Gaming as seen by an art critic

Mention the words ‘game development’ to anyone who doesn’t love or make games and watch their eyes glaze over, obscured by visions of complicated bleeps and bloops.

This is the reaction I (almost) always find when speaking to those oblivious to the joys of gaming. Yes, while my attempts to get friends to take the genius of Portal seriously still fall on deaf ears, more people might appreciate games if they understood at least some of the creative and artistic feats behind them.

In an effort to prove that game development can be just as critically entertaining as fine art, I asked Helen Crane, art journalist and self-confessed gaming sceptic, to cast her eyes over a selection of gaming artwork to see whether it changed her opinion of the creative process behind game making.

Here’s what she had to say:

Braid (US, 2008) Art by David Hellman

This reminds me of playing Mickey Mania on a SNES aged about ten, only with the occasional Turner painting in the background. This is particularly true of the title sequence at about 01:00 [see embedded video], which could probably pass for an A-level art submission of reasonable calibre. Something to do with the smudgy skyline and brownish, umber tones, I think. There’s also quite an impressionist feel in the sequence at around 00:20 – the sky really reminded me of the ones in Van Gogh’s cypress tree paintings. Oh, and the bunnies were cute.

Gears of War (US, 2006) Art by Epic Games

This is amazing! I refuse to believe that games can actually look like this. It’s pretty gothic, although that’s probably just the style of the old buildings coming across. The fact that they’re so realistic reminds me of some of Constable’s paintings, although obviously his churches didn’t often have people running around them with machine guns. The pavilion especially is really beautiful.

Okami (Japan, 2006) Art by Clover Studio

Obviously Okami owes a lot of its design to traditional Japanese watercolours and ink paintings, which I suppose is a nice change from the ‘Japanese art’ normally associated with video games, which is a) Pokémon or b) everything ripped off from Tekken. The animal characters are the sort of thing I would want to get as a tattoo, especially the on-fire white wolf type thing. Some of the backgrounds are art in their own right rather than just a video game concept, which appeals to me as a non-gamer. Although I think these backgrounds are so colourful and interesting that they might distract me from the game a little bit. Is that possible? Is that a thing that happens? God, I’d be a shit gamer.

Dear Esther (UK, 2012) Art by Robert Briscoe

This is really detailed and the colours are great – especially in the cave scenes – but something about it makes me think of those wolf-moon t-shirts worn by middle-aged men in rock cover bands and now hipsters. Maybe just ‘cos there’s a lot of moons, I’m not really sure. It also kind of reminds me of the Lake District, where I had probably the dampest, long-walking-est, most midge-bitten holiday of my childhood. Ha ha, I’m getting way too personal with this game. It’s probably great. I’ll be quiet now.

Helen’s comments were based solely on seeing art or video from the above games. Reading the thoughts and associations she’s made has offered new perspective on these titles for me – and hopefully for you too. Games might just be a conversation-starter the next time she visits an exhibition.

“I’m not much of a gamer myself, unless incessant rounds of Circle the Cat (I purposefully haven’t included a link and I implore you NOT to google it; it’s a life-ruiner) and Pac-Man during bouts of procrastination,” said Helen. “But it’s genuinely been pretty darn interesting to find out how much creative effort goes into making a video game, and how different they all are in terms of concept and style. Keep up the good work, techy friends.”

If you enjoyed this post, I encourage you to check out Helen’s blog where she talks candidly about art, photography and occasionally why Birmingham is “not shit”.

Images: David Hellman/Number None; Epic Games; Capcom; Robert Briscoe/Thechineseroom

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