Monday, September 24, 2012

Video Games as an Art Form, Part 3: 1990-2005

Most gamers are probably aware of the history of video games in the 90's and 2000's (having lived through them), so I won't focus on the details too much. The 90's, much like the 80's, saw many technological advancements and genre innovations. It also saw the rise of the CD and 3D graphics, and PC gaming, which had been taking off since the video game crash of 1983, now had a solidified presence in the industry.

At last, an era I have game screenshots from!

     One of the more important changes in this era was that video games started to become a major industry. To clarify "major," all I need to do is bring up Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom from 1996. Taking full advantage of the technology available at the time, the game had hours of Full Motion Video, to the point that it's also branded as an "interactive movie" (heck, it's even listed on IMDB). It came on six CDs, and had a budget of twelve million dollars. While this is certainly an exception as opposed to a rule (well, I don't know about any more, but it certainly was at the time), projects like this simply couldn't happen in a world where video games were developed by college students and professors in their free time.

     The big art form change that took place in the 90's, however, was that games started being able to tell their stories, the operative word being "tell." The 90's was the decade of text, dialogue boxes and voice acting. Now, this is not to say that these things didn't exist at all before. It's simply that they hadn't been used to nearly as great an extent up to that point in time. Games started to be able to tell stories not in the "gaming" sense, with a cutscene in the beginning with the princess being kidnapped and nothing else 'till the boss, but in an artistic sense. Actually, this was also the decade of increased sound quality, vast innovation in graphics, and 3D environments as well. Cinematic cutscenes, serving as an example of this new approach, are freely able to use most if not all of the tools cinema and movies have (true to their name). Be it shot angles, lighting, shadows, whatever, games can do it (heck, just look at Warcraft 3). What this all boils down to is that in the 90's, especially halfway through them, video games gained the ability to tell their stories through means beyond interactivity.

     An excellent example of this is, of course, Starcraft, released in 1999. Rather than clumsily try to give you an idea with words, let me show you a video first.

     So, these aren't exactly the most impressive graphics around (though at the time...), but I think you get the idea. You could really feel the tension, fear, and excitement in this cutscene. It's just like a movie! (It's worth mentioning that this particular scene is a total rip off of homage to Aliens.) This is what I'm talking about. Games became able to use the storytelling qualities that other media forms have. What about writing? Well, they aren't exactly on equal footing with short stories or anything like that. But when you think about it, they're about level with graphic novels and such, which at least allows for some level of thoughtful writing.

     Why did this matter so much? Well, it mattered because it opened doors to totally new and previously unheard of games. Games were not limited to just interactivity anymore; now the sky was the limit, and anything you could create matching game mechanics for could become a story. A great example is Planescape: Torment (Wing Commander would have worked too, really, but I wanted to use a different game). Planescape: Torment has over 5000 pages worth of dialogue, and tells with almost excruciating detail a fantasy epic involving travels to whole other dimensions. You simply couldn't make such an ambitious project happen before the 90's. I know I rather cryptically said in the previous entry of the series that this could be viewed as an unfortunate change, and that's because when presented with these vast opportunities, a lot of developers seem to have forgotten about interactivity, which I think is a shame. That said, it's impossible to deny the advantages that text, cinematics, and voice acting brought to games.

     There are some things I should mention. First, traditional means and interactive means are not mutually exclusive. Games that take advantage of interactive elements have existed up to and through the 1990's and 2000's, and often also tell stories with text and cinematics. Second, telling stories was a process that merely began in the 90's. It wasn't until the mid 2000's or so (roughly) that it became regular practice, and that only using interactivity became something associated with indie studios (and even those...). And lastly, I should mention now that I'm leaving out the past 5 years or so, because the major artistic push of the last decade has been immersion, especially through hardware, which I feel does not significantly add to or detract from the concepts discussed here.

     All right, that's it for now. Thanks for reading, and I hope you'll read the fourth and final post in the series, talking about what all this means for games as an art form.


  1. Games nowadays feel like movies themselves. Certainly, with vastly improved graphics and voice acting, making a film-like scenes in a video games is completely plausible. It's a wonderful era where games contain just as much depth as novels do instead of some random 2D side-scrolling game. I find it interesting how (in my opinion), voice acting in games only begun to feels more widely used only in around 2000s. Before, we wouldn't even care about them, and now we care about choosing the best and most original language the voice acting it is. More features, more the troubles I guess. It's like a double-edged sword.

    1. I think part of the reason is that the technology for having voice recordings, and more importantly the technology for having voice acting in an acceptable file size, only started appearing in the 90's.

      As the quality of the voice acting, I do think that's an interesting way of looking at it. I mean, it makes sense that if something's bad, we won't like it if it's old or new. Still. . .

      Thanks for including your thoughts!

  2. Ah, Disciples II many hours wasted on it, but loved it to death. Especially the AI's that took too long to think.

    Too be honest, I can't really engage myself into the newer game systems and games like I did the old ones like SNES, GBA, PSone, and even PS2. I mean the graphical and technical stuff is great, but that seems to make me less engaged. Heaven forbid needing an HDTV or the like to play some of the console games on.

    I appreciate all the trouble some developers go through, but I do not care about superficial bells and whistles that I have to pay outrageous prices for. I just want to play video games, lol. Guess I am just fine playing the good stuff and what I grew up with, but to newer generations I guess this is ART to them.

    1. Arashi! It's been forever!

      Something to keep in mind. Game technology in general is not "art" in and of itself. It's how the technology is *used*. Disciples II, for instance, had an excellent atmosphere. Were it not for the technological capabilities of computers at the time, however, it could have never made that atmosphere, since it's visuals and sound would have been too limited. That's how the advancements helped it. But, it's also only because the game itself used those really well, making mood-setting portraits for all the units and having a very bleak musical score, that the atmosphere became something artistic. Certainly, the recent focus on advancement, rather than *use*, is something I feel has gotten out of hand. Like you, I don't really care that much about the graphics (don't know if I could even care less). But, if someone uses those advancements in a really artistic way, like they did with Disciples II? Yeah, that'd be art.

      Thanks for stopping by!

    2. It has. I haven't had much free time until now, which will be disappearing away very quickly.

      Ah, yeah, I think I misunderstood, but get you mean now. However, the reason I mentioned the technically side so much is because some developers for the new gen systems tend to center their art around the technology at work. In particular, I remember reading a interview by Gust Co. Ltd (for the Atelier series) mentioning their process and saying that the graphics for PS3 actually influenced the art style. But yeah, I get what you referring to. I just went off in the opposite direction XD

      Although, like you touched upon, if a game uses it elements to the fullest (despite the grandiosity or lack of graphics) I would consider it art. Pretty much similar to how I anyalze anime and its aesthetics. Not one particular element like art or music, but all of them together.

      And always a pleasure (when I have the time ^^)

    3. *Not one particular element, but all of it like music and visuals makes it art is what I meant :P