On art and games [Part 1]

Feb 2nd, 2009

This is not another tedious discussion on whether games are ‘art‘ or not. Such debates rarely tell us anything new, and instead usually end up hinging on arguments on semantics, and nebulous concepts of worth. Instead I hope to briefly consider the way in which games leverage art, that is in terms of graphics, to both present themselves, and to shape the content delivered.

I am not an artist; nor have I had training in the experience of literary analysis and criticism. While I can tell a Monet from a Dalí, I could tell you little about the history of either, or how they influenced or were influenced by the art, social and political systems contemporary to them. I have however played many different computer games over the years, and have seen their development from blocky 16 colour pixels to HDR lighting, 32bit colour and countless thousands of polygons. This technical development has shaped, and been shaped by, the graphical requirements of games.

The Early Days…

Spacewar running on PDP-1
Spacewar running on PDP-1. Photo courtesy of Joi, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

When considering the earliest computer games, technical constraints were a major restriction on what could be accomplished. One of the earliest computer games, Spacewar!, for example was limited to very simple monochrome graphics, whereas the earlier Tennis for Two made use of an oscilloscope. In these cases graphics were mainly functional, although Spacewar! did make use of a background star-field to add a bit of flavour. However, in terms of effecting player emotion, or even just representing a mechanic of any real complexity, the displays were somewhat limited.

Where graphics wont do…

Controlling IF
An oft repeated problem with interactive fiction is that it is difficult to control, and that the parser often complains that it is unable to understand you, leading to ‘guess the verb’ situations. While this is true at first, and often remains so for the earlier games, the situation becomes less problematic as you become familiar with the genre. Not only will you pick up the truncated and specifically structure form of language required, but will also realise the shortcuts that may be used to cut down on typing.

At this point it would be a good opportunity to make a diversion into a discussion of interactive fiction. While Hunt the Wumpus, used text to present a fairly simple mechanic, move or shoot, it was in Adventure that Will Crowther, and the later additions of Don Woods, showed how text could be used to deliver a feeling of place that wasn’t possible with graphics, given the technical limitations of the time. By describing the cavern, Crowther and Woods managed to deliver details which would have been impossible to render in the crude graphics of the period. (The Crowther-Woods version was released in 1976, predating the NES, the ZX80 and even the Atari 2600) The parser, albeit crude, also allowed for a level of interaction which was difficult to reproduce through purely graphical implementations, and subsequent improvements mean that modern interactive fiction titles can still offer the player an impressive level of control over the world.

Orange River Chamber

You are in a splendid chamber thirty feet high. The walls are frozen rivers of
orange stone. An awkward canyon and a good passage exit from east and west
sides of the chamber.

A cheerful little bird is sitting here singing.

A screenshot showing the opening room in Melbourne House's The Hobbit, as running on the ZX Spectrum.

A screenshot showing the opening room in Melbourne House's The Hobbit, as running on the ZX Spectrum.

Following Adventure, companies such as Infocom and Magnetic Scrolls took the genre further, using text to deliver narrative as well as description, and managed to extend the medium beyond the traditional cave crawl. While some companies began stretching what could be done with narrative, others began to make use of the available technology for supplementing the text with graphics. Titles such as The Hobbit and The Very Big Cave Adventure, used rudimentary graphics to supplement the room descriptions. While in some cases these images were used for simple illustration, in others they were used to provide additional information to the player. While the limited graphics capability still meant that art direction was still a somewhat meaningless concept, changes in palette, and the occasional use of a restricted field of drawing helped provide a different atmosphere for distinct regions of the game.
Slowly, a subset of IF titles began to use graphics as a direct replacement to the text delivery system. As they did so, they also showed a similar move away from a parser based control system to more graphical systems. Some early Sierra titles provided almost all player feedback in the form of animated graphics, yet still relied on typed communication in return. Other developers, such as Lucas Arts, meanwhile began to narrow down the larger verb list inherited from its interactive fiction forefathers. While early versions of Monkey Island for example had a list of twelve verbs, this was narrowed down to nine in later releases, both a reduction on the fifteen verbs in Lucas Arts first SCUMM adventure, Maniac Mansion. Later, graphic adventures tended to abandon the verb system altogether, first using pictorial representations, and then adopting context sensitive systems. Thus the graphic adventure moved away from the influences of its text based roots. Later systems tended to increase the screen real estate available for depicting the game-play, and removed what some developers felt was unnecessary redundancy in the verb system, that is, if a player clicks on a closed door, it should be blindingly obvious that they wish to open it.
While the graphic adventure market flourished, traditional IF slowly lost its commercial presence, although remains popular in a large community of enthusiasts. Graphics are still a rare addition in most modern interactive fiction, usually being confined to representing maps or jigsaw pieces. However, some games use graphics to flavour the interface, bringing the otherwise bland parser in to the game environment, as well as providing interface shortcuts. Other titles, such as Photopia, have taken a far more minimalist approach, using changes in the palette colours on chapter transitions in such a way as to tie in with thematic tones of a chapter.

That which follows…

So far I have introduced the beginning of the computer games industry, and looked at the way in which the most early of graphics were tightly constrained by technical limitations; it is very difficult to deliver emotion through an oscilloscope. In this situation, presentation was often confined by practical considerations, although the simulation of star-fields in Spacewar! shows that even some of the earliest gaming graphics weren’t solely practical.
Then I went on to consider how some games used text to create detailed and immersive environments, which were out of the reach of graphics of the time. Then, the slow addition of graphical elements to these games, eventually lead to the evolution of the graphic adventure, which itself had been shaped by the conventions of its text only predecessor.

I had hoped to take us further in this initial post, yet Sunday is almost over, and new years resolutions must be kept. Next post I hope to move on to the home-computing revolution, and consider how the 8-bit and 16-bit eras began to offer developers the freedom to use graphics in increasingly creative manners to shape the feel of their games.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

One Response to “On art and games [Part 1]”

  1. Thanks for that! It’s a nice summary of the evolution of adventure games.

Leave a Reply