Friday, October 21, 2011

Assassin's Creed: A Journey in Art Appreciation

Assassin’s Creed is a franchise that began in 2007 and has had three game releases so far. If you asked me what was at the very heart of Assassin’s Creed, it would be art. Not just because it is so artfully crafted, but also because it’s oozing with appreciation of art done by real-world artists, primarily from the Renaissance.

The easiest place to start is Assassin’s Creed II, which takes place in Italy during the Renaissance. This in and of itself sets the stage for a game filled with art. The developers of the game created digital representations of Italian cities like Florence and Venice, taking special care in recreating these cities’ most famous and beautiful architectural works of art.

In the screenshot below, you can see the player standing on the rooftops of Florence, Italy, with the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in the distance. I learned about the Basilica in an art appreciation class—how cool is it that I get to explore it while playing a video game?

© 2009 Ubisoft Entertainment

As another example, the next game in the franchise, Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, takes place in Rome. In Brotherhood, you can explore famous structures such as the Coliseum (pictured) and the Pantheon.

© 2010 Ubisoft Entertainment

Some people may argue that Assassin’s Creed is not art, that it is simply a recreation of other people’s real art. I would argue that this game seamlessly integrates the Renaissance, and all the art that comes with it, into a fictional story, which results in a game being rich in art in so many ways that it would be silly to consider it as anything less. Not to mention that it instills a sense of art appreciation in its players, which cannot be said about practically any other game in existence. In this sense, Assassin's Creed is a franchise that is pivotal to the movement of games as art.

The Creation of a World: Bioshock

(NOTE: I'm working on getting photos up in this blog. Sorry they aren't here yet!)

Something that is absolutely essential in works of art is the creation of a world, a place to transport the viewer/reader/player to, and to completely engross them in that place. If you look at film juggernauts like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings or James Cameron’s Avatar, this is something that they excel at. They all provide a world that you can easily lose yourself in for the duration of the film.

Have video games reached this point of world creation? Six or seven years ago, I would have said no. But today, it’s a huge, resounding YES. Take 2K Games’ Bioshock for example. Bioshock takes place in a city called Rapture. Rapture is a dark, dreary, run-down and (mostly) abandoned city that was built under water. Through windows you can see underwater vistas, with bubbles rising up from the depths. Cracks hang in the ceiling, ocean water drips into the city, and the floor has been flooded. Lights flicker and you hear the creaking of metal all around you. You begin to wonder just how safe this city is. It’s all very claustrophobic and engrossing.

Now, the physical representation of a world is not the only thing that’s needed for someone to become fully engrossed. It has to be psychological as well. Rapture is a place where people can alter their genetics to become stronger, faster, and smarter. It may sound silly, but it’s actually quite chilling to explore a world where its inhabitants freely altered their genetics, losing their humanity in the process. Rapture’s society has destroyed itself through their genetic mutations—people have gone mad, become addicted to the genetic drugs, and killed each other. The inhabitants left in the city can hardly be considered humans.

As you explore the city, you come to understand the previous population’s political views and societal values, you become familiar with its celebrities and icons, what they did for recreation, and eventually how the society began to tear itself apart. Suddenly you realize what a work of art Rapture is—an incredible world that you’ve been fortunate enough to get a glimpse into.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Rage: The Interactive Painting

Before I can talk about the significance of id Software’s new game, Rage, I have to explain a little bit about how video game worlds are created. You can separate the visual aspect of a game’s world into two categories. There’s the 3D models, which make up the shape and physical boundaries of a game’s environment, then there’s the textures, which add color and patterns to the surface of those 3D models. Without a texture, a 3D model would simply have a flat, solid color on its surface.

Imagine you want to create a brick wall in a video game that’s 30 feet wide and 15 feet tall. The standard procedure for this would be to create a 3D model of a flat, 30x15 surface, and then create a brick texture that would tile seamlessly across the whole surface. This means you would have a relatively small section of bricks (maybe 5x5 feet in size) that noticeably repeats several times across the 30x15 surface.

This is all changed with Rage. In Rage, id Software created a technology that allowed every square inch of the environment to be hand painted (see Hot Hardware's article from earlier this year: "Rage: The Tech Behind Id Tech 5"). That 30x15 brick wall would no longer have a hum-drum, tiled texture. The game’s artists could uniquely paint every single brick. This allowed the artists to add imperfections and a level of character to their work that was previously only seen in paintings and drawings. This is why I call Rage the interactive painting. The amount of detail and character that the artists crammed into this game is astounding. At any given point, you could stop what you’re doing, snap a picture, and hang it up on your wall.

Rage © 2011 id Software LLC

Rage © 2011 id Software LLC

Rage © 2011 id Software LLC

With visual art that’s comparable to what artists can create with paint and canvas, who could say a game like Rage isn’t art? And the best part is this is only one aspect of the game! There are plenty more reasons why this game is art, but they'll have to wait for another blog post!

Games of Art. Welcome!

Welcome to the world of interactive art. Games as art is a fairly hot topic today in the gaming community. We’re at a point where games are transcending simple, interactive entertainment and becoming true works of art. With any emerging art forum, there will always be doubters at the start. This blog will prove, through specific examples and analyses, that games are indeed art. It will focus a lot on the visual aspect of games, but it’ll also touch on interactivity, soundtracks, story-telling, the film-like cutscenes that litter modern games, and various other aspects of what makes games art.

My name is Jason and I’m a dedicated gamer as well as a 3D artist. I’m currently working on my Arts & Technology degree at The University of Texas at Dallas. The topic of games as art is fairly personal to me due to how central 3D artwork is to modern games. I find that I can no longer just play games like I used to. I have to look around at all the game’s artwork, particularly appreciating all the hard work 3D artists have put into the game world. A slight warning here—the same thing may happen to you after reading this blog!

This blog should not only be enlightening to skeptics of games as art, but also open gamers’ eyes to the incredible art that surrounds them.