Video Games: Design/Play/Disrupt – Part One: Concept Art and Development


Once derided and overlooked, as an art form, digital design and development has evolved in a remarkably condensed period from it’s humbling beginnings to its current iteration. Arguably, subjectively the video game industry has reached somewhat of a zenith pertaining to graphical portrayal in its presentation with the cost in pursuit of a higher graphical image suffering from arguable diminishing returns. Dedicated PC gaming, and the ability to expand and push the curve further, does represent one alternate, perhaps fortelling path for the larger console industry to pursue as the cost involved in implementation on a mass scale begins to reduce to what some would consider an acceptable trade off. An alternate as discussed in broader media is the option to pursue the concept of streaming removing the hardware restriction on the end user but necessitating a durable, reliable infrastructure at the cost of alienating an otherwise local consumer of the product. What this exhibition has attempted to show case is one alternate path that instead focuses on the efforts to broaden the appeal, using existing architecture widely available at diminishing costs to capture an otherwise non targeted and arguably, disinterested audience whose participation historically was unrepresented or derided in the same way gaming suffered from. Certainly, objectively beyond the design element certain political and social messages on display and narrated were of a particular leaning which in a partisan culture, western society at large currently resides could subjectively be isolating to those not in agreement. But taken as an exhibition on how gaming as an art form and tool has grown to be an established and recognised as a legitimate art medium that has progressed beyond its original intention and transformed particular political discourse shows a growing maturity that was unforeseen in its inception.

The exhibition itself, a paid, timed event running until February next year at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London finds itself an apt and fitting location to be hosted. Certainly, there is perhaps a bold and deliberate decision to hold such an event given its subject matter directly across from the Science museum which might be considered to be more fitting given the architecture and technology utilised. Taken as an exhibit on the design element I found this personally to be a sensible and entirely successful endeavour focusing not on what drives the design but on the software, the designer not limited or constrained to processing power but the cliche of imagination and subjective creativity. On arriving at the exhibit, a considerable portion of the display is focused upon a select series of titles, whether this is subject to change I’m uncertain of as they are principally exclusive software from the Playstation console notably Bloodborne and Last of Us, with set areas dedicated to each title showcasing the development and design stage and the final presentation. However with contributions from Nintendo in the shape of Splatoon and the cross platform title No Man’s Sky there is some inclusion to the wider gaming community and certainly you don’t feel or experience a message of exclusivity or denigration towards other companies or hardware. It’s with good fortune I’ve had the opportunity to experience these titles on this generation of hardware, but these titles in themselves are not a niche or restricted release and as such serve as a clear direction or choice for the curators of the exhibit to focus upon.

On arrival you are treated to an experience and demonstration of the acclaimed Journey title, focusing entirely on traversing the sand dunes location and the visualisation and presentation of this often remote and hostile environment as presented through the medium of gaming software. Perhaps in itself serving as an indicative measure of how these titles should be experienced for the impact they have the short, video on display served its purpose and enforced the point of the exhibit. One where the attention isn’t upon the polygon count or processing power of the GPU, but the message that can be portrayed and the impact upon the user when the emotional maturity can be correctly utilised. Beyond the brief montage of travel a portion of the exhibit, one you see is repeated for each of the titles selected for its message, is dedicated to the development and message behind the creativity and design. Of what was most striking and memorable when reading the material and studying the items on display was the purpose and ethos behind how the developers pursued the digital realisation of sand, its application and how it shifts and reacts to stimuli. Travelling to different locations and environments, actively studying the source material and attempting, with the tools available to present in graphical terms, a digital environment whose aesthetic finish certainly isn’t considered innovative in its push for realisation but structurally where the mechanics of the sand particles are astonishing. And rightly so given the effort to capture and emulate their source. Akin to another artistic medium might be a methodology such as water colors for their soft emulation or pastel art perhaps more fittingly for focusing on vibrant colors and the emotional connectivity on the material to the user.

The supporting media for Journey, the sketch books detailing the methodology and design of the developers were interesting to see with the open pages shown highlighting some of the process in creating the environments on display. There is perhaps a false, narrative or belief the work that goes into the development of these titles is largely a faceless conglomerate of developers adding to the collective goal without any real, personal input on the matter. When you see these small notebooks, handwritten sketches and designs of a destination or, excuse the pun, journey you begin to understand the motivation behind the title. In short, quite quickly when playing a new release a gamer of any notable experience can quickly differentiate between a title bereft of creativity and passion and one where the driving force has been the sole motivating factor. Perhaps highlight no more so than in one of the last titles on display in the exhibit given its plagued development cycle and critical lambasting to the vision it had and the final shape it took upon release. I enjoyed, personally watching the cross section of videos as shown where the developers travelled to and experienced the different sand environments to capture and emulate the scenes perform them. It speaks of a desire and purpose to create a vivid, encapsulating environment without breaking the users connectivity based on a broken mechanic. Nothing can break the immersion quite as quickly as encountering a fundamental, environmental dissonance, the way a surface interacts with sand or water for example and just as quickly your participation is lost.

In contrast to the more simplistic environment of Journey the next titles selected for the exhibit were of greater interest purely for the acclaim and and credit they both received for their contribution to gaming as a genre and platform. The Last of Us receiving a generous display area with exhibits again focusing more upon the design choice and pursuit. Certainly there were sketches of character design included which as someone fond of this source material I can find a great pleasure and delight studying creation and progression from line drawing to fully realised digital model. Objectively these forms of sketches can be found for example in supporting art books so my main curiosity for The Last of Us was more around the digital design elements beyond basic character design, on display at the exhibit how for example Ellies AI mechanic was designed to approximate a character in her situation. That I found personally fascinating watching in addition the motion capture element and the different elements and dynamics that went into presenting a normalised human character in an extraordinary situation. Of particular interest from a creativity stand point was the timeline board presented, perhaps shattering the whimsical illusion the titles are plotted on the imagination of a team of writers, but instead however the key plot points were mapped out with some elements of choice through branching notes but ultimately a set narrative recognisable instantly to a user who has experienced the title.

Bloodborne, having experienced mainly through second person account in addition to brief demonstrations and videos I didn’t have an especial connection or desire to see however certainly of what was presented was an abundance of riches show casing once more the design element behind this title and in contrast to the more fantastical element and design of the Souls games a grounded use of existing architecture and elements to present a more recognisable and relatable world. Having experienced a brief flirtation and notion of pursuing architecture as a field of study I have a genuine curiosity when I see building design and construct in games, noticeably in environmental sketches and world building. I was treated in the exhibit with a focus on the cathedral design and use of gothic architectural practice in their presentation. Beyond the design there were elements of the soundtrack score with the chance to interact and listen to and watch the music performed orchestrally as well as a video presentation showing the fight against one of the games many beasts. Supporting this presentation a great deal or artistry and design material showing the creatures creation using familiar and recognisable organic motivational sources again creating that familiarity to common aspects in our environment we can connect to and ultimately fear. Because of my lack of experience with this title I gained appreciation, appropriately from the design of the game, the work in building this world but not necessarily of witnessing the game play in question.

Moving away from the impact of these titles upon the genre as a whole it is hard to argue from an objective standpoint on the impact Nintendo as both a company and more subjectively an ethos has had from a design and cultural standpoint. Fittingly, whilst it did support elements of the political messaging later on in the exhibit there can be little argument that the direction the company took with Splatoon and the challenge to the established genre was groundbreaking both in its simplicity and approach. There is of course the somewhat ironic nature that one its most lauded exclusive titles was Goldeneye that pushed, for its times, the curve of the first person shooter both in terms of realism and dynamic on the console platform. Emulating, even perhaps bettering that seen on what was its natural platform at the time and creating a vast cultural experience and memory for those of us who experienced that behemoth title in its prime.  Splatoon represents the cultural shift away from that approach and is very much an established pillar in Nintendo’s style and brand message. Challenging, as the exhibit stated in its intention, the cultural and systemic norms of what a shooter should represent. Instead of violence and death, inclusion and diversity, with bold and vibrant colors, a plethora of design choices and characters that whilst don’t hold the gravitas and stature of Mario and Link certainly, as with the company themselves present a genuine alternative and secondary pillar of choice to the end consumer looking for a product with a different sellable factor that looks to purchase a Nintendo console now not as a primary gaming platform but certainly as a secondary piece of hardware.

Beyond the design and sketches, again an intriguing insight into the development of this title this portion of the exhibit instead focused upon the cultural impact of the title on the wider market in general, specifically focusing on the marketable elements, the clothes and shoes available in the home market. Certainly, as noted during my recent trip to Nintendo World in New York there is a genuine market for this target audience who will willingly promote with pride and eagerness the message of these companies to a degree unseen and enviable to other competitors. To my recollection the presence of Splatoon was somewhat minimal when I visited their store in America, perhaps with the title yet to make the same impact on the Switch as it did on the WiiU however certainly, as exhibited on release the cultural impact was evident and felt as the game evolved and captured the imaginations of users in a way akin perhaps only to Jet Set Radio on the dreamcast and the impact it had. Arguably, perhaps not to the same impact and certainly in a more polished and family friendly way but equally when considering viral marketing and however the software germinates beyond the original title into the wider market its astonishing to see the impact and disruption a video game title can have on the wider market. Equally the deliberate decision to remove the lethality aspect of the shooting genre and instead pursue and release a title whose main focus on creativity using the same general tool was a bold, and certainly specific characteristic of a Nintendo title.

The last title in the exhibit before its focus changed onto the politics and social issues facing gaming as a platform was entirely upon the the world of No Man’s Sky, the somewhat lauded and equally derided title that had a vast scope and vision on its announcement and yet was met with scorn and derision for its execution. Drawing certain parallels to art itself which at different junctures in history has drawn similar ire as styles have launched and challenged the established methodology, what differentiates gaming as a medium is the ability to continually change and progress the initial presentation, no more profoundly than that of No Man’s Sky. Certainly from the concept art on display, and interestingly that I always find fascinating to see the model work of the creatures shown there was a high level of design that went into the software, remarkable given the resources and size of the team designing the game. The concept and execution of an entire universe of procedurally generated content, unique to the user based on a foundation of set algorithms but then allowing the game to create these fantastical worlds is a concept that challenges the some of the fundamental aspects of set piece world design and lore. In effect, unlike with standard open world titles the prospect of landing on an entirely alien and unseen world unique to your individual experience was groundbreaking and yet, in retrospect pushing beyond the curve of possibility and execution.

Certainly in the design aspect you can see elements of the vision of the game’s creators but it was the display of worlds created and broadcast that was truly astonishing, thousands of planets unique to their own specific user, all objectively, with a similar colour pastel finish that creates a certain level of familiarity but a leap of faith in the title no greater than say the style of a Bioware or Bethesda world where certain design choices are consistent and recognisable across a broad spectrum of titles. To accompany this presentation as a final piece which I spent some time studying was a supporting analysis of worlds both from No Man’s Sky and Eve highlighting the methodology of world design and creation, challenging the pre-conceptions of creating order from chaos and instead focusing on how the different worlds and environments are based on existing geographic lore then expanding that knowledge into new frontiers of imagination. Or put simply yes you can design a tree to be orange or water to fall upwards but in order to create a tangible and believable explanation for these events you need to consider why these scenarios might occur. When you ground design and creativity in reality you in effect arrive at believability. And that for me personally was the overwhelming lesson or experience I took from the design aspect of this exhibit. Next I would be experiencing the political impact gaming has had on civil discourse and cultural awareness.


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