THE ART OF
By Kurt Squire and Henry Jenkins
Let's try something bold. Let's start from the assumption that games
are an important form of contemporary art. What kind of art are they?
Most often, critics discuss games as a narrative art, as interactive
cinema or participatory storytelling. Perhaps, we should consider another
starting point, viewing games as a spatial art with its roots in architecture,
landscape painting, sculpture, gardening, or amusement park design.
Game worlds are totally constructed environments. Everything there
was put on the screen for some purpose -- shaping the game play or contributing
to the mood and atmosphere or encouraging performance, playfulness,
competition, or collaboration. If games tell stories, they do so by
organizing spatial features. If games stage combat, then players learn
to scan their environments for competitive advantages. Game designers
create immersive worlds with embedded rules and relationships among
objects that enable dynamic experiences.
THE DIGITAL GAME BOARD
Games drew inspiration from sports (contests over goals or field position)
and board games (contests won and loss according to movements around
the game board); they also tap literary and cinematic genres that climax
with spatial contests (the shootout in a western, the space battles
in science fiction). A hybrid form, games get their focus on space both
from sports and stories.
Stripped to their simplest elements, the earliest digital games consisted
of little more than contested spaces. Picture Pac-Man gobbling his way
through a simple maze and trying to avoid getting caught by ghosts.
As game technology improves, the potential for creating complex and
compelling spaces seems unlimited. Strategy games, such as Civilization
or Age of Empires, transform the entire globe into their game
board, casting players as the rulers of expanding nation-states, locked
in a struggle for global domination. Modern equivalents for the backyard,
fields and woodlands where previous generations played capture the flag,
first person shooters like Castle Wolfenstein, Doom, Quake,
Serious Sam, or Unreal Tournament, pit players in primal
struggles over more localized spaces, such as warehouses, rooms, or
corridors. The shift from the top-down maps of Civilization to
the through-the-gunsights perspective of the shooters suggests a much
more immediate, moment by moment, participation in the struggles for
spatial dominance. Single-player games feature linear levels that are
not meant to be explored, but rather "cleared" of hostile
creatures while multi-player levels feature multiple overlapping paths
with dangerous intersections. Exceptional players learn to "read"
tactical possibilities from the spaces themselves. Drawing on a concept
from psychologist James Gibson, game designers design spaces or objects
for their games which offer players certain "affordances,"
spaces or objects embedded with potentials for actions, such as hiding
and shooting at other players.
Although its plot resembles early maze games such as Berzerk,
Half Life, an action adventure game uses backstory, interactivity,
puzzles and atmosphere, to make a rich gamespace. The protagonist, Gordon
Freeman, finds himself trapped in the bottom of a nuclear research facility
surrounded by mutated space aliens and must fight his way to the surface.
His struggle unfolds in a complexly designed, interactive, three-dimensional
world of metallic surfaces, nuclear waste, expansive hallways, and cramped
ventilation ducts. Half Life takes the player through a variety
of atmospheres resulting in a rise and fall of dramatic tension.
Some gamers feel nostalgic for the simplicity, immediacy, and eloquence
of early design solutions. Every element was carefully selected to minimize
the demand for bytes and maximize player flexibility. Many independent
game designers, such as Blix's Eric Zimmerman, or Snood's
David Dobson, have embraced a "back to the basics" approach,
stressing play mechanics and simple spaces over the "bells and
whistles" of corporate games. In modern art, minimalists reduced
their options to the minimum number of colors, shapes, lines and textures;
they were more interested in the physical surface of the canvas rather
than in mimicking real world perspectives. Dobson and Zimmerman are
game minimalists, searching for the medium's simple core principles
and stripping away unnecessary features.
Snood and Blix use simple rules to offer players unlimited
play within limited gamespaces, whereas Civilization, Unreal
Tournament, or Morrowind use more elaborate spaces to stage
conflicts. Other games, inspired by Dungeons and Dragons, offer
exploratory spaces, where players complete quests, solve challenges,
or collect treasures. In exploration games, player mastery over a level,
by besting an enemy, completing a puzzle, or simply pushing through
the obstacle course, is rewarded by allowing access to the next spectacular
world. Reflecting this fascination with spatial exploration, the designers
scatter these worlds with "easter eggs" (hidden treasures
and secret areas not initially obvious to casual players).
Building on early exploratory games, Shigeru Miyamoto, who masterminded
the Mario Brothers and Zelda series for Nintendo, revitalized
the medium with his focus on innovative virtual environments. The bright
colors, friendly skies, and beckoning caverns of Super Mario Brothers
create a childlike realm that encourages play and exploration. Miyamoto
rewards the player with magic mushrooms, gold coins, hidden treasures,
and secret worlds that can only be unlocked by inventive play. In Game
Over, David Sheff explains how Miyamoto extensively charted his
game space: "When a game was nearly completed, he spread out its
blueprints across a room full of tables that had been pushed together.
The blueprint was the map of a game's pathways, corridors, rooms, secret
worlds, trapdoors and myriad surprises. Miyamoto lived with it for days,
travelling through the game in his mind."
Miyamoto's focus on spatial exploration helped to define those features
that aesthetically distinguished electronic games from previous forms
of play. He innovated a genre known as the "scroll game,"
where players move left to right through a space that unscrolled before
them. Exploiting 3d modeling tools, more recent games seek stronger
depth cues, allowing players to move through space in any direction
including from foreground to background.
Game designers draw a distinction between games with "hard rails",
which tightly structure the player's movements to unfold a predetermined
experience, or with "soft rails," which are multidirectional
and multi-linear. Rayman2, a spatial exploration game with relatively
hard-rails, masks its pre-structured trajectory through creative spatial
design. The game makes effective use of off-screen space to hint at
further adventures around the next corner. Its basic building blocks--
caverns, tunnels, bridges, rivers, paths, ledges -- provide narrative
rationales for various constraints on our movement.
Game designers use spatial elements to set the initial terms for the
player's experiences. Information essential to the story is embedded
in objects such as books, carved runes, or weapons. Artifacts, such
as jewels, may embody friendship or rivalries or may become magical
sources of the player's power. The game space is organized so that paths
through the world guide or constrain action, making sure we encounter
characters or situations critical to the narrative. Such characters
may propose quests or reveal clues, but the player decides whether or
not to accept those missions. Game designers refer to such devices as
embedded information, finding they allow for deeper and more flexible
game experiences. As Tim Shafer, the lead designer on LucasArts's Grim
Fandango, explains, the challenge of game design is to "lead
the player along" a predetermined pathway without "making
them feel that they are being controlled." Few, if any games, rival
Grim Fandango for artfully meeting this challenge.
Many critics have assumed that the gradual improvements in game graphics
will ultimately make game spaces indistinguishable from their real world
counterparts. Yet, those game designers who explore photorealistic imagery
often discover that achieving realism involves more than improving image
resolution and may not be what players desire.
Deus Ex takes place in about a dozen environments, most modeled
after real spaces. Yet, as producer and director Warren Spector notes,
"Believable settings raised expectations to unrealistic levels."
Spector wanted every element from the design of the space to the development
of the interface to contribute to a powerful sense of "being there."
Spector argues that well-designed game environments present players
with clear goals, so that the player is encouraged to identify problems
and devise plans; each space has multiple entry and exit points; and
there are always multiple paths around obstacles. According to Spector,
these games create "possibility spaces," spaces that provide
compelling problems within an overarching narrative, afford creative
opportunities for dealing with these problems, and then respond to players'
choices with meaningful consequences
Games, like Tony Hawk 2 or SSX, promise players a realistic
sense of what it would be like to participate in extreme sports. Often,
they start with the challenge of recreating actual locales and arenas,
as well as duplicating styles and moves associated with specific sports
stars. Sports game designers note that they are responding to player
expectations shaped as much from watching the sports on television as
in directly playing them, so they build into the games aspects of the
broadcast experience, such as voice-over commentary or instant replays.
Much as in actual snowboarding, game mastery demands mastery over the
run, learning the specific contours of the game space. Game designers
provide bumps, jumps and ramps for players to perform tricks. The result
is not realism but rather immersiveness. The realistic elements contribute
to our sense of being there, whereas various forms of exaggeration "perfect"
the real world experience, making it even more exciting.
THE LEGACY OF ROMANTICISM
Many game designers are recruited from art schools and many continue
to paint and to scan through art books searching for inspiration. As
a consequence, a close consideration of game space reveals a broad range
of aesthetic influences, including expressionism (which maps emotions
onto physical space) and romanticism (which endows landscapes with moral
qualities). As game designers dig deeper into these artistic traditions,
they may develop more emotionally evocative and meaningful spaces.
The British game designer Peter Molyneux, who has been widely credited
with helping to develop the "god game" genre, has often told
reporters that his inspiration came from a childhood watching anthills,
shoving the ground with his foot to force the ants to reroute or rebuild
their environment, and tormenting them with magnifying glasses. In his
games, players exert divine control over the environment, indirectly
controlling how the world's inhabitants behave. In Molyneux's Black
and White, player's choices have clearly defined consequences which
are made manifest on the physical environment, much as the Romantic
artists used landscapes to express allegorical or moral visions.
Romantic influences might also be felt in the elemental images of earth,
water, fire and air running through Sacrifice. The game centers
around the competition between gods and demons for human souls. Such
games celebrate heroic struggles to master inhospitable environments,
depicting nature as a destructive force that actively thwarts human
Brenda Laurel's Secret Forrest games, designed for girls, offered
a more nurturing relationship to the natural world promising possibilities
for contemplation rather than mastery. Laurel explained, girls wanted
a place to go where they could daydream: "they thought that the
garden/forest would be a place where they could find out things that
would be important to them."
Surrealism is another modern art movement that has influenced game design.
The surrealists created dream-like images which nevertheless followed
many conventions of representational art, often deploying familiar stories
(such as those in the Bible) as a basis for psychologically complex,
symbolically-laden environments. Game designers, similarly, exploit
the graphic possibilities of 3d modeling to create immersive environments
that are vivid and tangible and yet totally imaginary.
American McGee rose to prominence as a level designer, who made memorable
contributions to the Quake and Doom games. When Electronic
Arts offered him the chance to develop his own game, he turned towards
an unanticipated topic-- Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.
In the distinctly gothic Alice, his protagonist, now dwells in a mental
asylum, having been driven insane by her inability to discern whether
her Wonderland adventures are real or hallucinations. She is drawn back
to do battle with the Red Queen and her evil minions. We know these
spaces -- the rabbit's hole, the lake of tears, the Red Queen's garden,
and so forth -- from our childhood and yet they are disfigured and distorted
through Alice's demented perspective.
Giants is another game set in a surrealist landscape with fantastic
creatures; its icons seem to drip off of the screen like Salvador Dali's
melting clocks. Giants unfolds in a world largely devoid of manmade
structures, a landscape of earth, rocks, and sparse vegetation, rendered
in bright blues, yellows and greens.
As Steven Poole argues in Trigger Happy, few games have really
embraced a surrealist game aesthetic. While many games borrow visual
cues from expressionism, most games are relatively conservative when
it comes to modeling reality, bending rather than eschewing basic physical
laws. Giants suggests how surrealistic elements might enrich
Game designers increasingly focus on the overall "mood" or
emotional color of their projects. Hoping to produce games which can
provide a broader range of emotional experiences, they are drawing inspiration
from classic melodrama, where elements of mise-en-scene become emotional
correlatives for their protagonist's woes.
Yu Suzuki situates characters in more "everyday" environments.
His epic role playing game, Shenmue, is set in a small Japanese
village, circa 1986. The game's adolescent protagonist, Ryo, struggles
against the men who murdered his father. Grey skies and snowy streets
contribute to the game's sad, contemplative mood, expressing Ryo's experience
of mourning and loss.
Myst, the dream project of Rand and Robyn Miller, was another
game that received high praise for its atmospheric design. The artfulness
of Myst invites us to linger and contemplate, like visitors to
a museum. Myst's reputation as a "thinking person's game"
ultimately has less to do with its puzzles than with its amber color
scheme, its Rembrandt-like play with light and shadows, and its fascination
with the textures of the material world.
Many people who don't know much about games assume they are socially
isolating, that players always play against the computer. Solo play
is one mode among many. Computer games originated in arcades before
being marketed in the home; many preserve opportunities for spectacular
performances best appreciated amongst friends. Playing alone often becomes
a way of honing skills which are best enjoyed in shared competition.
New interfaces encourage players to dance, beat drums, shake maracas,
or manipulate turn tables; these games are called "embarrassment
sims" because they create amusing situations for parties. Multiplayer
games, such as Asheron's Call, are borrowing lessons from urban
planners to create opportunities for sociability, becoming the center
of vast "virtual communities" and other news games, such as
the Sims, are encouraging players to actively create content
and share it amongst the fan community, designing clothes, objects,
and buildings that constitute these virtual worlds. The Star Wars
multiplayer on-line game sought player advice from the very beginning
of the design process. Many next-generation games like Neverwinter
Nights and Morrowind are packaged with powerful, but easy
to use editing tools that are expected to be more successful than the
game content itself.
As players engage more directly in the design process, the line between
gamers and designers begins to dissolve. To fully participate, players
will need to learn more about the art of game design. Effective game
design can yield spaces that encourage our exploration, provide resources
for our struggles for dominance, evoke powerful emotions, and encourage
playfulness and sociability. This art owes much to previous traditions,
including those of painting, architecture, and urban design, but it
also takes advantages of the unique properties of emerging digital media.
Games have always been an art of contested spaces; computer and digital
games have pushed that art to a new level of aesthetic accomplishment.
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In early electronic games, players were confined to one space, no more
complex than a paper maze or a traditional gameboard. In Berzerk
the player is trapped in a room surrounded by red gun-toting aliens
who attack from every direction. Players learned which walls might serve
as shields and which paths were dangerous dead-ends. Berzerk's
world is hostile and claustrophobic, with little chance of long term
survival, since each path led to another room full of aliens. You played
until you died, hanging on for dear life against the computer and seeing
how high a score you could rack up.
Sid Meier's Civilization games depict history as a succession
of conflicts or contests over land and other resources. The interface
allows players to survey their conquered lands, assess their resources,
and suss out the defenses of neighboring territories. This screen, for
example, represents the Middle East; its strategic location between
the Europe and Asia make it a highly volatile region, much as it remains
a contested site in the real world. The top-down maps encourage a global
perspective, rather than a focus on individualized experience.
Such interfaces fit within a much longer history of representations
of global conquest. Compare Civilization II with this 16th century
Japanese folding screen which sought to represent the world, its peoples,
its cities, and its armies. The screens, created during a period of
growing interaction between Europe and Asia, include detailed representations
of 28 cities, 8 rulers, the peoples of 42 cultures or countries, and
a map showing the geographic relationship between these territories.
The Japanese artist sought to link Asia with Europe by representing
those cultures together on the right panel, while the peoples of Africa
and the Americas were clustered together on the left. A second set of
screens offer bird's-eye representations of various capital cities,
much as Civilization II allows players to drill down from the
larger map to get more detailed information about specific locations.
Much like Meier's games, these screens convert the lands and peoples
of the world into playing pieces in a global game of conquest and colonization.
Half Life creates a diverse array of contested spaces. Here, Freeman
needs to enter a door on the other side of this pit. He can only do
so by first throwing a grenade across this crevice in order to distract
the three-headed monster. Hoping for a more immersive experience, Half
Life adopts a first person perspective and offers a more adaptive
environment; characters react to the sounds he makes and his tools can
be repurposed to allow for more creative problem solving.
Blix purposefully evokes the stylization and economy of early
games, opting for a falter screen space, a more restrictive palette,
and retro look. As its designer, Eric Zimmerman, explains, "in
creating games, the designer is essentially designing a set of limitations
on people's behaviors. By designing those limitations, you are literally
doing the opposite, opening up possibilities." Players don't control
the ball itself; they can simply block or deflect it, rerouting it towards
the desired goal.
Inspired by early graphics games, such as Tetris, Snood
lets players fire brightly colored icons at the screen, hoping to match
up shapes, and clear the board. Successful players can move to more
complex puzzle levels. Snood provides little narrative framing,
encouraging players to find pleasure in process rather than story, yet
the colored shapes are given personalities, expressed through their
shifting facial expressions, which add a dash of whimsy.
Shigeru Miyamoto's Super Mario Brothers sought to recreate a
child's magical engagement with unknown spaces: "When I was a child,
I went hiking and found a lake. It was quite a surprise for me to stumble
upon it. When I traveled around the country without a map, trying to
find my way, stumbling on amazing things as I went, I realized how it
felt to go on an adventure like this. The spirit, the state of mind
of a kid when he enters a cave alone must be realized in the game. Going
in, he must feel the cold of air around him. He must discover a branch
off to one side and decide whether to explore it or not. Sometimes he
loses his way."
Rayman II is a more recent exploration game which masks its hard
rails through careful design. This ledge encourages visual exploration
upward but limits the player's physical movements. As in the early Miyamoto
games, the space remains a series of flat surfaces but the cartoonish
abstraction of the protagonist helps to justify the stylization of the
physical "track" along which he moves. Several additional
elements-- butterflies that flit ahead of the protagonist or a waterfall
he passes under -- hint at greater depth without significantly impacting
This image from Morrowind shows how spatial storytelling can
play out on a micro level in the design of specific environments. Players
choose among bridges and portals, and each decision has potential implications
for situations the character encounters, the skills the character develops,
the knowledge they acquire, and ultimately, the shape of their narrative
experiences. This misty, cavernous landscape and the focus on natural
materials (wood, hide or rock) reflect the genre's roots in J.R.R. Tolkien's
Lord of the Rings books.
Set in a fully realized, visually distinctive representation of the
land of the dead inspired by Mexican folk culture, art deco architecture,
and film noir camerawork, Grim Fandango stars Manny Calavera,
an employee of the Department of the Death, who is on a quest to uncover
corruption in the department. Here, Manny visits a street fair, decked
out in a double-breasted zoot suit, and talks to a clown. This scene
evokes a carnivalesque atmosphere through its flamboyant colors, flowing
lines of fabric, and folk art representations of callaveras (skulls).
Deus Ex modeled many of its locations after real world spaces,
such as Liberty Island in this early game level, complete with the New
York skyline in the distance. A terrorist group has blown the head off
of the Statue of Liberty, and is holding a government agent hostage
in the statue, a familiar scenario of contested space. As Warren Spector
notes, this focus on real spaces set high expectations for players that
the game designers struggled to meet.
In SSX, the arrows, blowing flags, swooshing sounds, and sweeping
camera movements convey snowboarding's speed and motion. Hidden spaces,
such as the space beyond this arc or beneath a jump, build and release
tension, shaping the rhythm of the action. Game engines frequently exaggerate
players' movements and impact on the environment, as the swath of plowed
snow in this image reveals.
Figures 13 & 14
In Black and White, Peter Molyneux wanted to introduce a stronger
focus on choice and consequence. We start the game with a pristine world.
The player controls a gigantic creature who affects the environment
-- rescuing children, ripping out trees, smashing houses, or building
buildings. Through controlling this creature, the player competes with
other gods for the devotion of the game's inhabitants. The villagers
form moral judgments on the creature's actions based on a combination
of deontology (the morality of the action in and of itself) and utility
(the effect of the action on the community as a whole). Good moral choices
transform the world into a flowering garden. Bad moral choices darken
and scar the world -- most specifically the creature who evolves into
a physical reflection of the morality of your choices. We can thus read
off the world whether our decisions are virtuous or evil. Such a metaphorical
mapping of morality onto the physical environment has its roots in romantic
art and literature. The romanticism of Black and White is underscored
by its simple villagers, who live off of the land in small hunts, and
are imbrued with a strong sense of innate moral code and communal good.
Inspired by the untamed American wilderness, American romantic painter
Thomas Cole's paintings depicted journeys through breathtakingly beautiful
and treacherous landscapes. In his "Voyage of Life" series,
Cole depicts four stages in human development (childhood, youth, adulthood,
old age) in terms of a travel narrative. This painting, depicting adulthood,
shows his traveler praying for divine protection as his craft rushes
past jagged rocks and gnarled trees towards the approaching rapids.
We get only an inviting glimpse of the calmer waters of his final days.
The stormy sky and the tempestuous landscape resemble the darker moments
in Black and White, while the painting depicts a series of challenges
or obstacles the protagonist must overcome if he is to enjoy the smooth
Sacrifice, known for its elemental images, establishes a stark
contrast between the cool blue-green water and the fiery red sky. Compared
to many of the action games, where the human protagonist dominates the
image and remains central at all times, players in Sacrifice
bounce among angles, having full control of perspective in leading her
wizard and armies of creatures in battle. The human figure, which represents
the protagonist, is off-centered, and dwarfed by his environment, suggesting
the limited power of mankind in this cosmic struggle.
Brenda Laurel's Secret Paths games offered a very different representation
of the natural environment. Laurel's company, Purple Moon, wanted to
attract girls who she felt were being left behind in the digital revolution.
If the boys games encouraged players to conceive of nature as an obstacle,
her games depict nature as a healing force. Each Secret Path leads into
another enchanted environment, where girls can search for insights into
their emotional and social problems.
American McGee's Alice builds on our familiarity with other retellings
of Alice in Wonderland. This nostalgia invites us to linger and
explore Alice's richly detailed environments, yet the game's frenetic
pace makes this impossible. The game's enclosed cavernous spaces, high
toppling walls, and disorienting mazes contribute to our sense of paranoia.
Giant's landscape seems otherworldly and the game depends upon
a whimsical blend of science fictional and mythic elements (lasers,
jet packs, bug-eyed aliens, and monstrous giants). Much as Dali employed
shading, depth cues and Renaissance perspective to construct his fantastical
environments, the game space conforms to the laws of Earthly physics
which gives tangibility to its offbeat storyline.
In this cityscape from Shenmue, the buildings and walls are made
of hard, cold surfaces like brick and cement, and painted in muted colors.
As Ryo walks along these lonely streets, we hear the distant sounds
of dogs barking and cats meowing, as well as the more immediate noise
of his footsteps on the slushy pavement. Ryo can duck into the telephone
booth in the distance to contact his allies. The kitten wandering the
street becomes a mechanism for initiating his love interest, and he
will meet an elderly man who trains Ryo in Karate in the park around
the corner. Despite rather linear gameplay, what one carries away from
Shenmue is its overwhelming melancholy and lyrical images.
If many of the other games drew on traditions of landscape painting,
this image from Myst, is essentially a still life (or at least
it is until players begin to manipulate the various objects). Note the
richly rendered and contrasting textures of wood, rusty metal, leather,
and fabric. The player is encouraged to luxuriate in the play of light
on those various surfaces, much as we would in a painting by Rembrandt.
We can stop dead and thumb through the leather-bound volumes that clutter
the various buildings. Almost every object can provide clues or serve
a function in resolving its puzzles.
This Asheron's Call interface was designed to encourage a high
degree of social interaction, with a strong focus on communication between
players, as expressed through the chat window, the radar which can help
locate other players, and the dove icon which communicates the player's
aggressive or peaceful moods. This pub is empty - a common occurrence
in online worlds. Designers have found that in online worlds, players
tend to gather in areas that fulfill particular functions, like shops
that sell equipment, fountains that heal life, or crossroads where they
can meet other players, rather than in environments that are "designed"
for socializing. This game world is approximately the size of Rhode
Island and would take nearly a day to run across. Asheron's Call
contains a wide variety of spaces, ranging from civilized areas, populated
cities, strategic outposts, frontier areas, and wilderness areas - each
which gain their meaning in part, through players responses to the environment.
The Sims focuses on familiar spaces which look and feel like
the homes where the players themselves live. We are thus encouraged
to use the simulator for social experimentation, modeling our own interpersonal
relationships with friends, lovers, or family members, and testing alternative
social strategies for coping with everyday conflicts and tensions. The
system is robust enough to enable players to construct many different
kinds of domestic arrangements, including the same sex relationship
depicted here. At the same time, players never fully control their characters,
suggesting possibilities for action or shaping their environment to
encourage certain choices, but our instructions are read against preprogrammed
values, needs, urges, goals and priorities which are the basic defining
traits of these characters.