On art and games [Part 2]

Feb 8th, 2009

Feeling slightly worse for wear this weekend, so hopefully part 2 will not be affected too much.

Early Home Computers

As the home computing revolution began in the 80’s, systems were getting into peoples homes through two different routes. While Atari, and later Nintendo and Sega were making the first games consoles, the likes of Sinclair and Commodore were producing some of the first home computers. (The IBM PC remained out of the price range of many home users. Atari was also involved in the home computer market, along with other competitors that I haven’t discussed here.)

While the graphics of these early 8-bit systems were poor compared to modern standards, they were flexible enough to give developers real control over their game’s appearance. While some systems, such as the Sinclair Spectrum had very limited colour pallets, other systems could use a larger selection of colours, although would often be restricted to a subset, such as the twenty-five colours per scan-line limitation of the NES.

Two Mario sprites

Notice how the four colour limitation of the NES sprites is dealt with. Mario's shirt is brown, rather than the later blue, and once powered up his moustache is red.

A restricted colour-palette and often large pixels, meant that cartoon style graphics were particularly common. This was reflected in games with child-friendly mascots such as Sonic and Mario. On the Spectrum, the colour restrictions were particularly strict, not only using a fixed 16 colour palette, but also drawing the screen in blocks of 8×8 pixels, each capable of containing only two colours. If two sprites of different colours overlapped each other, this would lead to a phenomenon known as attribute clash. While many games largely ignored this, others helped to work around it, either through the use of large bulky sprites, or by maintaining monochrome environments in areas where attribute crash would otherwise occur. The linked Wikipedia article goes into some more details on this restriction.

A screenshot from the C64 game, Creatures.

A screenshot from the C64 game, Creatures.

While the cartoon style of many early games also coincided with a suitability for children, other games were using the same visual style in a darker manner. While the C64 game Creatures had a cutesy visual style, which conflicted with violent torture scenes contained therein. The juxtaposition of cute graphics, with disturbing visuals was important in building the humour of the game. The sequel played off the effectiveness of this approach, and increased the role the torture scenes played in the game.

A Touch of Realism…

Other games took movements toward being more realistic. Jordan Mechner‘s Prince of Persia games used Rotoscoping to produce realistic character animations. On many systems the game used a subdued colour palette, making use of pastel shades, rather than bright primary colours. A similar feel was subsequently used in the games Flashback and Another World (Out of this World in the US), both of which relied on fluid and realistic movements. While Flashback used hand painted backgrounds in pastel shades, Another World made heavy use of browns, blues and greys, with subdued touches of other colours. The backgrounds were produced with vector images, which were reminiscent of the early 3D graphics and also replicated the same style seen in the character. This had the effect of creating scenes which felt simultaneously alien and realistic.

Prince of Persia also provides illustration of the way in which graphics may be used to break up empty space, and to offer feelings of progression. Early development versions of the game had large regions of empty space. Mechner broke these up, first through the addition of torches and wall textures, and later through filling otherwise large empty regions with blocks. The latter especially helps make the dungeon feel more confining. Mechner also realised that a change in graphical style helped break monotony, and gave the game a feeling of progression. The contrast between the upper levels of the palace, and the lower dungeons, also serves to better establish a sense of place and to better amplify the wealth of the latter environment. This technique, of using changes in graphics to add variety to a game is extraordinarily common, and many graphical themes have since become cliched, the terms ‘fire world’ and ‘ice world’ being shorthand for a lack of imagination. To work efficiently, this technique has to be accompanied by gameplay progression, otherwise it can feel like a cheap way of introducing variety.

Abstract Ideas

While some games were making strives toward realism, others were using more abstract approaches. Abstraction allows game developers to work with the limitations of the graphical system, rather than attempting to produce effects that it is incapable of. It is also a necessity of games which largely operate outside of real world concepts. The games Tetris and Klax for example, have no real bearing on the real world, save for their use of the concepts of colour and gravity. However other games used abstract presentation for more standard concepts.

Perhaps the king of the abstract is long term indie developer Jeff Minter. Minter has adopted a style reminiscent of psychedelia, which runs the gauntlet from the strange surrealist, and yet still representational graphics of Attack of the Mutant Camels through to the much more abstract Gridrunner. Many of Minter’s early games drew heavy gameplay inspiration from popular shooters of the time, with Gridrunner being inspired by Centipede. However Minter made use of surrealist and psychedelic imagery, as well a large numbers of ungulates (Cows conspicuous in their absence). As graphic technology increased, Minter made use of it to increase the number of visual effects, throwing more psychedelic imagery at the screen. This culminated in the recent Space Giraffe, in which the graphics act specifically to obscure the action on screen, forcing the player to use auditory clues. Other titles, such as Geometry Wars, use bright neon graphics, and sensory overload in a war which is reminiscent of Minter’s graphical style, while also using graphics which deliberately take on a retro feel, a technique which I will discuss in more detail in later parts.

And so ends part 2

Firstly I apologise about the lack of screenshots to illustrate some of my points. I’m trying to avoid nabbing them from sources which don’t specifically allow it, which is surprisingly difficult. I hope to be able to present animation frames from Prince of Persia especially, although you can seem images on Mechner’s website, which has been linked at several points. I’ll also look to providing a few examples of Minter’s work.

I tried to take a few jumps forward in time with this part, as a strictly cronological treatment is not what I intended. This allowed me to escape for the purely technical considerations that will otherwise shape the consideration of many early graphics.

In the next part I’ll mainly be using the 16-bit era as a jumping ground, but hope that the discussion will embrace contemporary two dimensional games.

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3 Responses to “On art and games [Part 2]”

  1. Please continue! I’d be interested to read what you have to say about the introduction of the advanced DOS graphics, and the transition from 2D to 3D in game technology and design.

  2. Thanks for your comments, its nice to know someone is enjoying the articles. I’ve been intending to write more in the series, but unfortunately at the moment other matters have been pressing on my time. Certainly, the shift to 3D graphics is something I’ve been intending to cover, as well as the way that developing 3D technology has actually impacted game design, as much as it has visual presentation.

  3. Indeed, there’s much to say about the history of game development. It would be nice to see a serious academic publication that attempts to record the history of game-making, and the aims and attempts of the past. It would shed light on current trends, and raise awareness to a drop in content quality, or (as in rare cases) the advancing breakthrough of a particular game.

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