On Being a Games Artist

I remember well the moment I realized that game art was probably going to be the most rewarding and fulfilling career option for me. I was talking with another artist and it was almost an hour into a conversation dedicated to techniques of achieving ambient occlusion in real time. At this point I realized three things. Firstly, that peculiarly, I was still enjoying the conversation and felt I had things to say. Secondly, that for the sake of everyone else, it was a good thing I had never met another games artist at a party, and thirdly – that game art is probably my best chance of getting a job doing something I love.

I’ve come to realize that game art is a fairly niche interest. There isn’t a digital art society at the university, and even if there was, I suspect the chances of me meeting another games artist there would be low. When I explain to people what game art actually is, I think they imagine it more as a technical skill – they imagine learning how to use certain computer programs or tools in a similar way to when they learnt how to use Microsoft Word. Perhaps this is to be expected. Although many games in the past have been very beautiful, and I’ve played games in which I’ve been attached to a certain character, often any real feeling is overshadowed by underwhelming storyline, hollow characters and immersion-breaking glitches and oddities. It is still generally an odd thing to think of game art as something that expresses emotion, feeling or ideas – something that comes so naturally to conventional art forms.

I suspect the majority of games artists, when you ask them what they do, will say they “make games”. Not, as their title might imply, that they are “an artist”. In some ways I resent this. Not because “making games” is some sort of trivial pursuit, but because in a greater sense, an artist is attached to themselves, their own experiences, and the artistic community – more than their company or game, of which they might have little input into the real “game” part of. Even more so, game art is not like programming, or the technical use of a special tool. Game art is a creative process. It requires the same state of concentration used for other creative processes. It requires experience, training and knowledge. It requires for the artist to hold an image of what they wish to create in their head.

Perhaps people’s impressions will soon be changing. There is a new form of media taking it’s baby steps into the world – so called “interactive storytelling”. I may not be in the majority with this view, but I am extremely excited about it.

As computer power, artistic skill and graphics engine design have improved, we have finally reached a point where we can render semi-photo-realistic scenes in real time. This gives “interactive storytelling” something over film, books and music – a level of simulated interactivity. Whether this can actually contribute anything to the experience is up for debate, but what it certainly does do is create a reason for this new form of media to exist – and that is enough for me.

There was recently an update to what is one of my most anticipated game developments ever:

The Dear Esther Graphical Remake

Not only is Robert Briscoe one of my favourite digital artist of all time (Having worked on Mirrors edge, a game with simply spectacular visuals), but Dear Esther will probably have been most people’s first introduction into interactive storytelling, and probably the best example of its genre to exist.

The graphics in the updated development version are not only stunning in their realism and technicality – but more importantly they are deeply emotional and the product of a personal project – something that is perhaps more familiar to the creative process of conventional artwork than we have seen before in the games industry. In this sense, the update is a true landmark.

I can’t wait for Dear Esther. Not just because I believe it will be a unique and beautiful experience crafted by some of the best minds in the games industry, but because it might even make me reconsider how I view myself. And perhaps the games industry will do the same.

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Last modified: August 14 2014.