe where modding works best are the little things, like fixing an annoying camera-angle or a disruptive HUD element. What then comes to altering more essential (visual) elements of a game, like adding/replacing new geometry and textures, I’m really not that sure.

I have two main reasons not to unreservedly celebrate modding: an ideological one and a practical one.

The main ideological problem that I see in extensive modding originates from the sanctitude of an art piece, which I consider fundamental. For me, it’s crucial to experience an artifact so that the piece reflects in its every facet the original vision of the author(s). Even back when I was a kid I felt deeply unsettled when my brother altered my out of the box Lego airplane set by putting extra lights and stickers on it because “they made it look cooler”. Of course, I undid all the modifications soon afterwards, as they simply felt wrong and abusive towards the original design.

The reason for me to feel this strongly about the issue may stem from the fact that I consider myself very much a creative person, and thus can relate how bad it feels when factors beyond my control get to distort my vision.

In regard to the remix culture that produces novel art pieces out of old ones by sampling and recombination, I’m highly okay with that. But that’s the difference: A remix isn’t there to replace the original but to co-exist with it as a separate entity of its own.

That being said, I wonder who in their right mind wasn’t bothered by the digitally “enhanced” versions of the original Star Wars trilogy, especially when George Lucas tried to bury the original untouched ones? New scenes, creatures, and effects did nothing but transformed the movies into weird Frankenstein versions of themselves, consequently ruining them for everyone.

Which brings us conveniently to the second, i.e. practical reason I’m dubious about modding, which is artistic consistency. The thing is, there are several factors that affect the final look of an art piece, such as the era the piece was produced in, or the technology being used, but most importantly, the artistic judgment of the art director who assures that in the end everything fit together.

So, modding (sans total conversions, which is a whole another issue) doesn’t have that benefit of one coherent visual view on things that comes with an adequate art direction. I would go even as far that modding can be, at worst, a violent act of injecting an alien component into a carefully designed visual ecosystem, which then throws the whole aesthetics scheme out of balance. For instance, I have yet to see a Grand Theft Auto IV car mod that blends perfectly into the environment, like the native cars do. Modded cars, while being often high quality and beautiful objects in themselves, just lack the look and feel provided by the original art direction, which makes them pop up like a sore thumb.

Obviously, I’m not saying that it’s impossible to have great, consistent results with extensive modding. I’m saying it’s pretty damn difficult to pull off nicely, which becomes apparent by just glimpsing at the modding scene at large.

In short: modding is harmless, but unethical (in the mildest sense of the word) and usually unaesthetic, fun.

Pixel Perfect

June 23, 2011

Like it or not, mobile gaming seems to be the space where the most interesting developments in terms of real-time graphics are happening at the moment.

One reason for this recent jump in quality is, in my mind, the success of the Apple’s iOS platform and the competitive pressure that has followed it. What, then, comes to the raw horsepower of mobile hardware, Apple has never played that game like, say, Sony with its upcoming super-performing PS Vita, but instead, concentrated making a compelling platform for third-party developers to express their ideas and in many cases make a living.

One of the finest pieces of such a self-expression in a true meaning of the word is Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP released first on iPad, and later on iPhone and iPod Touch.

As a game it’s an obvious throwback to the now-bygone point-and-click adventure games, and as such not even a particularly good one. But S:S&S EP should not be judged merely as a game in the ludus sense but rather as an experience like one gets from a movie or a book, as much of a tired cliché it may sound.

S:S&S EP employs visual artifacts (i.e. pixelation in this case) which positions it into a visual frame of reference that is obviously based on, like said, decades old adventure games. And it works beautifully, thanks to the visually consistent and imaginative art direction by Craig Adams, aka Superbrothers, who really is one half of the soul of S:S&S EP. The other half consists of, of course, Jim Guthrie who made the cool soundtrack for the game.

So, adhering to this kind of low-fidelity visual principle gives many benefits for a developer, especially an indie one.

For one, the amount of work can be (but not necessarily is) a fraction of what goes into a high-fidelity game, still managing to look appealing and cool. And if S:S&S EP is something, it’s hip and cool thorough.

Second, the visual effects don’t have to be that sophisticated, since our perception is calibrated to the low-fidelity frame of reference from the get-go. So just like with the “unnecessary polygons” I wrote about earlier, a technologically modest visual entity can look spectacular when encountered in a right retro-ish context, since the mind (of a long-time gamer, at least) is conditioned over the years to accept a certain level of technological sophistication from a certain visual look. In other words, a game with this kind of lo-fi visual principle can get away with a lot in terms of pure tech.

So, the times when S:S&S EP looks exceptionally good are exactly the moments when the game seemingly transcends the visual legacy it’s so cunningly mimicking. This is especially true in the epic boss battles in which the classic look is enhanced with modern effects such as color gradients, fluid vector-animations, and the completely synchronized soundtrack.

And that’s really one part of the magic of the visual landscape of S:S&S EP: setting the player’s expectations with a low-fidelity frame of reference, and then exceeding them using tricks and effects only made possible by modern technology.

Of course, it’s far from easy to pull this kind of visuals off right, and I believe it requires a skilled visual sense, like mr. Adams seems to have, to do so. But consider how hard it would be with a high-fidelity game, to transcend the visual frame of reference, that is?

Really, really hard.