Is the “art” of computer and console games underrated – Part 1?

It occurred to me the other day whilst having a little play on the PS3, that the guys who create the games don’t get the credit they deserve. There is a lot of clever coding, artwork, music, writing, and general ideas. If we watch a film we might acknowledge a sharp script, some good acting, how well shot it is. If we buy a console game, we expect it to be good as a matter of course. So the obvious question, is the “art” of the console game underrated? As I started typing, I realised the subject was much larger than I anticipated so I figured I would divide it up over three blog pieces to publish over the next week. I will look at:

  1. Some of the history relative to how I used it
  2. Sport games (As they are mostly based on “real” life and the appropriate physics)
  3. Some other games e.g. GTA which inhabit their own world which may be loosely based on our own.
Part 1 – My history with the Computer game

Growing up in the eighties, I was in the first generation to live through the development of the home computer, and home computer gaming. I experienced the early Atari home console, with Pac-man and space invaders, the original Nintendo with the big selling Super Mario Bros. Hitting my teens the first computer I owned was the Sinclair ZX Spectrum+2. It was capable of 15 colours, had a 128k memory (less than most photo files these days), suffered from “colour clash”, and had a built in cassette recorder. Some favourite games were Emlyn Hughes International soccer (you could edit the team and player names!) Operation Wolf, Double Dragon, HyperSports, Daley Thompson’s Decathlon, I’m struggling to remember more. – A friend of mine owned its superior rival the Commodore 64.

I would soon move onto the games console Sega Mega drive (Called Genesis in the US). Mine was a Japanese version I bought from a friend at school. It had protection on to stop it using European games. The protection was a piece of plastic that slid out when the power switch was slid on. One minute with a small saw removed that protection, I could use any game I could lay my hands on. It had a step up in graphics and sound so was immediately “cool”. Some favourite games were Strider 2, Space Harrier II (now available on the iPhone), and again, I’m struggling to remember more.

At around age 15 (I think), I moved on to the Amiga 500 which could do 32 colours from a palette of 4096, a large step, as it seemed at the time, up in graphical power from the Spectrum and a small improvement over the Sega. I had the 512kb memory upgrade giving it a 1mb memory. The main reason for moving however, was games were cheap. This was primarily because I knew of a “secret” club which I would go to once a week with a pile of floppy disks. One member at said club was always getting “cracked” games, or as they are more commonly known, games with the copy protection removed. Where he got these I do not know, but he was getting them often before they were even on sale in the shops. I believe he ran up a big phone bill. No matter, we got all the games at a club entry cost of 50p. My week would consist of trying them out, erasing the ones I did not like, then returning to the club the following week to get the next “free” games. Not surprisingly the Amiga did not last more than a few years. With no-one buying games there was no money to be made. Still I have very fond memories of the Amiga. I had upgraded mine to an Amiga 1200 (with 128 mb hard drive) which I think, is still stored in my parents loft, no doubt with a pile of copied games. I could probably get an emulator on the mac and no doubt some games from the net if I needed or wanted to. Some favourite games were:

  • Pinball Dreams – A four table Pinball game based on fairly real ball physics. Nightmare was my favourite. The game is currently available in HD form on the Mac and iPhone / iPad.
  • Sensible world of Soccer – A daft but fun football game where if you fired in a curled shot from certain places, of a curled lob, from certain places further out, you could pretty much score every time.
  • The Secret of Monkey Island – The beginnings of the adventures of Guybrush Threepwood. Prior to this, adventures were all text based with commands like “Walk North” which you would would often mistype as “Walk up” only to get the reply “I do not understand walk up”. Thirty minutes of frustration later, said adventure game would be having a new adventure of its own in the waste bin. Monkey island in contrast had graphics you could point at onscreen, music, onscreen text dialogue, a good story and puzzles. At the time it seemed cinematic. This was followed up by the 11 disk epic, Monkey island 2 which improved on the graphics and sound. The Pirates of the Caribbean films take a little of the spirit of these games. It is hard to see now but at the time this was a big step up in presentation and scope. Both games are now available in HD versions on Mac and iPhone / iPad.
  • Kick Off 2 – A top down football game with comedy sliding tackles come leg breaking fouls, and Brazillian magic, curled free kicks. Totally unrealistic but good two player fun.
  • Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge – Kind of similar to Outrun, a behind the car racing game.
  • Nitro – A top down car racing game
  • Super Cars II – Another top down racing game, this time with weapons.
  • Jimmy White’s Snooker – A good attempt at 3d Snooker with some good ball physics.

Around 1992 my interest in music increased and my interest in computers and consoles began to wane. Although I had a Super Nintendo for a while at university (many hours were wasted trying to win the world cup on ISS Pro), it just wasn’t the same. It wasn’t until the PS2 and the leap forward in 3d gaming that was Grand Theft Auto 3 (now also available on mac, iPhone and iPad) that I really picked it up again, although never with the enthusiasm of my youth. I mainly liked sport games like ISS Pro evolution or GTA. That said, I went to the Xbox 360, and now PS3, but I shall come back to this in the part two and three. Interesting to note though, is by the time I got a PS2, gaming consoles had become a part of most households. When I was into the games as a teen I was a essentially a nerd. Now games consoles belonged to everybody and in some capacity just an alternative entertainment to watching the tv, listening to music, or reading a book. Plus there was the added advantage of them being interactive. Sure, there are geeks who spend too much time on them, and probably get far too many games (you know, the gamefly.com audience), but on mass they are a mainstream thing, there for a dabble, and surprisingly more fun than you might expect when playing multi player, or online.

The reason I mention this history is to illustrate the amount of consoles and games that I have crossed paths with. Thinking back to the earliest computer games they were all pretty basic, but the programmers were working with extreme technical limitations compared to these days. Think of using Haiku compared to a longer form of poetry. In the longer form there is more space to tell what you want, and get your point across. In Haiku it is short and little room for explanation. These early games were along similar lines. Good but with many limitations. In effect, it to was a clever, short art form. It is unsurprising now that we were keen back then to leap on any technological jump and see what games came up with it. Remember all this was new and the boundaries were being broken. It was riding the front of the new technologies. These days most people want the latest iPhone, HD or 3d TV, or whatever latest gadget for the home is the latest thing. Back then it was confined more to gaming, to geeks, and tech boffins. It is perhaps one of the reasons that the game designers don’t get the credit they deserve.

Another reason I don’t think they get what they deserve is because games evolve. If the designers don’t get it right first time, they can take the feedback, and add to what they already have, for the next game. Many sports games are a product of taking the parts of the game that worked, and changing the parts that didn’t, or adding another level of AI, improved graphics or physics. A film or book might go through a number of edits or revisions, but once it is out there, that is it. Apart from a “directors cut” they are mostly a one shot deal. Games especially with a connection to the net, can have downloadable updates that make small tweaks or add some details. But all this said, doesn’t it just seem to devalue the work?

Games as I mentioned above, people expect them to work straight off, like buying a fridge, you expect it to do what it says on the box. You expect the world within the game to be understandable, and easy to interact with. If not you will criticise the game manufacturer for selling “some crap”. You know people could revise it, and that is a key point, so you expect a high level of quality. However I would argue the point that production of games is just different, they work a different way, and should not be viewed in the same context as a book, film or TV show, in terms of how they are produced. On the other hand, I would argue that there is fantastic artwork, cleverly designed puzzles, great sound, clever interactivity, in fact a lot of similar elements to what we get in films, music or books. They just don’t get the same credit for the end result. They are not written about in the media as much, names are rarely mentioned. Can you name a single graphic artist who worked on any recent game? I suspect you couldn’t. Yet games are a big part of our culture now and these creators need to get some credit.  There is much art and innovative design in what they do, people should appreciate it a lot more.

In parts two and three, I shall provide further examples of why.

Lexicon word of the day: variegated.

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