The central commandment of art is to make new—whether that means creating something never seen before, or making familiar things visible again by introducing a new perspective.
It’s not a complex idea; most of us have experienced leaving home on vacation only to return and suddenly realize that the windows need washing and the door could use a new coat of paint. We experienced those windows and that door a thousand times before we left home, and that is why we never truly saw them.
Video games can operate on exactly the same principle. And while I’d argue that video games have every claim to be judged as art, they rarely receive that kind of attention. NPR, which has embraced various kinds of pop culture commentary both on air and on its website at NPR.org, still posts the tiny trickle of video game commentary they produce on their tech blog rather than their pop culture blog. The New Yorker will occasionally stoop to consider a game, but to find real, thoughtful critiques of our favorite games, we usually have to visit dedicated sites (like remeshed!).
This doesn’t help the case for video games as art. If they’re art, then why aren’t the gatekeepers paying attention? It would be easy to dismiss them as hidebound institutions that “just don’t get it.” But there’s another factor that plays just as important a role, and that’s the way that video games fail art by failing artists.
It’s a little embarrassing to admit that it took a little indie game about a group of animals to make me think about video game aesthetics, but that is exactly what happened. Aviary Attorney, which boasts the wonderfully surreal tagline is “Potentially the hottest bird lawerying game to come out of 1840s France,” was released in January by Sketchy Logic. It’s a story-driven game, and it delivers in spades.
The narrative is deeply compelling—I’ve rarely, if ever, cared as much about a video game character as I did JayJay Falcon as he desperately presents evidence to save his beloved frenemy Cocorico at an impromptu trial convened by revolutionaries.
But the story, delightful and well-told as it is (apart from some typos that made me wish they’d spent a few francs on a proofreader), wasn’t what inspired me about Aviary Attorney, and I suspect it’s not what inspired the makers either. What makes the game remarkable is its aesthetic.
The game uses nineteenth-century illustrations by J.J. Grandville, with basic animation, to tell the story of JayJay and his intrepid assistant Sparrowson, with accompaniment from the lively music of classical composer Camille Saint-Saens. The harmonious marriage of these two artists from the story’s period is a delight—I literally clapped my hands when introduced to Baron Rorgeuil, the dashing lion whose entrance is accompanied by the “marche royale du lion” from Saint-Saens’ charming Carnival of the Animals.
But the use of period illustrations and music was more than charming. It was revelatory. You see, it reminded me that video games “have” an aesthetic and showed me how often that important point is ignored by developers, and particularly by major studios. I started thinking over all the games I’ve played in my life and what styles they employ.
This is by no means going to be an exhaustive discussion on video game graphics—I’m not qualified to do that—but many existing taxonomies fail to separate “how does it work” (cel-shading, pre-rendered backgrounds, 2d vs. 3d, etc.) from “how does it look.” How things look is the question central to aesthetics, and it’s the place where video games are letting us—and themselves—down.
The first style is photorealistic. These are the games that make every effort to look as much like the world around us as possible, and newer games like Quantum Break, forthcoming in April 2016, can create truly breathtaking levels of realism that are almost indistinguishable from video. Photorealism is favored in particular for shooter games, where a visually comprehensible landscape is crucial to gameplay, but many horror games also use photorealistic graphics in order to heighten the tension in blood-spattered or supernatural diversions from the ordinary.
Most of these games don’t have a lot to contribute to a discussion on aesthetics—at least not the kind we’re discussing here—because that’s not the point of them, and that’s fair enough.
The retro, heavily pixelated graphic style is another one that gets a fair amount of play, especially now, when nostalgia for arcade and old-school cartridge games is in full swing. It’s also used in games like Stardew Valley that choose to eschew aesthetic choice in favor of economical production and a focus on mechanics.
It’s a distinct style, but because it embraces rigorous limitations on graphics, it doesn’t really allow for unusual or interesting aesthetic choices.
Some will identify another style as “cartoony,” but that broad category ignores the fact that cartoons can look like anything that can be drawn. In other words, cartoony can be Super Mario Galaxy or it can be the anime style that both Asian-produced MMOs and indie auteur works like Sepia Tears draw on.
It can even be the semi-realistic style of MMOs with older engines like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars.
There are plenty of other styles out there—from procedurally generated graphics that can create stunning, literally one-of-a-kind effects to charmingly rustic-looking handicraft and clean, minimalistic wireframe.
People are doing interesting things! But there are way, way too many games that all look the same.
That’s not just the fault of devs: it’s our fault too. Because modern human beings receive the vast majority of our sensory input visually, we tend to be conservative in what we want to look at. We’ll seek out games that look like other games that look like other games…and the devs are happy to give us exactly what we want, not least because it’s a lot cheaper to mimic existing styles than to find talented artists who will strike out and develop a unique aesthetic.
And until we look away—until we leave our video game “house” for a while and come back—we won’t even notice that every house on the block looks the same, and we won’t go looking for the studios that are making bold, interesting choices.
We have to learn to challenge ourselves, or else we offer studios no incentive to challenge us. Look away, and then look around. What else is out there?