Archive for the ‘Art Direction’ Category

Third-person Driving

April 28, 2011

Sofia Coppola seems to make movies that have a high tendency to ignore the most basic traditional film grammar, which often results in boring and futile scenes thorough the movies. Lost in Translation was watchable and semi-interesting intercultural study, but Coppola’s newest flick, Somewhere, was just a little more than an empty shell of a feature film. Perhaps I’m just too old and not hip enough to enjoy of watching 1,5 hours Stephen Dorff driving around with a Ferrari, watching twin strippers to pole dance, playing Guitar Hero, and chatting nonsensical small talk with his on-screen daughter.

There was, however, one specific scene that caught my eye immediately, in which the camera follows from behind as the protagonist drives uneventfully his car into a highway. Of course, this kind of weird and meaningless scene was intended to contribute to the mystique of Coppola’s craft, but it was also a testament for how recognizable that particular way of portraying a moving vehicle actually is when considering the realm of video games.

Indeed, I couldn’t help but seeing the scene as something taken from a modern driving game, and it makes one wonder if the prevalence of video games did have an effect on Coppola’s vision, at least at an unconscious level. And when I slapped some HUD elements from Test Drive Unlimited on top of the (cropped and adjusted) imagery from the movie, the resemblance became uncanny.

I believe it was Pole Position back in 1982 that really established the “rear-view” paradigm for driving games, although the original OutRun (1986) must be the most iconic case in point by far. Interestingly, back then the rear-view was employed partly due to technological limitations, as the camera couldn’t rotate along the y-axis, so they ended up rotating the car on the screen instead. Now, in the age of fully simulated space, the chase view is obviously nothing but an artistic decision (or an index of laziness to make a decent cockpit.)

Yo Taxi!

April 22, 2011

The reason why I write so much about Grand Theft Auto IV is that Rockstar Games simply did so many things right with it. Rockstar knows we don’t need space marines, fantastic creatures, or apocalyptic scenarios to create interesting make-believe experiences.  All we need is quality simulations of common, recognizable situations that a player can handle with uncommon ways, if he or she so chooses. And that’s really the charm of video games and simulations at large: the What If scenarios.

What if instead of jogging in Central Park, I drive through it with a stolen police car, shooting hysterically around out of the window? Or what if I use a motorcycle to jump on the roof of a subway car, while it’s passing under the overpass? YouTube is filled with different kinds of GTA IV trick videos, which is telling how versatile and deep the GTA IV’s sandbox really is.

Then again, experiencing the most mundane operations in a credible virtual setting can be equally fun, if not more. It’s almost comical to admit that one of the most mind-blowing aspects of GTA IV for me was the way taxi trips were conducted. The fact alone that you could now take a taxi to places and not just hijack one was a brilliant, though obvious, idea from Rockstar.

First off, taxicabs in GTA IV serve as a conduit for fast traveling conveniently around the map, which didn’t feel as much cheating as in, say, Fallout 3, in which one just pointed and clicked the location on the map.

But secondly, and much more importantly, the player could choose not to fast travel and thus sit through the whole trip in the backseat enjoying the scenery from a first-person view. And this was in my mind the coolest singular concept that Rockstar came up with the game (besides implementing the Euphoria physics engine).

So, when entering a taxi, the game basically transforms into a completely different experience. It becomes like a theme park ride that showcases GTA IV’s technology up close, proving, in effect, that the engine performs pretty well from a first-person view as well. Furthermore, it forces (not really since you can skip the trips) you to just calmly observe the simulated environment, instead of messing around with it. Rockstar is undoubtedly proud what they did with the world, as it should.

Of course, video games at large are filled with similar on-rail sections that put constraints on player’s movement, but GTA IV’s taxi rides differ drastically from those: The rides are different every time you take one. And you know it, so “anything” can happen (and you can’t do anything about it!).

The real charm of riding a cab for me is indeed that womb-like confined space from which you observe the outside world, seemingly safe from the harms of it. It really feels like you have let someone else to take control of your destiny, and all you can do is to try to enjoy the ride (or skip it by pressing a button).

The taxi rides in GTA IV prove the fact that we generally feel emotions through identification, be it during watching movies, reading books, or playing video games. And, like said, the more familiar and thus identifiable the make-believe situations are, the bigger the emotional impact usually is.

It seems that Rockstar gets this like no other developer in the industry.

Extra Medium

April 6, 2011

When talking about the concept of simulation, we are always dealing with a highly idealized model of reality – otherwise, it wouldn’t be a simulation. Simply put, the logic of how the reality behaves as a whole is just far too convoluted to be fully understood, and as a result, fully replicated in a model. Simulation is, by definition, an inferior (i.e. simpler, cheaper, more practical) construction of its original referent, and as such, an instrument for experimentation and play. But the most importantly, for play.

So even the most advanced scientific simulations today fall short of replicating the reality as it is, and commercial simulations like video games must compromise the modeling even further. Of course, we have come a long way from abstract Lego-sized pixels to relatively credible visual depictions, but the gap between reality and simulation is there – and always will be. The question is, to what extent we notice that gap, and what can we do about it?

On that note, I remember back in 1996 sometimes putting Grand Prix 2 to the replay mode and then squinting my eyes so that the vision blurred enough to make the imagery look more or less photorealistic. I did acknowledged the stupidity of that exercise, but it made me realize nevertheless that convincing “synthetic realism” in real-time was indeed possible, even if one had to alter one’s perception to achieve that.

This is the reason why I find sometimes off-screen YouTube gameplay footages fascinating, since the camera (especially when shaky) adds in a way an extra layer of realness to the imagery that may be otherwise too crisp and sterile. And furthermore, the 60 fps footage produces a cool motion blur-like effect when filmed in 30 fps or lower.

So even though I generally dislike over the top post-processing effects, sometimes they can create interesting results for the reasons presented above. For instance, in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare the player can turn on in the cheats menu certain post-processing effects that render the game to look like over-saturated black&white photography, consequently decreasing the gap between simulation and reality to some degree.

And who could forget the notorious Death From Above scene from the same game, of which “thermal imagining” was almost indistinguishable from the real thing. The realness of the scene were very much due to the heavy noise and ghosting effects that masked the deficiencies inherent to real-time imagery, and thus, made it appear more real.

It seems that an additional medium on top of the real-time imagery can really push the (photo) realism further, at least to a certain extent. I’m not sure if the whole game should be carried out this way – it could get exhaustive fast (see Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days) –, but like Death From Above scene proved, highly “mediumized” real-time imagery can work really well in small doses.

At the end of the day, I believe the Death From Above scene did have the deepest impact on most of us in terms of Call of Duty games at large simply because it just looked so real. And even without the need to squint one’s eyes.

Till Death Do Us Part

March 22, 2011

Death: the ultimate frontier. No other medium than video games has ever been so fixated with the concept of death, and at the same time, been so nonchalant towards it. As a result, I’m pretty sure that the amount of bodies produced by player in a single Call of Duty –game can beat the bodycounts of every movie ever made by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylverster Stallone, and Chuck Norris put together. To kill a man in a game isn’t just that big of a deal as it shouldn’t be.

Indeed, spontaneous screams like “I DIED!” and “I KILLED YOU!” have companied gaming from the very beginning, and terms like “lives” and “an extra-life” were an integral part of the gaming vocabulary until save-systems made them obsolete.

The oldest cliché would be now to wonder what it reveals about the Human Condition that the gaming culture (the only medium that lets people do stuff) is so soaked with death, violence, and destruction. However, I’ll pass that opportunity for now.

Can death, then, be an aesthetic experience? I doubt it.

How about a simulated death? Sure.

A case in point is the way Grand Theft AUTO IV handles death of the protagonist.

First, there are two art direction decisions that take effect when Niko gives up the ghost: High-contrast black&white imagery and slow motion. To desaturate an image of deceased is of course a common practice, and it indeed is an effective strategy to suck out life of any imagery. And slow motion as well can be considered a rather classic approach to create ad hoc dramatic feel to a scene.

Of course, in the case of GTA IV, black&white imagery and slow motion would be futile without the sophisticated physics engine the game utilizes, Euphoria, which simulates the physics of a human corpus like no other engine in existence. In comparison to other physics engines, Euphoria makes for instance a clear distinction between how a lifeless body and a living one absorb hits, so when Niko goes belly up, the ragdoll system that kicks in truly makes him look like an empty shell of a man hitting slowly the curb. And when cops keep on shooting the dead, wiggling body on the ground you almost feel sorry for the guy, which is said a lot about a video game.

Interestingly, slow motion at large seems to be the opus moderandi for aestheticizing physical causal chains in general – actual and simulated ones. Just think about The Matrix and all its slow motion scenes with ultra-slow explosions and flying debris. They looked cool then, and they look cool now.

And speaking of causal chains, what usually fascinates me the most in player’s death in GTA IV is indeed the aftermath that often follows the fatal incident: A dropped gun fires itself, cars explode, people get run over, and so on. And you can only watch it from aside without any control over the events, until the screen fades black and everything starts over.

This all must make me sound a bit of a sadist, but believe me, I’m the least eager to watch any real violence whatsoever. I just happen to find beauty in simulation, be it of the workings of a whole city, or just of a guy passing by on the other side.

Artifacts and Art

March 1, 2011

As we all know, when operating within a certain medium, there are in some cases these (usually unwanted) medium-specific byproducts being generated, popularly referred to as artifacts. Regarding visual arts, artifacts can take a form of distinct glitches on the screen, like a certain type of static or noise, but also – at least in my mind – an overall look that brings forth and in a way reveals the technological deficiency of given medium to handle certain aspects of the imagery.

So, when looking back at the history of technically produced imagery, it’s interesting to notice that it seems to be only a matter of time when artifacts connected to visual fidelity leave the unwanted section, and enter the realm of art direction. Features that at first were considered undesirable “dirt” and an eyesore have turned from time and time again into means for hip and cool in the hands of avantgardists.

Indeed, just like the crackling sound of vinyl bears an unquestionable aesthetic dimension in the modern music-producing scene, there’s a host of visual artifacts that artists tend to use today either ironically and self-awarely, or as an artistic statement, instead of out of technological limitations. Black and white photography must be the most popular (and obvious) case of such a practice that employs arbitrary limitations to attain a certain look and feel, which makes me wonder who was the first one to use black and white imagery by design, and not because he or she had to?

What comes, then, to real-time imagery, the use of visual artifacts is a fairly recent invention, perhaps due to the highly technological nature of the medium. The fact is, real-time graphics has through its existence battled with technical limitations like no other medium in the history, and what’s crucial to address here is that an artifact (i.e. a manifestation of technical limitation) to become a brush for art direction, must involve such a technical problem that’s already been solved to a degree. That’s the reason why, for instance, low frame-rate hasn’t been used so much as an artistic effect, since high and steady frame-rates are still an ongoing struggle within the real-time medium, and as such, an endeavour far from concluded.

As said, the use of oversized pixels (see above Super Soviet Missile Mastar by The Behemoth 2011) made artistically sense only after when screen resolutions in general seized to be so much of an issue anymore. The same goes for now relatively popular low-poly art, since polycount (just like screen resolution) hasn’t really been a major technical constrain for a while. Interestingly, low-poly aesthetic is now being used even outside the real-time context, like in the animations by David OReilly.

Yet another interesting use of artifacts is Jörg M. Colberg’s pieces that utilize heavy but controlled JPEG compression as an aesthetic element. Naturally, the art pieces wouldn’t have had nearly the same impact back in the day when JPEG artifacts were a real problem when compressing images to a reasonable size.

This all makes one think what other technological artifacts there are yet to be employed in an artistic/ironic sense? For instance, it’s interesting to see if rasterized textures, as seen in the late 90s games like MDK (Shiny 1997), with a relatively low color depth will at some point become a stylistic choice for video games and animations. Logically it indeed could be the case somewhere down the line, but we’ll see about that.

Unintelligent Property

February 2, 2011

If someone would come up to me and asked what’s the most irrelevant, infuriating aspect of gaming and gaming related discussions, I would say, without blinking an eye, Intelligent Property (IP). For those of you who are clueless about IP, it basically contains the title of the game or the series; storylines; character’s names, appearances, and personas; and so on.

The thing is, general discussions regarding IPs are usually so distracting and beside the point that I almost feel fraudulent to refer game characters – or games themselves – by their IP names, as if IP somehow defined the fundamental nature of given game.

Well, it doesn’t.

For a start, video games using IPs outside of the realm of gaming (often referred to as licensed games) have had trough their existence a bad reputation – for a reason. The situation is mostly like a car manufacturer who thinks if they put these My Little Pony stickers on a sports car, they can leave the engine out. Of course, there are good licensed games like the Lego ones, but they are good games regardless the IP(s) they are using.

Furthermore, even IPs that are born within the gaming culture are problematic. If we look at for instance Need for Speed: Shift (2009) by Slightly Mad Studios and Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit (2010) by Criterion Games, they are both obviously driving games and published by Electronic Arts. But is it really enough to justify the IP (Need for Speed) connection between the two?

Let’s analyze: NfS:Shift is based on the technology used on GTR –simulations developed by SimBin, and NfS:HP on Criterion Games’ own Burnout –engine. So, different teams, different tech, different subgenres, and yet, the IP associates them both as “Need for Speed games”, which is not only unfair towards both of those titles, but creates confusion into the discussion as well.

It’s important to understand that IP isn’t just a name or a title for a game, but a strategy to create additional meaning, a narrative to a product. So, as I quoted Gonzalo Frasca earlier, video games are not based on narrative, but a semiotic structure known as simulation, which allows you to do stuff, instead of just watching the stuff happening on the screen. Consequently, most of the efforts to inject scripted narration, meanings, metaphors, etc. into the gaming have fallen short, to say the least, and IP often represents exactly that failed, incompatible component in gaming.

Of course, IPs like Need for Speed or Call of Duty come ultimately down to the marketing and brand recognizing, which is why we shouldn’t swallow the IPs as if they meant something to a game. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against IPs in games per se, but to act as if they added real, meaningful value to a video game gives me nausea.

On that note, think about all the different versions of Monopoly. There are Pirates of Caribbean Monopoly, The Simpsons Monopoly, Pixar Monopoly, etc. but in the end, they all are just that: Monopoly –games. The IPs doesn’t affect in any way the core structure of the game, which is the Monopoly.

And let’s be honest, what difference that made that Niko Bellic was an immigrant, who had a troubled history full of violence, guilt and deception, when you mowed down random pedestrians with a stolen fire truck?

I say this again: Video game at its purest form should be a tabula rasa providing first and foremost an environment and means for the player to create his/her own narrative and meanings. Currently, Minecraft does this pretty damn well.

Waiter, There’s a Vertigo In My Game

November 18, 2010

Alfred Hitchcock left his mark on the language of cinema, there’s hardly a question about it. One quite popular effect that Hitchcock introduced to the filmmaker community was so-called Vertigo effect that was used for the first time in the movie with the same title, Vertigo, when the main character suffered from lightheadedness caused by fear of heights. The Vertigo is carried out by zooming the camera in at the same time (and rate) as it is physically rolled away from the object, thus creating an illusion of shifting depth of space. Obviously, the effect works the other way round as well. Since  the movie Vertigo, the effect has been used so much that it has became a movie industry cliché and sort of an inside joke.

The charm of the Vertigo is in its ability to seemingly distort reality, making it useful depicting dizziness, dramatic emotions, and even mental illness. So, the keyword really is here “distort”, meaning it renders reality in a very unnatural fashion that is outside of our day-to-day experience. In cinema, this kind of reality-interpreting artistry is okay, and only seldom can be seen as problematic. That’s what cinema is all about!

In video games, though, it’s a different story.

The thing is, the viewing paradigm in video games is fundamentally different than the one in cinema, which comes actually back to the earlier discussion of how video games are based on simulation whereas cinema is on narrative. As simulation replicates the looks, and more importantly, the logic of how the reality fundamentally behaves, such reality-distorting (or counter-reality) effects as the Vertigo break that established relationship between the viewer and the simulation, i.e. video game. Zooming alone doesn’t do that since zooming is part of our common perceptual experience via binoculars etc., but the Vertigo isn’t. It’s completely alien concept.

So, if video games are to simulate our perception of reality, those “cinematic” approaches do nothing but harm to the experience. Of course, in cut scenes everything goes, but I don’t consider them as a part of the paradigm of video game anyway. On a side note, I still find it funny how cinema is seen as some kind of benchmark against which video games should be measured, even though the whole comparison is inherently broken for the reasons explained above.

Examples of the Vertigo effect can be found everywhere in modern gaming. For instance, in Assassin’s Creed when performing the Leap of Faith, camera does the Vertigo, obviously aiming to exaggerate the height (and the drama) of the jump. But instead, not only that it feels wrong and out of place, it simply destroys the “realness” of the height by distorting the depth perception. Put differently, the simulation breaks down.

Also many arcadey driving games, like the Flatout –series, do the Vertigo when using “nitro”, which takes actually away the sense of speed for a moment, making the situation quite ironic.

In short, I have yet to encounter a case in the realm of video games, in which the Vertgo would have worked in favor of the game. It’s just a cheap and disfunctional trick, which shouldn’t have a place in video games.

In movies and cut scenes, it’s okay, I guess.