Is the “art” of computer and console games underrated – Part 3?

Already I have considered some of my history as regards computer games and consoles, and then some analysis on the make up of a sports game. Sports games are just one section of the games market. Many titles revise each year as they have a dedicated audience who want some of the previous experience, but a bit improved, and with the latest squad detail. In having this approach, I believe it takes some of the credit away from the work done. It may be time consuming to get this far, but it doesn’t mean there is some genuine uniqueness there, some real craft, or art. For this third and final section, I shall focus on some other games which create their own world, only partially trying to mimic the real world, but adding some good interactive twists. They do not update yearly. They contain their own stories, and their own conclusions to them.

The daddy of current gaming, the absolute monster of a best seller and good example of highly detailed gaming is the Grand Theft Auto series, designed by Rockstar games. The first game, in two dimensions, with a top down view, appeared on the original Playstation back in 1997. It was an open game which means that although there are missions which advance the game, there is less restriction in what order they are carried out, and if you don’t want those, then the game world is open to explore. You can cause whatever mayhem you want, but more on that in a moment. The sequel which arrived in 1999 added more of a story but the real gaining breakthrough came in 2001 with the release of GTA 3 on PS2 and Xbox. GTA 3 was the first of the series in three dimensions. The game was set in a fictional city loosely based on New York called Liberty city. The game, it’s missions, story, and open ended madness were all in this city, there for the user to explore. Most of the buildings couldn’t be entered but a 3d city had been constructed with all the basic details you might expect. This was followed up by a sequel Vice City, set in a fictionalised 1980’s Miami complete with white Ferrari copies. A further step up occurred with the second sequel San Andreas, a genuine modern classic of gaming. San Andreas had a miniaturised “golden triangle”. A take on Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Las Vegas, with freeways and countryside somewhere in between. The game was full on madness, featuring the basic story of CJ who had returned to the hood, to his mothers funeral, and ended up climbing the gang ranks. You could customise his look, go on dates, eat fast food, and still carry on the usual madness.

Grand Theft Auto 4 was a further step up again appearing on PS3 and Xbox 360. This was located back in a new version of Liberty city, but with more detail such as getting drunk, even TV channels (more on that in a minute), but much better better story, graphics and sound. This was followed up with two more releases of new stories and characters, albeit set in the same city. In November GTA V was announced, not with a release date at the time of writing. It looks to have next level graphics and presentation. Check out the trailer below:

The main strength of the GTA III / IV series was that it was set in the 3d world with the open ended context. Your “hero” was essentially a bit of a villain. His main tasks involved car jacking, violence, killing and so on. It sounds terrible and the sort of thing you might want to avoid, until you play it. Then you see the game is a whole lot more. It is the cinema action film in a form that you can participate in. Car chases, shootouts, beat downs, deadly situations, dire situations to get out of, inventive puzzles to solve, bank robberies, saving family, it’s all in there. Want to take over Miami, Scarface style? Go ahead. Want to conquer the hood? Want to fly over Vegas, parachuting out onto the strip? Go ahead. Want to ride the country on a look alike Harley whilst listening to “Freebird” (however corny that might be)? Go ahead. GTA realises how fun those sort of moments are and tries to recreate them for us. You just want to get in trouble being chased by the police to see how long you can survive? Go ahead, that is in there too. Brilliant fun.

GTA also licensed a lot of music, cleverly put into the vehicles in the form of radio stations. Radio stations of different music styles, with DJ’s and funny spoof adverts. This soundtracks the mayhem often to  humorous effect. Even now when I hear Kim Wilde’s “The kids in America”, I have this odd memory of shooting someone from a car, then reversing over them to see if and make sure, they are dead, before driving off trying to lose the police in a car chase. Odd, but funny. There are other memories, like in GTA IV, going to a comedy club to see some sketches by Ricky Gervais – in the game. I’ve watched some well written spoof TV, also in the game. I’ve seen buildings and monuments that mimic the real life ones (Hoover Dam, or the big pointy building from San Francisco anyone?) – also in the game. The sheer number of ideas, clever writing, situations, mayhem is astounding. And that is with barely a mention of all the known names that have done voice work, from Iggy Pop as a DJ, to Samuel L Jackson as a cop. It really is the cinema in interactive mode.

With all the violence and crime, there has been some negative feedback, which if you looked at it as real, and from a moral perspective, then it is bad. Of course the action in these games is  like a cartoon world, there is a lot of black humour there. The graphics are made to look close to real but with enough to be cartoon like. It isn’t actually real. Would you stop children from watching the Road Runner cartoons because of the violence? Probably not. Do you complain about movie violence? The thing is GTA is not a game for children, it is a game for adults. It is one of those games that might not appeal to some people until you give it a go. It is surprising how quickly stealing a car and trying to escape, crashing and causing mayhem quickly become fun. It is black humour sure, but it is not real. Pure escapism just the same as watching an action film where the bad guys are swiftly dispatched is.

So take into account everything I have said above. The game is the cinema experience, but in the control of your hand. There are amazing landscapes, building, country, vehicles, sound, comedy, story. This all in a form where you can still get your own unique situations. It is a brilliant concept, and brilliant in application. It looks to be getting better for GTA V. Now can you name any of the lead designers? Can you name the lead story writers or directors? I would guess without research that you cannot. Yet these people have created a world that never existed before they created it. And you can live in it, get caught up in it emotionally, have fun, and go back to it again, and again. It is an extremely clever piece of interactive art. GTA IV took four years to develop. It is one of the best games or gaming series ever. This is Computer game art, and it does not get the credit it’s designers deserve.

You would think that Rockstar games would be done there, but no, they took the theme to it’s natural alternative, the western. Red Dead Redemption (actually a sequel to an earlier shoot em up game) brought the 3d environment to the outlaw American plains, with great graphics and a good story. They captured the quick drawing Clint Eastwood style shooter, in a good interactive method, and placed him out into the world of the family in the dawn of the new age. Well for Northern America anyway. Well actually it was set in 1911, pretty much the end of the old west, but enough to include some good old gun slinging action. You pick up the tale of John Marston, a man out to hunt his former gang members and the story expands from there. Like GTA there is much killing and fun to be had, but this time without the car chases (horses just don’t cut it on that front). Unlike GTA, this one has a more natural conclusion fitting what John has been through. It also spawned a Zombie sequel set on the same map but with a whole new Zombie storyline. Red Dead Redemption captured that cinematic western experience well. Plenty of shootouts, saving people from hangings, hunting people down, and the like. The story drew you in, and made you want to help John (and his friends) out. The graphics were superb recreating that western look, the soundtrack custom scored for the game, also captured the mood well. All in a fabulous interactive cinema experience and again,  name one of the designers, artists, music writers, story writers, etc without going to look it up. Red Dead Redemption is a modern classic, another fabulous interactive piece of art, and underrated on that front.

Another recent game of high quality and based on a much loved comic book character is “Batman Arkham city” a follow up to the earlier successful “Batman Arkham Asylum”. This time designed by the similarly named Rocksteady games. This recreates the dark gotham city somewhere in between the modern animated series and the recent Christopher Nolan Batman films. This is the violent batman, a skilled warrior with high tech gadgets, but is not invincible. He needs to attack from the shadows. He can be shot and killed. This gives a context where some of Batman’s battles are puzzle like, you have to figure out how to use his weapons and the environment to win. To balance that there is bone crunching battles, or punch and kick ups. There is a fairly simplistic system that most people can use, or you can use more difficult ways, but more varied attacks. The look of the game has the dark gotham palette, but also the crazy colours of the joker. In fact on that front, a large selection of Batman villains turn up in the story, such as the aforementioned Joker, The Penguin, Hugo Strange, Bane, Dr Freeze, so fans have all that to look forward to. The game is less open ended than the GTA but does allow some freedom to hunt down “Riddler” clues, and beat up random crooks. But the story really draws you in. The control system is not overly complex which also helps. The sound is well done, there is good voice acting, for example Kevin Conroy voicing Batman and Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame voicing the Joker. There are brilliant graphics in the city, wonderful animations in the characters, and character brawls. It is a game that leaves you thinking about it for some time, after you switch it off. In short, a cleverly crafted piece of computer game art.

In writing this essay, I have consciously not researched game designers, graphic artists and so on, who have worked on the game. I could have done but I wanted to illustrate how anonymous the names are to the general public and mainstream media. I would consider that these days, a lot of people work on a game. But then a lot of people work on a film too, and you know who the main people are for that. Why should this be the case?

I mentioned in part one some of my history with the earlier computers and consoles. Back in the Amiga age I could name several key programmers, for example Archer Maclean did “Jimmy White’s Snooker” (he also did IK+), Geoff Crammond did “Stunt Car Racer” (and several Grand Prix games) and Sid Meier did “Civilisation”. These days, off the top of my head, no-one. I can name several games companies, so there is credit to this extent, but I believe this is part of the marketing. If you know Rockstar did GTA and Red Dead, you might take a look at LA Noire. If you know EA do Fifa, and NHL, you might take a look at Tiger Woods Golf. I know the companies, but not any key directors or designers. Perhaps there is just too much team effort. If there is, it is not clear.

In part two I discussed how sports games are supposed to be almost real representations of the sport they are based on. I talked about the amount of detail that goes into them, and the maths involved in recreating realistic looking physics. I talked about the presentation and attention to seemingly superficial details like the commentary. I hoped I demonstrated how sports games are a piece of art on their own.

In part three, above, I discussed several alternative games. There is a huge market out there with recent classics like “Uncharted 3”, the super huge role playing game “Skyrim”, and the hugely successful (and also annual) “Call of Duty, Modern Warfare” series, but I focused on the GTA series, Red Dead Redemption, and Batman Arkham City. Hopefully I was able to give an indication of the scope of these games, what they include, and how they have brought some of the cinema experience to interactive life. They have in effect, created pieces of art.

However the main points are this: What do we consider to be a piece of art, and why do we not know enough about the people who create them? I would argue for the first point, that if we consider a good book, or a good music album, or a nicely painted picture, to be a piece of art, why should the same not apply to a cleverly crafted or inventive computer game? Well the simple answer is that it should. The reason we do not know enough about these people is related to the former. Games do not get as much credit for being a piece of art, and are not covered in as much detail in mainstream media. We know of the team behind the game, but not individuals.

As to why this comes about, there is something to be said for the secrecy of the games companies. They keep things under wraps until they need to give out details. Presumably game designers, programmers, graphic artists and so on are tied to contracts with the gaming companies, and not freelance, able to work on whatever projects they choose, or are chosen for. But that is no reason we cannot know that, Mr X was infact responsible for much of the look of the beautiful desert landscapes in Red Dead Redemption, or that Mr Y designed the humorous radio stations in GTA and wrote most of the gags. Perhaps one way around this would be to have some game oscars. Actually a quick google search reveals that there sort of is, they are called “Annual Interactive Achievement Awards”. However these give awards to categories like “Game of the year”, “Action game of the year”, not individuals, for say “Best Landscape graphics in a game” or “Best original story”. I’m happy that games companies get some recognition, if not enough (in mainstream media), but not that individuals don’t.

As I mentioned earlier, 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. I say this because I believe there is art in computer games and that the art of the computer games, is hugely underrated. I am quite frankly, often amazed by the level of details that appear in them. If I wrote a good story it might be acclaimed as such, and possibly considered a fine piece of art. If a game is good, it is just a good game. It is rarely outside of games sites, considered much more. I’m just trying to make sure the good ones get the credit they deserve.

Lexicon word of the day: flummery.


4 comments on “Is the “art” of computer and console games underrated – Part 3?

  1. Reblogged this on power of h Weblog and commented:
    I am not normally into games. The last one I played was something called ‘Caesar’. They’ve come a long way. If the dialogue is a little adolescent, the graphics are fabulous. You can imagine that they’re a step away from being motion pictures.

    • mrbrainsplat says:

      Hi david, this was stuck in my spam queue and I’ve only just retrieved it so apologies in the delay in approval. Thanks for the reblog. I must confess I’m not 100% happy with this post. It captured a lot of the spirit of what I was after but there are things I think I missed. Plus it could do with a little redrafting. Mind you the point of my blog (for me) is as much the practice and to highlight some areas for improvement – so it is working on that front. Glad you enjoyed.

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