Posts Tagged ‘video games’

On art and games [Part 3]

Feb 22nd, 2009

With the third part of this series we move away from the more chronological approach, to considering styles, techniques and more overarching concepts.

Games on Tour

While computer and video games have a huge, global market, it is not a homogeneous one. Regions differ in terms of platform popularity and genre preference, as well as far more abstract concepts regarding perception, and the way games are played. The popularity of competitive gaming in South Korea for example is a familiar example, with the proportion of those playing on-line games being over three times that of Europe1 . However these regional differences don’t only influence game popularity and availability, but also in some games game content.

The need to localize games to different markets should be obvious. Language barriers are the most apparent consideration, as games require translation of text in the interface, instructions and within the game environment itself, such as signs. As voiced dialogue becomes more common, this can add the burden of employing regional voice actors, a costly endeavour. There also considerations of differences in standards, such as PAL and NTSC, as well as possible regional legal implications. Given all this, it is understandable that many localisations will also consider issues cultural issues, both with regard to marketing, and general comprehensibility.

One of the most influential effects of regionalised graphics is the consideration of local rules regarding censorship in rating. Some countries have particularly harsh restrictions on game content, with Germany being an oft quoted example, and one which has been previously discussed on this blog. Such rules will often result in the censorship of violence, replacing people with zombies or robots, and turning blood green. In the case of Team Fortress 2, the German edition replaces the gibs (body parts left behinds after a kill) with balloons and other party paraphernalia, a feature included in other versions in the form of ‘party mode.’ In Germany, computer and video games are classed as toys, and are thus forbidden from representing Nazi imagery, such as Swastikas. This has resulted in the modification of a large number of games, thanks to the frequency with which Nazis have been used to present an unambiguously evil, and yet real-world, enemy. In some games, such as the recent Lego Indiana Jones the need for regional differences have been avoided by removing the Nazi references from all versions of the game.

While violence bothers the Germans, sex causes trouble in the US. Unlike violence however, sex is still rare in mainstream titles, and is usually confined to low cut tops and ‘jiggle physics’2. However, Polish developer CD Projekt RED‘s game, The Witcher, featured a number of possible sex scenes, after which the player was ‘rewarded’ with cards showing scantily clad portraits of the women in question.3 However, in US edition, these cards were censored to be more ‘modest.’ Unlike changes in Germany, this change was not a legal requirement, but was likely an attempt to avoid gaining an adults-only (AO) rating, which would drastically restrict the commercial availability of the game.
As well as considerations of censorship and ratings, games also undergo changes due to marketing and other considerations. In many cases these are merely reflected in external factors, such as packaging design, which may reflect regional sensibilities. In other cases though, changes are more fundamental.

The game Megadrive Ristar, by Sonic Team, had several distinct changes between the Western and Japaneese releases. I’ll now discuss some of these changes, as well as identifying some of the other techniques used within the game.


Fig1a. Western (Top), Japanese (Bottom)

If you compare the western and Japanese screen-shots (Figure 1) you will notice a number of subtle differences. For example, compare the eyes of Ristar, the main yellow star like character. In the western screen-shot, Ristar’s expression looks more aggressive than the Japanese equivalent; the western version of the game uses sprites previously reserved for boss battles. A side a effect of this change is a reduction in the number of idle animations in the western versions, and a loss of some of the graphical subtlety. Similarly, a comparison of the flying bird-like enemy also shows that the western version uses more aggressive sprites. This difference is due to the greater marketability of cuteness in the Japanese markets, compared to the appeal of violence in western markets.


Fig 2. Western (Left) Japanese (Right)

Similar modifications have been made to other enemies (Figure 2), such although the changes are not universal and the majority of enemies have a consistent design between the two versions. Conversely however, some enemies have undergone more major changes.

Fig 3. Western (Top), Japanese (Bottom)

The enemy in figure 3 has undergone a distinctive redesign between the two versions. The original flying squirrel design having been replaced by a bat. Bats have less association with ‘cuteness’4 and are more strongly associated with horror. In other cases (Figure 4) the redesign is motivated by other reasons.
Fig 4. Japanese (left), Western (right)

Fig 4. Japanese (left), Western (right)

In this case the Japanese and western boss both function with the same mechanics, but have a distinct appearance. The Japanese boss is in the form of a cat, named Itamor, and acts as a visual pun based on the Japanese term for someone adverse to hot food, nekojita, or cat-tounge. As this visual pun will not work in other languages, in other versions the boss was changed to be an ice monster instead.

The Rest of Ristar

Fig 5. Example Enemy

Fig 5. Example Enemy

It is worth considering the rest of the graphical design in Ristar, a game which had enormous attention to detail. Backgrounds had several levels of parallax scrolling, and environments were richly animated. The game also paid close attention to developing a consistent graphical style. As seen in figure 5, as well as earlier figures, enemies had a simple, rounded style. Furthermore, each enemy was usually restricted to one or two tones, with each colour occupying a large region. With bosses (Figure 6), these colours were used to define progress, as they changes as the enemy was progressively hit. Through this the game achieves a cohesive feeling, and uses graphical feedback to inform the player of their progress. In other games, similar graphical feedback is provided in boss battles, such as through progressively applying damage to the boss sprite or model.

Snake-No hitsSnake - One HitFigure 6. The Boss changes colour as it is hit

Figure 6. The Boss changes colour as it is hit

The backgrounds of Ristar were not solely background illustration. In some parts of the game they provided points of interaction, allowing the player to tear back areas of background to reveal items or enemies. In other sections the player could actually pass into regions of the level which previously appeared to be part of the background.
Fig 7.

Fig 7.

In the screen-shot above (figure 7) you can see a character in the background, just to the right of Ristar. This enemy would regularly throw pieces of fruit into the foreground, which would injure Ristar if they struck him. enemies in the background are inaccessible, and will dominate over a large section of the level, giving a sense of foreboding, over the remainder of the level. This was further exaggerated by dropping the light levels, and forcing the player to hit lamps to increase the available light (Figure 8).
Figure 8

Figure 8

In later sections the background is also used to foreshadow coming enemies, be it on a television monitor, or as a distant overbearing threat.

The control of the background is a popular technique in many games, and has even made the shift into the three dimensional era. In Half-Life 2 and its episodes, Valve used the tall structure of the citadel to provide a point visible over large portions of the game. In the first game this provided an eventual target, and source of oppression, whereas in episode one, the citadel provided a constant reminder of the threat which the player needed to escape from. The background video-screens also performed a similar role, presenting Breen as an overarching figure of oppression, one which exists from the very opening moments of the game. This imagery borrows heavily from Orwell’s 1984, and thus is able to communicate a huge amount of information to any player familiar with the book.

And so…

Part 3 was largely concerned with looking at some of the ways in which game graphics and illustrations vary regionally. In particular, it focused on some of the changes made to the Megadrive Game Ristar. I then used Ristar as a jumping point to consider some of the techniques it employed to create consistency, broadcast information and create atmosphere. It is likely that many of these techniques will be revisited in later entries.

  1. This Gaming Life, Jim Rossingol, 2008, University of Michigan Press, ISBN-10: 0-472-11635-5 []
  2. Jiggle physics is a term used to describe the way in which breasts are made to ‘bounce’ in response to movement. While it could be used to increase realism, it is more commonly exploited for gratification of the straight male (or gay female) gamer. []
  3. Many kilobytes have been spent elsewhere discussing whether these cards are sexist and objectify women, and how this fits in with the larger scope of the game. I shall not be covering this discussion here as I have not yet finished the game itself, and the topic is somewhat irrelevant to this entry. []
  4. Although personally I think they are cute []

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.

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.

Lifetime achievement

Jan 17th, 2009

Anyone who has played a game on the Xbox 360, or has looked at a growing number of PC Games, will be familiar with the concept of achievements. Achievements are a way of meta-gaming, giving the player a reward outside of the game, for completing various in game tasks. These tasks can vary from simply completing the tutorial, through killing a certain number of enemies, to something as bizarre as carrying a garden gnome through the whole game so as it may be launched into orbit at the end.
Life doesn’t have achievements; there are no amusingly named awards which pop up at the lower edge of your vision whenever you complete a particularly important life event. Unless you were a member of the Scouts or similar, you won’t have a little collection of icons representing the various things you have accomplished. This, I think, is one of the reasons why computer games will eventually win out over life, and we will all sit in large virtual reality booths getting achievements to our hearts content. Or something.
But before this great revolution can occur, I present the proposed list of achievements which will be available in Life 2.0. Note that it will be impossible to get all achievements in one lifetime; this is to encourage replay ability, something currently unavailable outside certain religious groups.


Achieved _

Natal AttractionNatal Attraction

Have at least three people attend your birth.

one-small-stepOne Small Step

Take your first steps unaided.

vocal-minorityVocal Minor-ity

Gain a vocabulary of at least 50 words.

just-another-brickJust Another Brick

Spend at least 6000 hours at school.

What Did I Come In Here For Again?What Did I Come In Here For Again?

Walk into a room, forget what you went in there for and leave again.

facial-ingognitionFacial Incognition

Have a five minute conversation with someone without them realising that you don’t recognise them.

Jack BauerJack Bauer

Remain awake for 24 consecutive hours

Sisyphean CrockerySisyphean Crockery

Maintain a pile of dirty crockery for three weeks, despite regularly washing up.

Unattained _

we-dont-need-no-educationWe Don’t Need No Education

Leave the schooling system before obtaining any major qualifications.

Self Replicating SystemSelf Replicating System

Carry a pregnancy to term.

Mother HubbardMother Hubbard

Give birth to a new religion.

Will Of The PeopleWill Of The People

Be elected to rule a country with a minimum population of 10,000 people.

The Great DictatorThe Great Dictator

Seize control of a country without winning a democratic election.

Tie The KnotTie The Knot

Get married or enter into a civil partnership.


End a marriage or civil partnership.


Circumnavigate the word.

It's Alfred Nobel, HonestNobel Pursuits

Win a Nobel prize.

Novel IdeasNovel Ideas

Have a piece of fiction published.


Have a child conceived when you should be working to meet an urgent deadline.

Class ClownClass Clown

Prompt more than 20 people to laugh concurrently.

fashionDedicated Follower Of Fashion

Have a wardrobe worth more than 30% the combined annual salary of your household.

Phone HomePhone Home

Communicate with a person on Earth while on the surface of another moon or planet.

Race RelationsRace Relations

Live at least once under four different racial classifications.

Midlife RerollMidlife Re-Roll

Undergo gender re-assignment.

Lifetime AchievementLifetime Achievement Award

Live a complete life from start to finish.

Smash LandingSmash Landing

Land a commercial airliner, with no casualties, after total engine failure.

Phew, that took far longer than it should have done and I don’t even get an achievement.

Germany to crack down on violent video games

Dec 12th, 2006 / World / Europe – Germany to crack down on violent video games

Virtual hit men in Europe’s largest video games market could soon find themselves behind real bars if German regional politicians have their way.

Under new legislation drawn up in reaction to a shooting at a school last month, developers, retailers and players of videos featuring ‘cruel violence’; could face up to a year in jail.

Germany already has fairly strict censorship laws when it comes to computer games and other entertainment media. For example Nazi regalia has to be removed from games, even in cases where the Nazis are the enemies. Furthermore, many games replace enemies with robots or zombies to avoid otherwise harsh classifications.

However this particular move is an order of magnitude more severe, and is little more than an over-reaction. This degree of censorship should be unacceptable in a European country, and hopefully the bill will be seen as such and rejected. It is interesting to note that the ban doesn’t try and cover film, television or books, presumably because it is not possible to scapegoat such media.

It is interesting to note that Germany is not the first EU country to consider the banning of computer games, or a sub-section thereof. In 2002 the Greek government banned all electronic games in a move to attempt to crack down on illegal gambling. Complaints, and intervention from the EU resulted in the clarification of the law, and its eventual suspension.

Note: I should point out that all online sources appear to point back to this FT article. I’m trying to pull up the text of the bill, although given I don’t speak German I’m not sure how easy that will be.

Edited to add: Whoops. Had comments turned off. Not that it matters. Only get spam anyway.