A Portrait of the Artist
as a Young Gamer
We asked eight artists to illustrate the video-game obsessions of their childhoods—from The Legend of Zelda to Minesweeper to Final Fantasy.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
There are plenty of video games I was obsessed with as a kid, but the one that stands out is Zelda: Ocarina of Time. For me, the game was about how immersive and expansive it was, exploring a world that was packed with seemingly endless depth and detail. I would say the attention to detail in that world really had an impact on me as an artist. I’m certainly a big fan of detail. I also remember going through it the first time with my two younger brothers literally watching me from start to finish.
Final Fantasy 7
As a teen, I was really into the world FF7 created, and tried to track down all the concept art I could find. It was the first time I really thought about game design and the artists behind it. Obviously, this led me to the work of Tetsuya Nomura, who designed the characters, and also to Yoshitaka Amano, who this piece is kind of an homage to.
I loved the no-expense-spared, “more is more” aesthetics that pulled together all the game’s serious, big themes with a random, anything-goes kind of playfulness. One of the main characters has a gun for a hand, for example. Even with the jarring style changes between the cutscenes and the famous in-game polygonal visuals, the creators were able to form a coherent, flowing whole.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my childhood obsession with Minesweeper carries through to traits that some might describe as “obsessive” in my adult life. I’m drawn to things that are repetitive and pattern-making — like origami, cross-stitching, drawing on graph paper, and of course… video games.
My predisposition to these hobbies is a bit of a mystery to me. I suppose watching the relationship of pre-determined sequences translate into patterns is part of what I am most interested in. I’m never sure of what I’m making will look like until I’m done, since the drawing or the cross-stitch or the origami only reveals itself when the sequence is complete.
Minesweeper is no different, looking for bombs that only reveal themselves through number sequences. I’m not even very good at the game, but I love it when I get into a rhythm and see the pattern develop.
Some games I loved playing as a kid were accessible only at a friend’s house, for access to a different gaming system. My brother and I also rented a ton of games from Blockbuster.
War Wind had different creatures to choose from, and my brother, our best friend, and I each stuck with one of them after much discussion and deliberation. There wasn’t internet multiplayer yet (not for us, at least), so the closest thing was creating character sheets and clay action figures of the different species. I chose the Oblinox, a beautiful three-legged motorcycle-riding reptilian meathead. I’ve been thinking of them for years, and only recently looked up that name again.
I wouldn’t say that War Wind started me on an artistic path. I was drawing before I’d ever heard of video games. But I was enamored with the Oblinox and their vehicles, more so than the characters of any other game. The game booklet was always my favorite part of a game — that and the map, in a strange way. I make comics and animations, and world-building is definitely something I’m tackling all the time. As a kid, the War Wind booklet was something incredibly cool that I was often trying to replicate in my own drawings and characters.
I remember playing Asteroids at a good friend’s house most of one summer when I was learning to skateboard. We’d go outside for a few hours, then come in, eat lunch, and play Asteroids. The actual arcade game was in his living room, though he didn’t have any other games, so we could only play that one. We were just tall enough to reach the controls. It was also a time when lucky friends of mine were getting their first Nintendo, but we didn’t have games in our house until much later, so it was pretty special to play at friends’ homes.
The game has a beauty of simplicity. With its repetition and infinitely looping screen, it was so basic, and so much fun to play. Then, with each level the intensity would increase. I remember that it was good, smart design.
Jet Grind Radio
My sister and I were seriously into cosplay as Jet Grind Radio characters. We grew up near Baltimore, where the massive anime convention Otakon is held every year. Anime, manga, cosplay, and video games were a big part of our childhood. We were obviously Very Cool Kids.
When JGR came out on the Dreamcast (released as Jet Set Radio outside North America), I loved everything about it. It was the first video game that I beat from start to finish, and it made total sense to cosplay the characters afterward. Cosplay is a hands-on hobby. I learned how to sew and make props, and I really got a handle on using a wide variety of materials. It also got me into photography and working with cameras.
Sometimes I wonder what my mom was thinking when she saw us in those getups. I think she was probably just happy that our creative outlet was sewing and not graffiti.
I stopped playing video games not — I hasten to add — because I grew up, but because ’80s video games set the bar so high. They were devilishly hard and totally absorbing. I was talking to a friend recently about these formative influences. I confessed to taking huge influence in my work from a half-forgotten game called Alien-8, for the BBC Micro, an early 8-bit computer in the UK. It had nothing to do with the famous Alien franchise. Alien-8 featured, instead, a diminutive robot trapped in an isometric world.
I remember having childhood dreams about our house, redesigned with endless rooms. These dreams had their root in games like Alien-8, which heightened that sense of unlimited possibility. As a kid I hadn’t really experienced a narrative without end until those early video games. Alien-8 was impossible to finish and utterly compelling. A series of endless rooms of progressive difficulty.
Video games are definitely a huge part of my aesthetic. I started out doing either Altered Beast or Vector Man for Sega Genesis for this, but then while sketching I remembered Rocket Knight Adventures.
The 16-bit era of my childhood was filled with robots, big swords, 1-ups, and heart-shaped lives — which makes Rocket Knight the quintessential game. I always feel five years old when I play it. It reminds me of a time when electronics didn’t just feel like the future, they felt like magic. It was a much more mysterious time for technology and electronics.
You can see from my art that I’ll always hold pixels in my heart. And even more so, I view retro tech from when I was growing up as these mysterious artifacts, and the 8- and 16-bit worlds as bizarre, magical dimensions. Games don’t try to imagine anymore. They just regurgitate what reality already looks like.