April 8, 2012

Video games' place in the realistic vs. stylized visual zeitgeist

The usefulness of the idea of "a visual culture" is that similar trends tend to affect so many seemingly separate areas. That is why, without having seen them beforehand, you could easily group together an ad, an album cover, a book cover, and a movie poster from 1954, and ditto for 1984, with little confusion between the two groups.

One area that tends to get left out of these surveys is video games, which doesn't sink the whole approach -- it's just one not very crucial area. Still, they're worth including since they do move with the overall zeitgeist, providing stronger support for claims that "the look of 1994 was such-and-such a way." And they have come to occupy an increasingly larger place in the visual media that people are exposed to.

Without going into the broad pattern, which would be another much longer post, I'll just state that in falling-crime times the visual culture becomes more photorealistic, whereas during rising-crime times it becomes more stylized. Rising-crime periods were the Romantic-Gothic of ca. 1780 to 1830, the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods of ca. 1900 to the early '30s, and the Psychedelic-New Wave periods of the '60s through the '80s. Falling-crime periods were in between: the Victorian era, the mid-century, and the past 20 years.

Why artists and their audiences respond those ways to the rising or falling trend in rates of violence is another matter, not really worth exploring here, again to save space. The basic reason I see is that in times when the future looks less stable and predictable, people value imagination more in all areas of life, not just visual culture. Since the old ways are apparently not working as planned, people hope that outside-the-box thinking will lead to new solutions. It's not experimentation for its own sake, a useless "skill," but more like creative improvements that began with trial-and-error.

Let's take a look then at the change in how realistic vs. stylized the typical video games have looked since they became popular in the late 1970s. I'm mostly going to link to galleries, a) to save space here, and b) to not have to make and upload my own image files.

In the beginning it was arcade games that had the greatest graphical capabilities, and hence the most choice for the creators. Popular games from this time are all stylized, e.g. Galaga, Ms. Pac-Man, and Robotron: 2084. Even the artwork on the stand-up cabinets that housed the games were highly stylized, showing that the makers and target audience wanted that look. If they had truly wanted a realistic look, the game itself might still look somewhat stylized because of technological limitations, but the artwork on the cabinet meant to draw players close would have been photorealistic.

I'll return to the "technological limitations" point in a sec, as it turns out there were some old arcade games that were capable of showing live-action video footage, but chose to show hand-drawn animation instead.

As for more recent popular games, they are almost always as realistic-looking as the technology will allow, and the artwork on the front of the box is that way too (often not even done in a separate style, but just lifted directly from how the game looks itself). That doesn't mean they do not ever show fantasy environments or creatures, only that these too are portrayed photorealistically. For example, Grand Theft Auto IV, Call of Duty: Black Ops, and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

When did the shift begin? As late as 1991 (just before the peak in the crime rate), a smash hit like Sonic the Hedgehog was still heavily stylized, even though the technology allowed for more realistic graphics. Just around then, though, the hit games started going for digitized copies of video-captured actors, such as Mortal Kombat. Some went for full-motion video altogether, like "cutting-edge" failures on the Sega CD, 3D0, and computer platforms.

But a more insightful approach is to look at video games made for a much older medium that allowed live-action video to be displayed, and see how the creators and audiences chose to make use of it. That way we can be sure we're not confusing aesthetic changes for technological changes. Only one medium like this was used back through the early days of arcades -- the laserdisc.

Here is Wikipedia's list of laserdisc video games if you want to look for yourself, but I checked them all. Most of the games from the first half of the '80s are entirely animated and stylized, at least to the degree you'd seen in a Disney cartoon from around that time. Don Bluth, the artist for the most popular such games, Dragon's Lair and Space Ace, was a former artist for Disney and had formed his own animation studio by then.

It would have been impossible for the animators to draw the images live while the player moved the character this way or that, took this or that action, etc. So these games were more like interactive movies, where you must perform a fixed action when prompted -- if you pull it off, the animation sequence proceeds, and if not, the relevant death scene is played. (These are the ubiquitous "quick-time events" of recent games.) You might also have a choice of where to go at certain fixed points in the narrative. By limiting the player's control, they could store all the animated sequences on the laserdisc, and jump to one or another depending on simple predictable actions the player took.

The few such early laserdisc games that weren't entirely animated only used live-action video to capture background environments (e.g., filming a sky with clouds to use as a background for a flying game). The objects involved in playing the game (e.g., the plane and any enemy planes) were still the stylized hand-drawn or computer-generated sprites that you'd see in other games from that time.

Later, during the first half of the '90s, American Laser Games released many laserdisc games, all of them showing live-action video footage, not traditional animation or even CGI. Like the earlier ones, they had to store all sequences on the disc, and jump to one or another based on simple actions the player took. Unlike the earlier ones, the player didn't just have to push a button in time -- using a light gun, they had to accurately shoot a spot on the game screen where an enemy was. If they hit him, the video sequence of that guy falling off the roof or whatever would play, and if not, some kind of failure video would play.

If you were still hanging out in arcades during the falling-off-a-cliff period of the mid-1990s, you might remember one of the Mad Dog McCree games, which featured point-of-view video footage of a vigilante who confronts a band of outlaws in the Wild West.

Since the laserdisc technology allowed for either the more photorealistic approach of live-action video or the more stylized approach of hand-drawn animation for children, we can be sure that the aesthetic changes from the earlier ones to the later ones are not confounded with technological changes. During rising-crime times, the stylized look was a no-brainer. As the crime rate began to peak and decline, the visual culture shifted into realistic mode, and it has only gone farther up through today.


  1. Interesting. I guess we would expect cartoons to be more popular in violent times and cultures while live action movies are more popular in falling crime times?

    Cultures with a strong tradition of stylized cartoon art, like Japan, would be the ones we would expect to be violent crime cultures, while the more violent pastoralist cultures shouldn't have much live action stuff.

  2. Another interesting facet would be that realistic visuals seem to be more popular among "bros" (dumb first person shooters) while stylized visuals are commonly found in games which have more of a iMac hipster tendency (what you'd call an "indie faggot" tendency).

    If you look up "indie games" you see all this stuff like Sword and Sorcery (game), Journey, Braid, Limbo, Minecraft.

    These all have quite stylized aesthetics, although I think you might still find them drab and soporific. Of course, stylized and realistic are completely different things to wild and tame. Visually stimulating works can be realistic or stylized and stylized works can be dull or compelling.

    Anyway, it's interesting that this preference does not recapitulate the distinction between violent and peaceful cultures as you've described it, with the wimpy indie types having a greater apparent preference for stylized stuff.

  3. 1990 precedes the crime peak. Did you say before it's a leading indicator?

    Ray Sawhill recently linked to an old post on the 80s movie that most reflected the zeitgeist: Tango & Cash. Never seen (remember it being advertised on tv all the time before I had cable).

    I think the Gamecube (which I never owned) tended to have a more stylized visual aesthetic. Viewtiful Joe, Killer 7 and Okami are examples. Playstation is from Sony, another Japanese company, but I guess they had more American-developed games. And even the Resident Evil games, from Japanese Capcom, popular on Playstation but with a more normal aesthetic. I forget which systems Katamari Damaci (another Japanese game) was on.

  4. That Mad Dog McCree game didn't get popular until 1993 or 1995, which is when I remember it. I never saw it at any of the arcades, roller rinks, Chuck E Cheese's, etc., before then.

    Also remember that changes over time don't mean that something switches between absent and present, but growing more or less common.

  5. "Cultures with a strong tradition of stylized cartoon art, like Japan, would be the ones we would expect to be violent crime cultures, while the more violent pastoralist cultures shouldn't have much live action stuff."

    Pastoralist cultures don't have cartoons or live action movies, since they're pre-industrial. You'd have to compare parts of the visual culture that each has, like jewelry, clothing, body art, portable interior decoration, etc.

    Pastoralists do make more stylized art than agriculturalists, and probably horticulturalists (H-Gs make very little art). Google image search "scythian tattoo" and "scythian gold" for some ancient examples.

    The Japanese are not the best group to pose against pastoralists, though. They only adopted agriculture 2 or 3 thousand years ago, before which they were probably like the Pacific Northwest Indians, living off of fish-rich water bodies. It's a bit like underwater pastoralism, but not exactly.

    The Japanese have more stylized art than the Chinese (for example their landscape painting traditions), also like the Pac NW Indians with their more stylized animal art.

    The Central American empires had somewhat stylized art, but they also adopted agriculture pretty late, plus were in decent contact with (and included among them) horticulturalists.

    At any rate, comparing different groups is not a good way to look at cause and effect -- relationships between variables over time is best.

    As for video games, anyone who spends much of their time playing them is not violent or tough, or part of a larger environment of violence. The indie geeks do come off as more prissy, but the frat bros these days are weak, insecure, and self-sheltering as well.

  6. At any rate, comparing different groups is not a good way to look at cause and effect -- relationships between variables over time is best.

    Fair enough. Not sure I see much of a cartoon boom in the 60s-80s though, relative to today. We've got more CGI movies, more mainstream animations than they generally had then, today.

    Stylized and realistic seem really different from bright and drab though. South Park is "stylized" but is drab and crude and dull looking as fuck.

    Maybe at best you can say realism isn't at the highest level of visual stimulation, but it isn't at the lowest either. It seems like if the periods are distinguished at all, it's more by use of color and stimulation within stylized vs realistic presentations, not in their relative ratio of the two.

    This might be simplistic, but I'd think people in a rising crime age would have a balance on love of ornamentation and style by having more of a focus on reality and realism.

    For example, in comic books (not a subject I know anything about - not into superhero or comic book stories much) there is a note in wikiw that "Bronze Age" comics from 1970s - 1985 (before the "modern age" of comic books) had "art styles (where) ... a new sophisticated realism became the norm ... Buyers would no longer be interested in the heavily stylized work of artists of the Silver Age or simpler cartooning of the Golden Age." And that this accompanied realistic plot elements.

    Also re ornamentation, do you think there is a way trends for tattoos and piercings among young people link into this at all?

  7. Stylized videogames implicitly admit that their presentation isn't reality.

    Realistic videogames, on the other hand, have a pretention to reality. The only people who would accept such as being reality are those who can't tell the difference.

  8. The art in recent games like Bastion, Guild Wars 2, and BioShock Infinite are all quite highly stylized.

    Also, you again include video games that weren't developed in the west in your comparison. Galaga and Pacman were created by in Japan, whose crime rates aren't nearly as high as the US. Japanese games are quite often highly stylized to match their manga/anime characters.


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