17 March 2001

Light fantastic

The visual aesthetics of videogames

Videogames have been around for more than 30 years, working their sensual, dynamic play of light on millions of children and adults around the world. Somehow they have snuck under the radar of most writers on art and culture, exerting a massive influence by stealth. But if for many people such games have become the primary form of visual entertainment – last year, videogame sales grossed 60 per cent more than the total cinema box-office in Britain – one might begin to wonder what kind of aesthetic traditions they are infiltrating into the mainstream.

In the last five years, the main innovation of games played on computers and home consoles has been the transition to solid-looking three-dimensional worlds. In building these worlds and the characters that inhabit them, videogames rely on a method of “polygonal” representation. Every image is built from millions of simple geometric figures such as triangles and squares – in general, polygons. Although this might seem an obscure trick of silicon, it is in one way nothing more than a high-speed extension of methods that were in use by painters hundreds of years ago.

Engravings by artists such as Dürer and Schön showed how an understanding of corporeal proportion could be enhanced by reducing the body to simple polygonal building blocks. In the modern videogame, such a simplification is no longer required: increased polygon counts mean that harsh, squared-off edges are becoming a thing of the past. Mathematics melts away into seemingly fluid, curved forms.

By holding a mathematical model of its world in memory, the videogame can, moreover, offer the player a potentially infinite number of different views of the same object: the screen is continually redrawn according to where the player’s character is looking, exactly following the rules of scientific perspective first systematised by Filippo Brunelleschi in c.1420. Users may thus walk around a virtual building in a videogame and view it from every conceivable angle. They do not even have to use only the “eyes” of their in-game character, for many games offer a plethora of “cameras” that offer an even wider variety of viewpoints. No longer subject to the tyranny of the cinematographer’s gaze and the deliberate lacunae of montage, the videogame player is able to construct a line-of-sight choreography all her own.

Such a multiplicity of available viewpoints contributes to an undeniable voyeurism in the very mechanics of videogames, as the player is able to spy on the action in secret through many different disembodied pairs of “eyes”. In Tomb Raider, for example, we do not look through Lara Croft’s eyes; rather, we lurk behind her. If we wish, we may zoom in and peek over the heroine’s shoulder, but we are not in any sense “there” – a fact confirmed by a visual joke in the game that relies on a large mirror to fool the player into thinking that an enemy is shadowing Lara’s every move, when it is merely her reflection. But that reflection provides no hint of our own involvement.

What you can see, of course, matters just as much as how you see. And the liberated, democratised viewpoint of the spectator in videogames has had a huge effect on the people who design their virtual worlds. Because a film is always in control of what you see, set designers often only construct the facade of a building, which is propped up around the back by mere sticks of timber. Yet the freedom granted in videogames to wander at will and peek around the back of everything means that the set of a videogame needs to be more thoroughly “built” than that of a movie, even though it doesn’t exist. The videogame thus becomes an excellent way to experience imagined architectures in a fully dynamic way. So as well as animators and artists who would previously have found jobs in film, the videogame industry increasingly employs qualified architects who will never see their work realised in physical fact. And game technology has already been co-opted to create “virtual tours” of such cultural attractions as the cathedral of Notre Dame.

The aesthetics of the virtual spaces that videogames create, however, are still in a kind of infancy. A handful of basic templates – the slimy biomechanoid interior of a spaceship, after H R Giger’s designs for Alien; the grey and brown stone of dungeons, tombs and fortresses; the hi-tech warehouses of countless high-concept action movies – seem to provide the visual inspiration for the majority of games. Even so, certain well-designed examples can invite an artistic appreciation that is enhanced by the pleasure of successful exploration – by the fact that you have had to work hard to get there. The second game in the Tomb Raider series, for example, boasts several points where heroine Lara Croft, after wriggling through mazy, confined spaces, finally emerges in an enormous space – one features the rusted hull of an ocean liner towering above her in an undersea cave – that inspires a genuine moment of aesthetic wonder. Because videogames can toy, moment to moment, with our expectations, they are able to deploy vertiginous effects of scale that take the breath away.

Preeminent among this tradition of awe-inspiring monumentalism in videogames is Quake III Arena, whose guiding spirit is a sort of futuristic medievalism. Electronically operated doors of stainless steel open out at the foot of gigantic stone edifices. The vaulted ceilings of cathedral-like interior spaces are propped up by huge columns; yet everywhere there is a pervasive, and über-Romantic, sense of ruin: stone and rock crumble and decay, or are shown broken up to reveal flows of bubbling red lava or jets of gas.

Quake III also furnishes an excellent example of the way in which the primary weapon in videogames’ aesthetic arsenal is light itself. The computers on which the game runs are powerful enough to calculate very precise reflections and shadows for numerous kinds of light sources in the game’s world. Exploiting the in-built incandescence of a monitor or television screen, the modern videogame delights in orgies of light – from flickering torches casting moving shadows on underground walls, or neon-drenched urban streets straight out of Bladerunner, to the gleeful pyrotechnics of weapon firing and enemy destruction. Videogames accustom us to a hyperreal energy of illumination that makes up a large part of the sensual excitement they deliver. Spectacular displays of animated light and other special effects are known to the cognoscenti as “eye candy”, a phrase encapsulating the way in which videogames induce a kind of retinal rapture.

Oddly enough, such lightshows are often tinselled with an effect known as “lensing”, in which the sun or another bright light source will cast a trail of hexagonal shadow images across the screen, just as if we were looking through a camera lens. In this sense, it has become true that a replication of the mediated image (playing on our familiarity with cinema and TV) seems more “realistic” than the naked, unvarnished thing itself. It is thus hyperrealistic in the sense anticipated by Baudrillard. This is also true of the heavy influence of cinema aesthetics on such games as the as-yet-unreleased Metal Gear Solid 2. Just as the cinema “colourist” processes each frame of a film and sets a colour balance that enhances certain areas of the spectrum (a very obvious instance occurs in The Matrix, where the computer-simulated “real” world is deliberately colourised in a greenish hue), so the action-movie mise-en-scène of this game is colour-coded with pervasive tones of gunmetal greys, blues, and greens.

The idea of realism is a vexed concept in videogames, for how are we to decide what is realistic in the context of a wholly imagined world? Yet games such as Quake III Arena by necessity subscribe to a kind of representational realism in that their architecture is governed by coherent mathematical rules. It seems difficult for a videogame to take the kind of liberties that we find in, for instance, Piranesi’s Carceri d’Invenzione, a seminal series of etchings of fantastical dungeons that induce a gnawing unease precisely because of the ambiguities of perspective and space that they present to the viewer. In a context where the viewer is allowed to explore a dungeon from every angle, there can be no room for such ambiguity. Whereas non-dynamic representational art can leave things intriguingly fuzzy, a videogame is enslaved to the paradigm of perfect information.

A recent game such as American McGee’s Alice goes some way towards creating a more interestingly skewed kind of space, but it cannot go much further than undulating walkways, crumbling chessboard ceilings and asymmetrical doorframes without ceasing to work as an explorable arena. The game features beautifully animated character designs, and works as a kind of pulp sci-fi update of Tenniel’s original illustrations for Alice in Wonderland, if one in which the hyperrealistic use of grand explosions and lighting effects seems a little out of place.

Videogames must, it should be noted, always match their chosen representational technique to the demands made on the player. Alice fails to do this, in that as a “platform game” it requires the player to negotiate its spaces by means of accurate jumping, and yet it chooses a first-person perspective (we see through Alice’s eyes) that fails to give the player enough information about her character’s precise relationship with the space immediately around her. (This is at base owing to the problems of marginal distortion inherent in the practice of all scientific perspective, and it is why the field of vision in large perspectival canvases, and in videogames, is kept artificially narrow.)

It is only recently that such videogames as Alice, having mastered the creation of believably solid worlds, have begun to attempt interesting artistic stylisations of the underlying mathematical framework. One of the most effective recent examples has been Jet Set Radio, whose visual style is a hybrid of traditional computer modelling and Japanese comic-book (manga) styles. While the city areas around which the player skates, spraying graffiti the while, are built in a “realistic” polygonal style, the characters populating the city are drawn with heavy black outlines so as to seem hardly more than two-dimensional. It is as though the anarchic aesthetics of an animated comic have suddenly invaded the complacent reality of the Tokyo suburbs. A similar idea is given a more radical treatment in the extremely strange Pencil Whipped, in which roughly pencilled sketches of characters and surface textures have been scanned straight into a computer and used as the imagery that it manipulates in three dimensions. Pencil Whipped offers an expressively warped imaginative style that successfully sidesteps the ultra-clean, clinically “shiny” look of much graphical representation in videogames.

That flat, shiny perfection, however, has seemingly now become a style in itself with wider applications. Hints of the aesthetic influence of videogames have been around for a while. Many artists have already played with pixellated images in the style of rudimentary 1980s computer games, emphasizing the aesthetic nostalgia many already feel for that transient (because enforced by technological limitations) mode of representation. Meanwhile, the kinetic exaggeration of current Hollywood blockbusters has much in common with the rapturous luminance and low-gravity physics of the action videogame. At the end of last year, meanwhile, artist Jon Haddock created a widely publicised project called “Screenshots”, in which the isometric perspective (akin to Chinese parallelism) of videogames such as SimCity and The Sims was exploited for visual recreations of famous historical scenes, such as the lone student in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square, or the police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles.

In Screenshots, the hyperreal style of videogame representation isolates and preserves the iconic structure of the historical imagery with which we are familiar from news photographs and CCTV videos, while abstracting it from the messy impedimenta of the actual. Many contemporary videogames, however, are aiming at an ever more convincing representation of grimy reality – more textural detail, more convincing simulations of brick, earth, metal and vegetation. But what textures and materials they choose to simulate, how they play with light, and what the digital architects choose to build in their worlds – these will still be aesthetic choices. Sooner rather than later, one suspects, we will see the emergence of videogames’ own Eisenstein: an artist whose innovation brings critical respectability to a medium previously considered beneath serious consideration.