The hidden art of shadowboxing by Iain Simons
'The ambition to animate the emergent - the player action and consequences of it, are uniquely of the videogame and extraordinarily ambitious tasks.'
Even the most casual observer of videogames would observe that their development appears to be driven by a prevailing wind of technological progress. Apparently, the rate at which videogames improve is firmly tethered to the rate at which computational power improves. 8 bit processors become 16, 32, 64.. Playstations become 2, become 3 and games get… better? The more cynical amongst us might suspect that on occasion these driving winds of change are largely comprised of corporate hot air.
Luckily, the games industry is smart enough to realise that not all potential consumers get the same heady thrill from processor power bumps that you and I do. Kindly, it makes the effort to translate this progress into something altogether more understandable. In recent years the tendency has been to express these developments in terms of how close to cinema the rendering quality of the games was becoming. The phrase that you might have heard mentioned is, 'interactive movie'; something that has the visual qualities we expect from a linear movie, but the interactivity of a videogame. A game that looks just like a film!
In thinking about games and film, I wanted to share an extract from one of my favourite sequences of any videogame, ever. An opening that beautifully captures the rhythm, genre tropes and wit of a movie franchise - whilst managing to clearly communicate to the player that they are within a videogame world.
It’s weighted with irony that is both dramatic and ludic and manages the transfer of control from player to software and back beautifully. As well as distilling a very modest number of pixels into a recognisable Harrison Ford, the scenes we pass through not only entertain us through pre-rendered animation sequences, but also teach us about how to use the system of gameplay. The set of discoveries that the player as Indiana Jones is allowed to make are carefully managed, leading us to a comedic payoff and a next sequence of production credits - themselves reminding us that we are in the liminal world of the videogame / movie.
Games that look like Hollywood movies! (Games that look like Mike Leigh movies are seldom mentioned….) This noble aspiration is linked to the broad paranoia often felt radiating from the heart of the videogame project - ‘are we art?’ Tough one.
The nature of art itself is of course notoriously slippery to pinpoint, luckily a popularly recognised test has been devised which was endorsed by no less than Spielberg in 2004, saying of the cultural value of videogames, "I think the real indicator will be when somebody confesses that they cried at level 17."
So it follows, the ability to squeeze tears from a player is anchored to the technological ability to create photorealistic characters that we can believe in. Whilst this drives sales of hardware iterations and keeps gamers awake with dreams of a better rendered tomorrow, viewers of Watership Down can all testify that emotional response is in no way contingent on photo-realism.
The problem is, that the central achievement and ambition of animation in videogames, is the most easily overlooked, eclipsed by the understandable instinct to frame our appreciation of it within more easily measurable continuums of ‘looking like cinema’. It’s understandable of course, because as the medium’s success increases, the achievement becomes more difficult to notice. You see, the best videogames aren’t played out on a screen - but a mirror.
As the barrier between the player and the game dissolves, we find ourselves capable of inhabiting an extraordinary range of emotions and personas…
Highly Skilled & Quite Competitive:
Animation within videogames is not merely aesthetic, but part of a broader adaptive system - giving the player presence and agency within the changing world on screen. In this way, our intentions are represented, mirrored, amplified within the software. A complex set of exchanges between player and software, mediated through a control mechanism and reflected back at them in real-time. At its best, it's an extraordinary achievement - and one we should remember to appreciate when we applaud the 'cinematic' in the software.
The ambition to animate the emergent - both the player action and the consequences of it, are uniquely of the videogame and extraordinarily ambitious tasks.
That’s perhaps best illustrated, as many things are, by a quote from one of the most popular animations of the 20th Century.
A middle aged man finds himself in a recording studio with a woman, having inexplicably been cast to record a character voice for a popular cartoon show. Very excited at his first experience in doing this he leans over to the woman, a long experienced voice artist who has been making the show for years, and makes an enquiry:
Homer: Is this episode going on the air live?
June Bellamy: No Homer, very few cartoons are broadcast live. It's a terrible strain on the animator's wrist.
The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show, The Simpsons, Season 8, Fox Network, 1997
Iain Simons is Director of the GameCity festival at Nottingham Trent University. He writes and talks about videogames and CultureTech and co-founded the National Videogame Archive. He is working on a book with James Newman that will be published in 2012, a new festival and a playground with Keita Takahashi.