Is the “art” of computer and console games underrated – Part 2?

Two days ago I began to look at why the “art” of computer and console games maybe underrated. The creators of games do not get appropriate credit for the clever work, and sheer amount of it, that goes into them, more so if you consider the volume of games sold. I suspect a part of this is that a game is a group effort sometimes involving a lot of people. On the other side of the coin, a film is not without a huge cast of supporting players is it? But consider that everything you see onscreen in a game has to be created some how. You cannot scout for locations in a game. Every graphic or animation (character or other) has to be created and put together, along with everything in the world it lives in. The physics models have to be created and animations matched so that anything that moves, and especially if interacting with something, looks a form of “real”. Much like a writer adding something to a page, it doesn’t exist until someone puts it there.

To help follow my point, let us take a look as some sport games. Previously I discussed some of my history with computers and games consoles, giving an indication of the amount I had crossed passed with during the evolution of the console. I had fallen away from much interest in consoles until getting a PS2 with Grand Theft Auto three (GTA 3). I never really got into getting many other games aside from the GTA series and sport games. More specifically it was mainly the ISS Pro Evo series of football (soccer) games. On the PS2 these were considered the best most accurate football games. The Fifa series was the rival and had the bigger financial clout signing up all the big licenses, with official player names, team names and shirts. Pro Evo was the poor cousin in this regard mostly not having made-up names (but having a name editor), but tended to have better gameplay. Fifa was for kids, Pro Evo for adults.

Moving up to the PS3 this seemed to change. Pro Evo started off well, but on the yearly revisions Fifa put in a real effort to catch up, caught up, and in my opinion, has now surpassed Pro Evo. In a way this is a tiny bit sad, it was like transferring to the enemy, but Fifa got it’s act together. It still has all the licensing, but now good animation, and fairly realistic play. In truth it is all a bit clever.

To someone not into football it will all just look like some computer blokes punting a computer ball around, which of course, it is, but that is to miss all the details and subtleties. Players can kick the ball of course, but the user has to time it with the animation. If a player presses to early or too late the player responds accordingly. Imagine in the real world, you are going to kick a ball. You are only going to do it when balanced a certain way and when your kicking leg is moving from a certain place, to make contact in a certain place, obviously determined from where you are and where the ball is. The game mimics this. You get the timing right, so the player and ball are timed a certain way, then the move likely comes off well. Mistime it and any number of consequences may happen, but more likely some awful pass or shot relevant to how the animated character makes contact with the ball.  However this is only the basic thing. Players in the game have some AI characteristics, they are better and worse at certain things, and in certain scenarios, so this also plays a part with how good the final ball is, or how accurate a player trying to retrieve the ball with a tackle might be.

This is of course trying to represent the varying standards of the real footballers the computer characters are trying to represent. Plus there is other characteristics such as weight of pass, angle of pass, room to pass, (same again with shots), players ability to control the ball, or take it in his stride, make one touch passes or shots, or need more, all balanced off against the tiredness of the player. Greater tiredness equals greater potential for error. Shots can be taken more accurately with more space, more powerfully from a little run up, maybe dinked in on a quick turn, or put in via the players head. All balanced against ability and tiredness.

So all these factors affect the play, but must be timed correctly by the controlling player. Sitting atop of this, player AI, for how players move to attack or defend when not being controlled by the player. A player can edit the tactics which then influence this. Then there is the presentation itself, player graphics and “real” likenesses, different weather conditions, crowd sounds, ball sounds, TV style commentary. The whole package to give you that match day experience.

So what the player gets is the result of all this work (and probably a lot more I haven’t mentioned), the final package. Fifa 12 has a good knack of imitating “real” football. Games seem to have a similar ebb and flow, the graphics and sound are clear and of a high quality. The gameplay is easy to learn, has a bit of a learning curve if playing on a harder difficulty setting, but allows you to pretty much do most of what you ought to be able to do. It is only once you have played some games and begun to master it a little that you see how good it really is. The subtleties begin to show themselves. It might be the way you drop a craftily weighted pass to a player in front of the box, who controls it by stopping it and moving it in front of himself just a shade. If the controlling player recognises this, he can gain a tiny bit of space to get a more accurate shot in. It might just be a player receives it and with one well timed touch lays it into the path of an on rushing forward. What Fifa does in short, is capture those little moments that make you smile, or those little moments that make you go “wow, that was amazing”. And this is from a computer game.

There are of course, moments where it goes a little wrong. Some of the player contacts occasionally result in players bouncing off in an odd manner, or falling over each other, but these are not too common. Should that take away from the overall achievement? As the frequency is low, I don’t think it does. Incidentally my favourite error in the current version is like a clever in joke. On the cup games Clive Tyldesley is the main commentator joined by Andy Townsend, the latter deemed a nice bloke but unfortunately one who spiels a lot of nonsense. From time to time in the game, at the half time mark, Clive will remark on the state of the game and say “And now the thoughts of Andy Townsend”. Cue complete and utter silence.

Small errors aside, the interesting thing here is that the game can drive your emotions much like a film, book, or song might. On one level it can give you a sense of achievement, after all, you are controlling it, and yet you know this is contained within the world of a game. It is not the real world. Well sort of. So if the presentation is that great and can drive you emotionally (you might even get annoyed when it doesn’t go well), then how is this different to a film, book, or song? An incredible amount of work goes into a game. Yes that might be the several years work, of adding or tweaking an older edition, but I repeat, that is because there is an incredible amount of work going on to get to that point. Someone has to think of how to do all the things I listed above and make them happen. Someone has to work out all the physics involved in every scenario. Someone has to do all the graphics work and make it look good. Someone has to work on the sound and the lines of commentary. With all this, why are we not looking at some of these people and crediting them with the high standard of work they are achieving?

Fifa 12 is produced by game giant Electronic Arts (EA). The NHL series, following the Fifa naming conventions, is named NHL 12 on the current edition so will give you no surprise to learn it is also an EA sports game. I’m assuming a separate team works on this game which is interesting in itself, and thus confirms my point that, I do not know the answer without looking it up. NHL 12 is similar to Fifa in that it does the same sort of things, just for ice hockey. Again it is full of the clever graphics and sound, the clever timing of physics, this time on the ice. Just days ago I started to get a level of competence at playing it, which like Fifa, began to show me the subtleties of the game. Clever timing of passes from end to end, a pause, turn and shot, a piece of game magic. Little things you can do, clever, clever. It captures the hockey experience nicely in a format you can interact with. It is again, somewhat astounding that we don’t know much about the people that produce these titles, without having to go and look them up.

UFC is one of the largest growing sports to view, in the world. Released less than a month ago was the game UFC, Undisputed 3. No I’m afraid I don’t know who came up with the daft name. This time the game is produced by THQ. Without knowing anything about it you could likely surmise that this is an attempt at an accurate portrayal of the UFC experience, and indeed, that is what it is. This time the sport is not focused around a team, but the two competitors in the ring. This might sound more simple, but when you consider the game designers have to mimic all the different high disciplines, the full range of strikers to ground specialists, it is no easy feat. The designers have to create animations that make all of this look real. They need to make the impacts of this look real to the character on the receiving end. Most of the fighters in the game are based on real fighters, so the designers have to give each fighter a move set like they have in real life. How high they kick, how they move when they try to punch, everything. I repeat, the designers have to develop fully 3d models with all the animations to demonstrate what they do, all the little moves, balanced against how they react to receiving the move. Then there is all the presentation, sound, commentary, arenas, referees and so on. The game can capture quite well the tension as you try to win but also face losing. It is brutal, like real life, but if into it, a fun experience.

So the key thing about sports games is that they have to mimic the real experience. All the physics whether it be football, ice hockey, UFC, or another simulated sport, has to be calculated and reproduced to “realistic” effect. The maths has to work otherwise the user loses the experience. This has to be layered with the appropriate graphics and animations, topped up with sound. Someone even has to work out what buttons on your controller lead to what moves relative to each situation. The whole world might be based on real world, but has to be faithfully recreated in the game console environment. This is a lot of work but has to be of a really high standard.

It is therefore interesting that without some research we cannot name pretty much anyone involved in the design of these games. They just don’t get the same media coverage. Given the amount of games sold this really ought to change. And the thing is, I’m not saying this from the perspective of someone who spends lots of time playing games. I try to fit in some game time at least once a week but I have larger interests in music, writing and books. I’m just someone with an appreciation of what it takes to get something created, to go from nothing to something. There is art in computer games. There is art in the graphics, and the created environments. There is art in the model characters and the way they move. There is art in giving the user that experience, that draws you in and begins to control your emotions. Like most things, some is better than others. I’m just trying to make sure the good ones get the credit they deserve.

In the next and final part, I shall discuss how the art of the computer game appears in some games that do not attempt to be a realistic mimic of the real world, but an inventive take on it. Primarily this will be focused on Grand Theft Auto (GTA), Batman Arkham City, and Red Dead Redemption.

Lexicon word of the day: insouciant.

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