Calum Stevenson, an artist who primarily works in designing character concepts for video games. A few days ago I posted some links that represent positions in the debate.
First, tell me a bit about what you do.
I draw and paint character or creature concepts and turn them into 3d reality, or as my grandmother so succinctly puts it “that little man running across the screen.”
John Sharp is an art historian who teaches video game designers. He argues that it's important for game designers to be aware of shifting notions of what art is. Do you see yourself fundamentally as an artist?
I do think of myself as an artist, but that doesn’t necessarily always carry over to game design pieces. That's not to say that I don't consider game characters or creatures as having the potential for being art, more that I haven't reached that level of artistic maturity yet within the game design envelope. I think the highly technical nature of game art is problematic too, as with any medium real potential can only be achieved when the tools cease to become a barrier and the tools in game art are complicated and always changing. With that in mind there are game artists who, for me, rank as highly as some of the great fine artists. Andrew “Android” Jones, Kekai Kotaki, Skan Srisuwan to name a few are all incredible artists in their own right.
Mr. Sharp writes: "A lot of developers have this romantic notion of what art is. They're rooted in a 19th-century idea that it's a form of expression and tied to public perceptions. That's not what art is anymore." What kind of artistic criteria do you think we should use to assess games? Are artistic criteria even relevant?
Ultimately I think it comes down to labelling. Maybe games would be more approachable as art if they were renamed ‘avatar-based interactive audio-visual experiences’ but I’m not convinced that any established artistic criteria can truly be applied to games, they’re so completely apart from anything the art world is familiar with. Aside from anything else there is a much greater level of investment required to really appreciate a game. Yes, a painting can be studied for hours and films re-watched countless times but many games easily hit 30 hours of solid playtime. You can’t play just 10 minutes of a game and expect to reap the same reward as someone who has engaged with the narrative or characters and seen it through to the end. Don’t get me wrong though, the majority of games were made with entertainment and commercial success in mind and to try and interpret every single one as a work of art would be optimistic at best.
What kind of art do you look at to inform your design?
I generally try to absorb as much visual information from as many areas as possible. The great thing about game art is that it blends all the other artistic disciplines together but in a virtual space. There are some staple inspirations like Frazetta and Paul Bonner whose works are very close to a game aesthetic but I also look to fashion design, classic portraiture, street art, comic illustration and just about anything I can get my hands on. I’m constantly being laughed at for filling my camera with pictures of ‘rubbish’ too, bits of moss, that kind of thing. It’s all good stuff!
I've read about Mirror's Edge, a game that has some architects very excited because of the way it integrates real-world architecture into the game's design. Do you think about the relationship between the virtual environment and the "real world" when designing? Can we explore that relationship productively?
I think that really the relationship between the real and the virtual, in a game context, boils down to what we as designers can get away with without breaking immersion for the player(s). Gamers can be both very forgiving and completely unreasonable when it comes to what they are willing to accept in a game. Generally the rule seems to be that you can do practically anything as long as the game is good! Thinking along the lines of Mirror’s Edge there’s another game that integrates real-world architecture called Prototype. It takes place in a pretty faithful reproduction of Manhattan and sees your genetically enhanced character able to leap from buildings and glide above the city. There’s something about taking control of a virtual character, especially one with beyond-human powers, in a real-world location which appeals to me at a very basic level. I suspect it resonates with that childhood superhero daydream.
I'd also like to note that Mirror's Edge is up there on my favourites list. Mirror's Edge certainly polarized opinions when it was released but I don't think anyone would deny that it’s a visually beautiful game. It sounds cheesy but there were moments where I would stop and marvel at the world and architecture around me. Just being aware that each and every piece of the game world, of any game world really, has been hand crafted regularly stops me mid-game.
Roger Ebert, the film critic, thinks that video games cannot be art "in principle." Respond!
Let's just get it out there that I totally disagree. I don’t want this to turn into a personal attack but I think it's interesting that Ebert feels qualified to speak about this when it's doubtful whether he played any of the games mentioned, which maybe weren’t great examples, let alone any games at all. How he can critically evaluate an interactive medium without actually interacting is beyond me. Personally there are two games which come to mind straight away, Ico and it’s spiritual sequel Shadow of the Colossus which most gamers would agree have crossed that “artistic boundary” mentioned in Ebert’s article. Both games are visually stunning, thought provoking, emotionally engaging and most importantly they don’t fill in all the blanks for the player. It sounds obvious to say, but they really do have to be played to be appreciated. There has to be that link between you as the player and the character’s actions in the game. Incidentally, neither game did very well commercially when first released.
One of Mr. Ebert's points is that you can "win" a game but you can't "win" an artwork. I tend to disagree that all you take from a game is a "win." When you're putting work into a design, what kind of experience are you hoping to create? What are the ramifications of that experience for a player?
I’m not sure sure I understand what relevance Ebert thinks being able to win has here, does that condition automatically disqualify games as art? I don’t buy it. Yes, generally there are structures within games which reward the player and provide motivation to keep playing but often these structures are constructed internally by the players. Really the goal of any character artist is to evoke some sort of response from the player beyond passive acceptance. It's difficult, as a character artist you only have control over the visuals, which depending on the genre have a varying degree of importance. Role playing games for instance place a huge amount of emphasis on interaction between characters, so yes the visuals are important but in this case so are the voice acting and the dialogue options. You have to remember too that you will usually be working within a particular aesthetic or style, and there will be certain technical specifications so really it’s a case of trying to inject as many visual cues and as much character within these boundaries.
Anything else to add?
I’d just like to say that if there’s one area to keep an eye on right now it would have to be the Iphone app store. The mobile game industry seems to have raced through the entire history of game development in the space of about 3 years and isn’t looking to stop any time soon. The fact that one and two man teams are able to realistically develop on the mobile platform has opened it up to a much wider developer base and there are some really interesting games being produced. I’m playing a game on the Iphone just now called Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP and it just keeps on amazing and delighting me. Find or purloin an Iphone or Ipod and check it out. Other than that, thanks for having me!
Folkert de Jonge at Portland Art Museum
19 minutes ago