March 18, 2012

Video games visually are more like landscape architecture, not movies

Ever since blocky and fudgey 3-D graphics hit video games, we've heard about how "cinematic" they began to look. In the rare places where I've read people talking about the visuals of video games as a medium, that's what they tend to compare them to -- especially movies, since they show moving pictures, but also painting or still photography.

But video games are interactive, and in particular the player has a fair degree of control over the camera. This makes it totally unlike movies, except for having a time arrow.

In movies, the visual team selects the set of images to show, in what order, at what tempo, etc. In a video game, the player takes over those roles. Even for a single still image within the larger flow of images, the visual team making a movie determines what the composition will be -- what's in frame, how the pieces relate to each other and the background, and so on. In a video game, that is all up to what the player decides to have the camera do at some point in the flow.

Naturally then the visual experience of video games will pale in comparison to watching a movie, as the movie experience is the result of more talented minds thinking over the outcome much harder, while the video game experience is the ad hoc choices of the average person. Cherry-picking the best-looking video game and the worst-looking movie does not disprove the overall point.

If they're not like movies, then the closest medium I can think of is landscape architecture. There too the visual designers have only minimal influence on what the experience will be like, mostly populating an empty space with the basic objects that the spectator will arrange into a stream as they please, and in relation to each other as they please. Will that tree be in their field of view or not? If so, will it be seen from a direction that includes that hill over there or not? This nearly total lack of control over the most fundamental aspects of composition must drive landscape architects crazy, and could explain why visual people go into fields where they have greater control.

This also explains why video games looked better in 2-D -- it gave the player less control, since an entire dimension of where to point the camera was not available. The designers knew that you'd be looking at the world head-on, so they could anticipate a good deal about what their compositions would look like. You could still scroll left-right or up-down, splitting up a field of objects that they intended to be seen together, or picking up two clusters at once that they intended to be seen in separate viewings. Still there was more influence from the people who had a better eye and who were working more tirelessly to put out a pleasing product.

Earlier I pointed out that video games will probably not endure as a narrative medium because they are too interruptible, like radio programs or comic books. This harms them as a visual medium too, since the flow of images is too interruptible, unlike the pre-ordained flow of images in a movie. Giving the audience member too much choice, as video games do, is another aspect of making them more interruptible: they have to decide what order the events of the narrative will unfold in, and they have to decide what the composition of a visual "shot" will be.

A choice here or there might not be so bad, but having to shoulder most of these responsibilities keeps the spectator from drifting into a dream-state where they can just absorb the video game. Just as they're about to get lost in the experience, the player keeps getting snapped awake by having to make yet another decision.


  1. Regarding possible viewing angles, another comparison would be to theatre, particularly theatre in the round*, rather than movies, where the audience can be sitting in a wide variety of viewing angles, rather than the fixed viewpoint of a film. It is still somewhat controlled, but less so. You could say a similar thing about concerts, when contrasted to music videos (although those don't really have a movie theatre ).

    Japanese designers liked fixed camera in their 3d games for the reasons you have stated - control of the experience (visual and otherwise). Although there were problems with that approach.

    *Wiki on this -

    "This configuration lends itself to high-energy productions, and anything that requires audience participation. It is favoured by producers of classical theatre. Theatre-in-the-round was common in ancient theatre, particularly that of Greece and Rome but was not widely explored again until the latter half of the 20th century; it has continued as a creative alternative to the more common Proscenium format."

    "The politics of theatre-in-the-round were explored most deliberately by RG Gregory. In his view the lit space of Proscenium Arch is analogous to the seat of power; The audience adopt of the role of passive receivers. In traditional theatre design, maximum care is taken with sight lines in order to ensure that the actor can engage every member of the audience at the same time.

    However, once removed from the picture frame of the arch, the actors are compelled to turn their back on some members of the audience and so necessarily lose exclusive command of the acting space. All members of the audience can see the actor, but the actor can no longer see all of them. At this point, in order for the play to function, the audience themselves must be allowed to become key conductors of the meaning of the performance."

  2. It might be interestin look at the crime rate in Japan over the past few decades, since a good number of videogames are developed over there. I'm too lazy to do that, but you're free to do it and share your results with us :P

  3. Agnostic, I would like to send you transcripts I've written up of Strauss and Howe's book. Is there an address I can send it too, or should I just post in in this thread?

  4. Here's one thing I found on Neil Howe's blog:

    "In no sphere of social life did the brassy me-firstism of America’s Third Turning (Unraveling) manifest itself so conspicuously as in professional sports. The Nike swoosh, the vast signing and performance bonuses, the limousine loge seats, the intimidating tattoos, the brute physicality and in-your-face attitude, even the very term “free agent”— all of these became iconic symbols, in a celebrity carnival kind of way, of a fundamental mood shift that began in the mid-1980s. Even the Olympics, which had never before made anybody rich, began generating huge profits. (Thanks, Peter Ueberroth, for letting McDonald’s start a nifty new game the LA games in 1984: “When the U.S. wins, you win!”)

    Now, some twenty-odd years later, it seems that another attitude shift is under way, once again with some of the most interesting signals coming from professional sports. The tide is beginning to turn on the fighting, the profanity, the performance drugs, the super-lux seats, and the renting of stadium names. And, as this story shows, pro teams everywhere (though this story in mainly about the DC area) are starting to focus a lot more on how they can give back to the community."

  5. I'll put up an off-the-cuff post on Strauss and Howe, and the comments there will probably be better for others to find and discuss it.

    Their sports example is backwards, though, like a lot of their examples I've found. The 1984 Olympics were probably one of the most group-minded and patriotic points in our history -- that's where the chant "U-S-A! U-S-A!" was born.

    This group-enhancing chant caught on so quickly that during the 1984 Republican Convention (viewable on YouTube) Reagan gets interrupted for a good 10 minutes or so, cumulatively, by the attendees shouting it.

    Another test of group-mindedness in sports is how much hell the fans raise when there's a scandal -- more hell means a greater feeling of betrayal, which means a greater feeling of loyalty (you can't be betrayed by someone you never trusted).

    The Black Sox scandal was so infamous that it showed up even years later in The Great Gatsby, and Pete Rose was banned for what today would seem trivial. Both rising-crime times, when people form larger teams.

    Then look at how apathetic the response has been to one after another steroids report -- not even exposes at this point. Everyone is cynical about pro sports, no loyalty or trust. Part of the general cocooning trend of falling-crime times.

  6. Agnostic, for now I'll just post Strauss and Howe's scheme of generational types.

    "An ADAPTIVE Generation (The Silent Generation) grows up as overprotected and suffocated youths during a time of crisis; matures into risk-averse, conformist rising adults; produces indecisive middle-aged arbitrator-leaders during a spiritual awakening; and maintains influence (but less respect) as sensitive elders."

    "An IDEALIST Generation(Baby Boomers)" grows up as increasingly indulged youths after a time of crisis; comes of age inspiring a spiritual awakening(60s social movements etc.); fragments into narcissitic rising adults; cultivates principle as moralistic middle-agers; and emerges as visionary elders guiding the next period of crisis."

    "A REACTIVE Generation (Generation X) grows up as underprotected and criticized youths during a spiritual awakening; matures into risk-taking, alienated rising adults; mellows into pragmatic middle-aged leaders during a secular crisis; and maintains respect (but less influence) as reclusive elders"

    A CIVIC Generation (supposedly Millenials, also the G.I. Generation) grows up as increasingly protected youths after a spiritual awakening; comes of age overcoming a crisis; unites into a heroic and achieving cadre of rising adults; sustains that image while building institutions as powerful middle-agers; and emerge as busy elders attacked by the next spiritual awakening."

    What do you think? How would you categorize the generations born since WWiI?


  7. I've read the Wikipedia entries and some random stuff around the web before, but haven't read the books.

    But I don't think it's being unfair to point out how implausible their thinking is, if it lumps the GI and Millennial generations, when it's clear that Millennials are the next incarnation of the Silents.

    They don't do much better with historical periods either. From roughly 1900 to the mid-'10s, it was the Progressive Era, and the '60s and early '70s was the next version of that. The mid-'10s through the early '30s was like the later '70s through the early '90s.

    That early 20th-C rising-crime period should be an "Awakening" in their scheme, but they saw the second half of it as an "Unraveling."

  8. There's not too many generations born since WWII to categorize, so here goes:

    1946-1964 are Boomers. The later ones, born from '57 or '58 to '64, came of age entirely within rising-crime times, and are noticeably different from the earlier ones. Less self-conscious and pretentious for one thing.

    1965-1978 is Generation X, with the grungier, gangsta-rappier ones being born in the mid-'70s. Somehow people have restricted their memories and revised history to only include those guys, ignoring the majority who whose adolescence was more about John Hughes and Bon Jovi.

    They started out fun-loving, though uncertain of how much support from adults they could count on (see the slasher movies). A good deal of them totally fagged out during the '90s, though.

    1979-1984 is Gen Y, for lack of a better term. They were children during the height of the crime wave, and so had high hopes of a wild and carefree adolescence to come. But right when they were going into their teenage years, the society reversed course and left them with a life-long case of social-cultural blue balls. The milieu of our childhood in the '80s got off to such a totally awesome start... then what the fuck happened?

    1985-? are Millennials, particularly with '87 births and after. More recent births haven't matured yet, so who knows if they'll be separate from Millennials. They've grown up mostly or only during the cocooning falling-crime period, which has prevented their social and emotional development.


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