There’s a rather tedious question that is passed around relatively frequently when it comes to video games, one that was first publicly pondered by the late, great film critic Roger Ebert: “are video games art?” Ebert concluded that no, video games do not qualify as art, but despite his judgment typically being thoughtful and well-argued, his opinion on video games always seemed to have more than a hint of the old guard bashing things he doesn’t quite understand.
“To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers,” Ebert wrote in a Q&A session, adding: “That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.” But despite Ebert’s vast knowledge of film and his pioneering work as a critic, he was always wrong about video games. The Into The Pixel collection has been proving this since its conception in 2004, and now more than ever it stands as a reminder that, beyond the high scores, the final bosses and the hyperbolic cinematic trailers, games are an exceptional art form that can enlighten the player through their interactivity, and inveigle their audience by way of their increasingly diversified visuals.
This year the Into The Pixel collection, displayed at E3 2015 in the Los Angeles Convention Center, showcased artwork from the likes of Never Alone, a game which delved into the uncharted, beautiful territory of Alaskan folklore, the claymation world of Armikrog and the ambient tones of Ori and the Blind Forest. With the landscape of gaming forever changing, arguably more so than any other entertainment medium, jurist and Talent and Content Manager for the Annenberg Space for Photography Patricia Lanza has noticed vast changes in the quality of the artwork produced by the gaming industry since she first sat on the panel for Into The Pixel in 2013. “I have noticed that over the years there has been new artwork and more variety in styles, and even medium.” She said, pointing to a World of Warcraft sculpture submitted by Blizzard Entertainment’s senior sculptor Brian Fay as evidence of this.
Grommash Maquette by Brian Fay (World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor).
The Into The Pixel collection sees video game artists submitting their artwork for display, which is then presented during the LA expo. The diversity of the artwork on show has remained a staple since its first collection, which featured the likes of Crash Nitro Kart sitting alongside God of War and DRIV3R, and is now host to big-budget games such as The Order: 1886 and lesser-known releases such as Monument Valley.
It’s a celebration of the beauty of video games and, much like the players of these games, it doesn’t limit itself solely to mammoth releases from big-name publishers, but rather looks at releases on all platforms and of varying budgets, from mobile through to the PS4 and Xbox One. “It doesn’t matter what level the art comes from big budget or small budget games,” Patricia said. “The artists creating for all the games are delivering their best work, in trying to imagine and depict fictional worlds and characters.”
Ori and Naru by Johannes Figlhuber, Max Degen (Ori and the Blind Forest)
Citing The Last of Us as her favorite video game from an aesthetic perspective, Patricia stated that Never Alone was her highlight of Into The Pixel’s 2015 collection, branding its artwork “evocative and beautifully executed.” However, while Never Alone was developed on a comparatively shoestring budget when measured up against the likes of The Order: 1886, Patricia conceded that the realistic, technically impressive visuals showcased by games funded by wealthy publishers are also of great importance to the industry. “As we have seen from top filmmakers, the use of special effects and art direction is often more important than the storyline,” she explained. “This carries over often to the gaming industry; they have to lure the viewer into the game, by creating sometimes more realistic visuals and using state of the art computerized software and techniques.”
Good Knight Stories by Evan Cagle (King’s Quest)
But wonderful artwork can be found in any video game no matter how small or poorly funded its development team may be. Even though we’re all often prone to complaining about the industry, which is an inevitably given its meteoric rise in such a short period of time, we truly are living in a golden age of video games in which there’s something for everyone, both in terms of gameplay and aesthetics. One need only look at the press conferences from E3 to see how greatly the industry has evolved, with us complaining only a few short years ago that the market had become over-saturated with grey, pallid shooters, which the industry has in turn responded by delivering more diversity in its art styles.
We saw the unveiling of Dreams, Media Molecule’s latest game which boasts a visual direction unlike anything we’ve seen before in the medium, while Ratchet and Clank had the appearance of an interactive Pixar movie. Then there was Cuphead, a game borrowing its art style from 1930s cartoons, while Beyond Eyes attempts to portray the world as experienced by a blind girl. There was a lot to take in, and unlike previous years, a vast majority of games on show were suitably inveigling in their own right.
Labyrinth by David Fernández-Huerta (Monument Valley)
It’s all incredibly exciting, and it ensures that the likes of Into The Pixel will have plenty of artwork to feature at the expo far into the future. With their 2015 collection a terrific reminder of how far the video game industry continues to push its own boundaries visually, it will be interesting to see what makes the cut in the 2016 collection, after E3 showcased how bright, colorful and wonderfully diverse the medium is becoming.