Video Games and Information
Hi everyone, first let me appologize for the lateness of this post. It's been awhile, mostly due to moving back to Oakville, and getting back into the swing of things with school. I've been reading a few intersting books that are on the recommended reading list for my Information Illustration course, ' The Art of Looking Sideways' and 'Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative'. Although not intended specificically for the pursposes of comics or cartoons or video games, alot of the theories contained therein can be successfully applied.
First though, I want to show you something really funny found in Edward Tufte's 'Visual Explanations':
If this image doesn't make you laugh, then you probably don't know the joy of rolling up a satisfying clump of souls.
I wouldn't put it past Keita Takahashi to have used this painting by Rudolf Stahel as some sort of point of reference for his standout game of 2004 - he was afterall, a student of the arts. Religious imagery does have a tendancy to follow a strict visual lexicon - so if not this piece specifically, he may have come across something similar.
I'm not going to get into the whole King of Cosmo's, Prince and God and Son of God thing, I'll let you draw your own conclusions about that. The point I'd like to make is that you can find and draw comparisons anywhere, sometimes it's valid, other times just quirky coincidences. But it is worth while opening yourself up to a wider array of influences - rather than simply looking at existing anime or manga as your main influences for your own manga, why not look into fine art, or literature? It's something that one of my instructors has mentioned and something that I've taken to heart.
That takes me to Tufte's 'Visual Explanations', as I had mentioned earlier, his observations can be applied our favorite popular media. After all, what is a video game but visual interactive information? A comic encompasses much of Tufte's theories, does a comic not have to be clear and understandable in it's visual information?
This article will examine primarily video games and it's relation to 'Visual Explanations'. Tufte early on establishes some of the methods in order to display comparitive illustration. Amongst these include scale - and it occured to me that amongst some of my favorite games, scale is a very important feature.
Lets look at the aforementioned Katamari Damacy:
The point of KD is to simply collect stuff (from bugs to cars to people to buildings and even whole land masses. Scale plays and important roll in the game, as you start most stages off not larger than say... a wallet or mug, and progressively you work your way up to epic heights. The relative size you start off as and the eventual size you end up with is key to the enjoyment of the game. How many times have you been tossed about by those self-righteous cats and dogs, only to later return, brimming with Katamari fury, 'AHAHAHAHAHA YOU STUPID DOG, WHO'S THE MAN NOW!?!? GET-IN-MY-BELLY!' - well, maybe thats just me. But it embodies how scale is employed in a satisfying fashion. With regards to information, this sense of scale is made real via touch (your katamari is light and nimble when you start and ungainly and cumbersome towards the end), relation (to the other objects), and perspective (notice how the camera shifts everytime to provide a better sense of scale).
Touch is especially important, in an interview, Takahashi mentions that in his art school days, he valued the tactile sense of shaping an object with his hands -perhaps he has taken his experience and has transfered it over into video games. Playing this game reminded me of playing Super Mario Bros. with my mom when I was a wee lad. You might be familar with this phenomena when you watch an inexperienced video game player try a game out: when Mario needs to cross a gap, the amateur player might lift his control in the air in a jerking motion, his/her body slightly lunging forward as Mario traverses the gap - it's as if their physical movements might somehow affect our pixelated plumber. When my katamari reaches apocalyptic scale, I'm usually twisting my face in knots and grunting as it lumbers along, trying to engulf buildings and traverese large land masses.
Scale is a defining feature in another game who is well known amongst video game connoisseurs, Ico:
Fumito Ueda's Ico present's the use of scale in a similar fashion to Katamari Damacy. Early on in the game it is established that you (Ico) are a small boy in a massive castle - a typical premise for the medium. What differentiates Ico from say, Milon's Castle is in it's use of scale. Yes, we know the castle is large, but it is only through experiencing the scale do we realize how huge it is. Remember the large stair case that seemed to never stop?
The game is a textbook on scale - Ueda takes this concept and pushes it further with his latest entry, 'Shadow of the Colossus'. The name gives away something of it's intent and design, and pictures only further this claim. Having played the demo, I can say that seeing the game in motion, and interacting with the Colussus, accuratley convey the terrifying scale of these monsters.
Concerning Information Design
Ueda's Ico is again a textbook example of excellent game design. Tufte's book cites numerous examples of poor information and diagram design, often cluttered works that only work towards confusing it's reader. Those of you who have watched the news will understand this visual noise - eg. streaming NASDAQ ticker, weather reports and live footage. In my Information Illustration class we call it 'Information Anxiety'.
What I am suggesting is that this anxiety is partially responsible for the alienating feelings that come with both comics and video games. Both media utilize a unique vocabulary that someone who is unaccustomed to it may find it incomprehensible. Not unlike going to a foriegn country and not knowing the native tongue. Comics may have it slightly easier in this regard, in one way or another the general public has been exposed to traditional comics techniques, word bubbles for example, occur in print media, advertising, and television. However, taken as a whole, I think comics reading might be somewhat jarring for some who like thier pictures to stay in t.v's and walls, and thier words in books and magazines.
Video games suffer the most from 'Information Anxiety'. Recently, I have been playing my roomates copy of Donkey Kong Jungle Beat (with the bongo's of course). It's a riotous game, aside from the appeal of playing a platforming game just by hitting toy bongo's, what appeals to me about Jungle Beat is it's candy colored world. 'Busy' would be an effective opperative word to describe the imagery in this game. For those who are accustomed to this look, the effect is hypnotic. For those who are not used to the Las Vegas-esque imagery inherent in many video games (dating as far back as even Mario, but most explicit in games like Sonic the Hedgehog), it can be a bit off-putting. In at least two seperate instances, my housemates had seen the game, and then remarked on how 'crazy' it was, specifically noting the vivid colours and wild movements. In a sense, the game is promoting a sense of cluttered madness which is appropriate for it's type (a bongo game isn't the place to look for thoughtful, deep gameplay after all).
Perhaps the biggest culprit of 'Information Anxiety' would be the RPG genre. Some games are so cluttered with information that the visual's of the game are secondary. The Final Fantasy series, while priding itself on it's graphical prowess, often mar's it's pretty face with an abundance of big and distracting visual information. Hitting an opponent produces numbers to emerge from thier bodies, the bottom half of the screen is almost exclusively dedicated to the names of your characters, the villains, your time bar, and your magic and health points. Imagine if you were a person who knew nothing of how Final Fantasy and RPG's would work, what would this game look like to you? It hardly looks like a game so much as it does a fancy statistics analyzer.
This brings us back to Ueda, and his work on Ico. Ico is getting alot of play these day's at our house, partially because I can't stop telling people about Shadow of the Colossus (and subsequently Ico) but also because it is a game that is beautifully designed. The information that Ico convey's is composed in such a way that you never have to deal with meters and bars and numbers, menu's (except for pausing/saving) or maps. Everything you need to know about Ico as a game happens on the whole of the screen as a playable image. To do this, Ueda severly streamlined all aspects of the game, from the fighting system (consisting of one button), to the health/lives of ico (he's pretty much invincible). This minimalist design extends beyond gameplay and into the music (there isn't any really) and graphics (washed out and faded vs. the glitz and glamour of donkey kong). Ico's simplicity equates to a kind of accesibility that other games can only dream of. When the same housemate who was turned-off by Jungle Beat's visual noise watched Ico in action, he mentioned that this other game was more pleasing to the eye, and easier to follow. This may be due in some part to the streamlined information design.For video games to gain wider recognition, designers will need to cast thier net wider. The current video game playing public/designer relationship is entrenched in a visual language that is dated and fails to utilize the full potential of the medium. In other words, it's time to start speaking in more broader, universal terms - examples like Ico help to bridge this gap in creating games that everyone can understand and enjoy.