The Pixel Priestess: Game'Girl'

The Pixel Priestess looks at how the world of VFX fits into its sister (brother?) universe of games.

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

When I thought about writing this months column, I thought, How could I, a 42-year-old mother, write a column about games? After all, Im miles away from the demographic male, 29. (Seriously, contrary to the fact that 39% of gamers are women, they seem to be so insignificant to this world that Intels new IT manager game had to be sent back to the programmers when it was discovered that you couldnt make a female IT manager, even if you wanted to! But thats another article.) OK, OK. Rather than gripe about my apparent genetic and temporal disadvantages, I thought Id just look at the stuff I love about the world I live in the world of visual effects, movies, art and technology, of course and see where it all fits into its sister (brother?) universe of games.

To say that online, PC and console games have progressed in the last decade is a bit like saying that dinosaurs were big. Yeah, whatever. But I remember hanging out at some local bar playing Space Invaders for hours next to my friend who talked more to Pac-Man than she did to most humans. And I remember playing Dark Castle on my Mac Plus and loving it. What was that, 18 years ago or something? The sound effects were hilarious (I loved the mice, and the way the protagonist sounded when he jumped; and what about that whip crack?). Who cared that the game repeated itself, that it was in glorious black and white, and thrilling 2D? So was King Kong. OK, then came Myst: Gorgeous, haunting, a mysterious three-dimensional journey with no characters and no payoff (sorry, Myst fans). Yeah, yeah, I already told you that Im not a huge game player; I dont spend hours playing Half-Life, EverQuest or The Sims (though I find myself wondering how my kids idea of family will evolve after their hours and hours of Sims immersion). Luckily, I have very smart friends (yes, 29-35ish men and women, I may add) who are game players, and quite accomplished contributors to the game industry (as both creators and end users), so I listen to what they like and see what to bring home to my kids, though the closest weve come in our house to Grand Theft Auto is Simpsons Road Rage.

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Licensing titles is the norm in the gaming world. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic won multiple awards at GDC, including Game of the Year. EverQuest is not a game youll find the Pixel Priestess playing. Knights of the Old Republic © LucasArts. EverQuest ©1999-2003 Sony Computer Ent. America Inc.

In those dark ages, processors were slow, poly counts and physics were limited to say the least, motion capturing characters wasnt even a dream, there was definitely no AI and the idea that artists could be part of the development process was inconceivable.

The evolution of the gaming world has been a thrilling, almost surprising ride of its own: Even the pioneers at Electronic Arts, who had already given the world the Pinball Construction Kit by the early 80s, could hardly imagine just how the company and others like it would dominate popular culture and the ways we interact with each other. Or that, 20 years later, they would be part of a $7 billion dollar industry, with hundreds of game companies such as Ubisoft, Sony, Rockstar, Insomniac and Blizzard, vying for a piece of the mythic 29-year-old males attention.

The world seems to be upended: Rather than relying on the skills and vision of primarily engineers, as was the case a mere couple of years ago, the game companies started spending all kinds of time and resources on their artists, altering the balance to artist-driven rather than technology-driven. So, now the games we play are not only cool, theyre beautiful. Look at the differences between Doom from forever ago, to the first Half-Life, to Onimusha, WarCraft or any number of todays gorgeous games. Its hardly surprising that so many of the great visual effects artists of the 80s and 90s are flocking to the game industry, exchanging their love of the big screen for the thrill of the small (or not so small anymore, actually).

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Artists are flocking to games these days, as evidenced by the visually beautiful Onimusha. Character Samanosuke by © Fu Long Prod. © CAPCOM CO.LTD. 2004. © CAPCOM U.S.A. INC. 2004 All rights reserved.

So, we have to ask the question: What is it that keeps us pursuing gaming thrills the way our protagonists seek their treasures? The answers are as complicated as the industry itself. Fast hardware, powerful graphics boards and beautiful displays are making it possible to have great characters to manipulate through enticing worlds. But I wonder, how much does that matter? For how long will that beauty keep us anchored to our consoles and our computers? At this years Game Developers Conference, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (BioWare) won the IGDAs Game of the Year and Original Game Character, while Prince of Persia (Ubisoft) won Game Design and Excellence in Programming awards. Both of these games are cool to look at, to be sure, and theyre both adventure games that take the user into a very different world. And then theres the realism trend, where everything looks just a bit too real: titles such as Onimusha and WarCraft use motion capture to make humans look even more human. But, as a friend of mine says, The realism sire is leading you toward the rocks, rocks which were all but ignored by The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, which swapped the depth and detail of Prince of Persia for a light, airy, cartoony approach and won the IGDAs Art Direction award.

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Beauty and adventure brought Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time awards in Game Design and Excellence in Programming at GDC this year. Indie game titles such as Jak & Daxter make for more interesting games. Prince of Persia image courtesy of Ubisoft Ent. Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy is a trademark of Sony Computer Ent. America Inc. Created and developed by Naughty Dog Inc. © 2001 Sony Computer Ent. America Inc.

A marketplace that thrives on familiarity is a constant obstacle to innovation, a circumstance common to all the arts and entertainment media. The challenge in developing and distributing adventurous new concepts in the game world is extremely similar to that of the film world: the independent movie producer can make a riskier product than his studio-bound counterpart. And just as the bigger film production companies are more likely to piggyback off some hugely successful film or genre than sink its millions into an unproven original idea, the big game producers are probably going to be more inclined to gamble on a known franchise than on an unknown (and therefore unpredictable) new game.

To that end, the writing award at this years GDC went to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. While this is cool, of course, it underscores that stark truth: studios are more likely to succeed if they license titles than if they develop their own smaller, more inventive stories. Like the world of independent film, independent game titles are adventurous and different. I only hope that there is enough of an audience out there to keep encouraging development of titles like Oddworld, Ratchet and Clank and Jak and Daxter so we can sit in front of our screens and marvel, or fight a battle or just solve a puzzle.

Film industry executives are trying to make the next Nemo, but we all know that that kind of brilliance cant be replicated with processors and pixels. Its the same for gaming. Maybe our characters will start to have feelings; maybe someone will figure out an immersive game that removes us from our surroundings: I cant wait for EyeToy 2010! Maybe itll be more akin to a Holodeck, or something else entirely, like bodily implants à la Cronenbergs game-as-reality film Existenz. Personally, I wonder if it all comes back down to a compelling story.

Me? Well, quite honestly, I prefer the graphics of a gorgeous day at the beach; the story of catching the perfect wave; and the physics of wiping out. And thats why Im not the demographic.

Jill Smolin has been a grateful member of the visual effects industry for about a decade, and has documented the industry (before it was one) for about twice that long.

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