Bad Images

Sandy Skoglund, Cookies on a Plate, 1978

Before reading this make sure to read Zolani Stewart’s excellent investigation into why videogames as they are so rarely produce dynamic, compelling images in the way much older, less technologically advanced media like photography, film, and painting have been doing for centuries. He identifies an interesting dilemma very well, that so many games want to “look good” in general, and do, with glossier upgraded graphics and more detailed character designs, but so rarely produce good compositions on their own. It made me think about how beautiful images of ideal game screenshots are blown up into large scale prints, exhibited alongside the game they supposedly represent, games that so rarely look like that.

Capturing a visually compelling screenshot of a mainstream title, particularly of the popular 3D and open world type, takes a lot of fussing. You have to reduce or turn off the GUI, if possible. Manipulate your awkward character-camera into an agreeable angle that captures a broad view of the landscape while still judiciously placing points of interest to draw the eye. Trying to make a landscape of a game reinforces the artificiality of the landscape genre. Maybe there’s an automatic screenshot button, (though the platform’s own way of saving and sharing images may reduce the resolution or quality of what appears onscreen), or you have to figure out how to do it yourself.

A lot of recent critiques of videogame space is that, in many cases, the larger they are, the more they are just an oversized container for repetitive, modular content. Walk here, do a task, now navigate there and do a slightly different task, maybe it’s more complex or simply just has more steps. And in this way game spaces don’t present deliberate-ness in the way that a photo shoot, a movie set or props on a stage are set up deliberately. They’re more adequate, in the way that you pick out a tupperware container that’s adequate to hold all the food you’ve made.

When I think about videogame spaces this way I feel like many games are not really interested in being deliberate or specific in the way that creating compelling imagery demands. Obviously caring about this and considering it can lead to obvious improvements. A lot of games which do create powerful compositions have to work for it, with careful design and strongly limiting or guiding the player’s traversal of the space. KR0 is a great example, but of course, it feels very theatre-set-y. However, I also think it’s possible to approach the visual qualities of games on their own terms, even if these terms haven’t been well defined yet. The weakness of the form in creating singular images isn’t necessarily a damning quality, the kind of anonymity of drifting between these quests, dabbling here and there across a scrolling map, even mindless grinding all have a sort of affective appeal that is obviously appealing somehow, even when wielded in clumsy, mind-numbing, repetitive ways.

Maybe the opposite of the powerful image is the pattern, or, a pattern is a weak image. Patterns are often stand ins, placeholders, edited out or used to evaluate the quality of, alternately, images. While the powerful image is a singular composition, pattern can just repeat indefinitely, resisting the idea of “subject.” I find photographer Sandy Skoglund’s early work in food photography intriguing in the way that she merges machine-perfect processed foods, supposed to be the subject of “food photography” as a genre, with the garish patterns of plates and tablecloths, turning advertising imagery of a commodity into a sort of contiguous field of patterns flowing in and out of each other, merging foreground and background. And it reminds me of the terrain chipsets of RPGMaker games.

I would say videogames have more in common for the most part with patterns, which may be a part of why they have such a difficulty with images. Not just in that they tend to structurally be made of repeatable, modular parts that are recombined like the design of a carpet or wallpaper, but also that materially, computers are pattern things moreso than they are image things. A camera is an image thing because it allows us to compose and crop the everyday in a way that we could previously only do by constructing sets or painting or so on, previous iterations of image things. Computers playing with images and composition at that level, with a few notable exceptions mostly pioneered by new media artists, did not really become mainstream or influential until image editing programs, decent digital cameras, and scanners became more accessible in the mid-90s.

Computers have a much longer history of pattern. Punchcard computing was first used to program Jacquard Looms with textile patterns, but like any other element of early computing history that is particularly feminine, it’s not often mentioned in popular histories or discussions of the form. The graphics race has gotten us to the point where we can cover Norman Reedus in tiny sensors and do a full body scan of him and pretend that a computer was always a device for making a movie, but a computer will never be a film camera. As much money is put into photorealism, character art, lush environments, voice acting and sound design, the remixed modularity inherent to the structure of any videogame comes through eventually. The technological limitations of being born a pattern-machine are always lurking underneath the most well designed environments and can re-emerge unintentionally and unexpectedly, like a Freudian slip.

Game Studies has at times tried to resist what it conceptualizes as “colonization” from other disciplines, especially film studies. But despite this antagonism, it seems like the lens of photography and film is the primary perspective many consider in evaluating the visual aesthetics of games. The perfectly lined up screenshot, the iconic pixel character, the photo essay of game environments… these things are presented as investigations of videogame aesthetics even though most of the time we know they don’t look anything like that, and much more like Max Payne Cheats Only.

So, many games lack a One Perfect Shot, or these images have to be wrung from the game at great effort rather than the equal weight placed on every frame of a film. And yet this decidedly macho auteur statement isn’t the only way to appreciate a film, or the only paradigm in which to create images. Recently, working in Bitsy and playing others’ Bitsy games, using a strictly limited color palette and tiny sprites, has emphasized to me how textile-like the process is, like cross-stitch and setting up a pedal loom in one, making and deploying tiny repeatable forms, and the resultant games are informed by this aesthetic.

This aesthetic is not only visual but temporal and tactile as well, which is how it ends up seeping into so many big budget 3D games trying to be cinematic. This is not to say we should retreat from narrative and image into games as just systems (since a system is essentially another, more accepted form of pattern), but that this material reality affects all levels of a videogame as a technological, interactive, narrative, visual, etc, object. If we accept that “gameplay” as an abstraction is made up of loops and repeated parts and this is in part because of how computers work, it’s nonsensical to also ignore the implications this has for everything else about the form.

Mainstream perspectives on videogames seem to feel self-conscious about their origins as simple pattern-making machines, even when it’s obvious that this is what holds a lot of their appeal and aesthetic uniqueness. It makes me feel like there is an inherent contradiction in the frequent pared-down pixel art style of many games that heavily concern themselves with systems. When the plotted sprites of the earliest games are isolated, sharpened by LCD screens and made monumental as both minimalist design objects and icons of pure gaming they were never meant to be it represents the same modernist desire for a single, “strong” composition that the work in practice does not necessarily concern itself with.

So what to make of videogames that are unconcerned with making strong images, or those that try but fall short when they are essentially trying to put in a nail with a screwdriver? Critiquing them by contrasting what they are doing visually with the richness of a strong photographic composition can improve how they relate to that metric of evaluation and generally I think that will make some types of games a lot more interesting, or at least help developers understand the difference between visual richness and just stuff.

But I also think we can come to these things on their own terms as well by incorporating marginalized portions of our visual and aesthetic culture, like pattern, into our understanding of videogame aesthetics. They may not be satisfying in the same way singular compositions are, but I still find them compelling, despite being noisy, flat, and so on, and feel that these sensations have historically also been inherent to the form. It’s worthwhile to simply try to understand the implications of that I think rather than only seeing it as a problem to be solved.