Saturday, 15 June 2013

Art in Games

(I am so happy to be done writing monsters that I started thinking on the page about art and, like what usually happens when I think without an end in mind, I went on and maybe did not reach a conclusion.)

I have often wondered about the purpose of art in games. One of the first things I have usually thought is that the word ‘purpose’ was the wrong one to use.

A highly purposed piece of information is one created with a very particular intent. It locks into place like the necessary part of a machine or the action of a plan. Probably the lowest form of this in RPG’s (or at least the most spat upon) is placeholder or ‘filler’ art, designed to fill the formatting gap in an already poorly designed thing. Art created simply because there is an unexpected place for art to be. We tend to think of good art the other way round. First the Artist has a semi-magical idea about something they want to make, then they select tools and forms most appropriate to the idea, then they make the thing, then we arrange the space around the thing. The space comes last . Whether this is how things work in real art I do not know. I suspect you could start at any point in this process and work out to the rest. That is how I write anyway. As you can see from the rambling of this initially-simple paragraph.

(It only crosses my mind now that I think about it, but filler art, or the circumstances that bring it about is/are like graffiti and that filler art would probably be better if the people commissioning and creating it thought about it that way. They both begin with an unexpected space which has to be filled quickly rather than a grand idea which must be incarnated a particular way. Would ‘filler’ art be better if instead of giving artists a bunch of rules and guidance RPG companies simply told them to fill a particular space as vibrantly, rapidly and aggressively as possible in as short a space a time as possible, and, instead of keeping everything in accordance with the theme and aesthetic of the product, they were told to attack, subvert and re-write their own intent onto the space? What would that look like in a book? Inconsistent certainly, but vibrant and alive.)


Let’s ignore everything I just said or inferred and assume that filler art is bad because it is ‘purposed’ and that it is the most bad kind of RPG art because it has the most purpose and is the most like a machine part. 

So, to return to my original point, art in games that is good is often the art that has least ‘purpose’. Generally this means that the art is generative, it came in earlier in the planning process, perhaps it originated the planning process. It wasn’t made to fill a role, it created the context in which other decisions were made.

I’m thinking here about the different approaches to development represented by Games Workshop and whoever is running D&D. (Hasbro? Wizards?) I don’t actually know much about this in detail but I will give you my impressions.

It looks to me that from the beginning Games Workshop brought in artists and based their games and ideas and products on art that people had already made.  The process I imagine goes like this:-

GW Manager – “John, paint something.”
John Blanche- “What do you want me to paint.”

GW Manager- “Something big and intense that kind of goes ‘RAAWWGH’ with the dark future and maybe a fetish nun.”

John Blanche- “OK I did this.”

GW Manager- “What are those things?”

John Blanche- “They are floating skulls with wires.”

GW Manager- “But why?”

John Blanche- “because they are floating skulls”

GW Manager- “Then they shall be named ‘servo skulls’ and we will make models out of them.”
And that’s where servo-skulls came from, someone saw them in a painting.

Whereas I imagine the scene at D&D HQ more like this.

D&D Manager- “We need a picture of a Troll”

Artist- “What does a Troll look like?”

D&D Manager- “It looks exactly like this” (gives in-depth description)

Artist- “Ok how about this?”

D&D Manager- “More Trollish”

Artist- “How about now?”

D&D Manager- “Yes. That is a Troll. That is the picture I told you to make”

I remember seeing pictures of the inside of Games Workshop and seeing that they had Blanche art everywhere and that the bar was a Dwarf Bar and thinking ‘yes of course, if you have a game company, that’s what you do, why make games at all if you can’t do that?’. And I think I recall seeing the inside of Wizards of the Coast on the internet and thinking ‘that looks like an office, the walls are bare, there are cubicles’, and I think I was vaguely passive-aggressively satisfied by this because of course Americans wouldn’t get it. They would think the point of having a games company was to make an efficient machine that churned out games.

(All of this may be bullshit. GW and Wizards are both corporations. Neither should be regarded as ‘nice’. A machine of capital and greed cannot be ‘nice’. However..)

However, it does seem that GW regards artists quite differently in its development process. They are brought in earlier, given more freedom  and generally seem more organically integrated. At least from listening to GW interviews, it seems that people are feeding off each others ideas and images quite a lot.

I do think the standard of art in GW is higher than that in D&D, I think part of the reason for this is the way the companies are organised.

(Sound reasons to disagree with this include ‘it’s just your taste in art’, ‘GW lucked out by having some exceptional artists in from the beginning’ and ‘you don’t know enough about this to be commenting on it’ also ‘you are prejudiced against American cultural products because you are a thoughtless, smug little-englander and you have found a way to be chauvinist about fucking toys.’)

So I have given something a negative definition. Art is good when it is not ‘purposed’. That is very easy to do when you are being Mr Smug on a blog, but it is not so useful when you are actually trying to make a thing. When you move from being the consumer to the producer, negative descriptions are not enough. You must go towards, rather than away. This has lead me to think about what I want in art and what it should do.
The answer I have come up with is ‘Psychic Energy’. It’s not a metaphor. I mean ACTUAL PSYCHIC ENERGY THAT CAN PROJECT YOU INTO ANOTHER WORLD or at least with the desire to be in that world.

Some games are well-designed and bad and some games are fucking horrific train-wrecks of design and are still good. The difference is that some have psychic energy and some do not.

Some clusters of ideas, description and actions can fill you with the imminence of being in another world. I shit you not, the gun descriptions in Cyberpunk 2020 were actually transcendent artefacts. Because of course the nightmare future would be described through its guns. And through a long list of guns too. (And when I say ‘world’ I don’t just mean as in like the land and things there, but also the relations between people that might take place there.)

Because the game is not written down in front of you. It takes place between you and other people. And generally the game doesn’t need to inspire everyone playing to the same extent. Mainly it needs to jam a sliver of desire into the head of the DM. They will then actively seek out people to make the game happen. Very often games are forced into being by one person with a weird idea stuck in their head. So that’s what art has to do. Jam that idea into the brain.

It’s not like advertising. ‘Hey come to this world and have fun’. It’s more like otherness. Like a shard of something else poking through. That is what good RPG art should be. An incursion from, or relic of, some other place. Presenting itself so vibrantly and powerfully that it leaves puckers in the skin of reality that won’t heal. Like finding something in your drink that won’t dissolve, sliding around in the bottom of the glass. An idea rolling around in the back of your brain long after you picked it up. Something you can’t quite forget.

And there shouldn’t be any art in there that does not do that. It’s not like you have to be fair to all the mediocre art that didn’t get in. You don’t have to be complete. It’s not an encyclopaedia or a dictionary, it’s just pretending to be one. It’s something else wearing the disguise of a reference book. A kidnapper dressed as a policeman. The book isn’t here to define all the fourteen varieties of ghost you can find. It’s here to make you feel like there is a ghost in the room, even more, it wants to turn you into someone who wants to make others feel that way. It’s a conductor for a kind of cultic behaviour.

So that is my rule for art I suppose.

You will have your own list of games that have or do not have psychic energy. It’s actually easier to notice it’s presence when it doesn’t coincide with quality.  That is to say, bad art or bad games with psychic energy let you see the energy more. You will notice this when you go to see a film and when you ask yourself if you liked it, you cannot deny it was good, but nothing happened inside you. Something can tick every box of things you think you like, it can be well made, with care, but when you leave the theatre there is nothing. And sometimes you cannot say it was anything other than bad, but it still had an effect on you inside.

(My most recent sense-memory of this is Star Trek Into Darkness. Whenever I watch the work of JJ Abrams and/or Damon Lidlehoff, I am eventually filled with a peculiar feeling of inner deadness. It’s opposite is probably Baz Lurmans The Great Gatsby. Which is a terrible terrible film. I literally had my head in my hands at multiple points because Baz Lurman has the subtlety and  discretion of a caffeinated ten-year old. Yet. There was something there. It was, at least, not a pale shadow of endlessly digested ideas. It was a bit like being spoken to intently by an amusing idiot on the bus. They might be fucking stupid, and you are glad to be getting off the bus, but they are themselves entire. They have something inside them.)


  1. I worked in comics and artists had a power of their own writers mostly second class a bit above colorists and inkers mostly - stan lees account of creative credit disputes are enlightening - and both sides had points. Im a bit of a layout snob but i still put good ideas over spelling, and fonts. GW and 40k line always had great art (and some sad art legal fueds) and i normally dont like cluttered space waste borders and texturised paper but those guys pull it off well every time. Pathfinder style is so recognizable but does not move me. Best description of bazz yet - his like a drunken drag queen crying but still more soul than "i never liked star trek" abrams

  2. This is the best thing yet written about RPG art.

  3. "they are themselves entire"

    entire what? are there such people? how do i become one?

  4. My personal watermark for Art-That-Takes-You-Some-Place-Else is this:

    It's entirely pixel art, except for that moon in the background of every shot. The moon is the only high definition part of the scene, and for some reason that is entirely ineffable, it gives me some numinous sense of belonging just to look at it.

  5. I really like this read on what's wrong with so much RPG art these days. I guess I see it in a way that's semi-similar to this, but with a slightly different tone? I've got my American utilitarianism baked into me, so I'm always going to approach RPG art from a 'how do I make it work best' perspective.

    For me, good RPG art is always going to be instructional and inspirational. The mechanics of the game tell you how to structure things, but it's the art that puts the worm of a session idea under your skin and makes you itch until you play it out. It communicates the experience (or range of experiences) that the system is being designed to be best at supporting, then acts as a source of inspiration to help kickstart your creative process.

    The thing is, you need a lot of flow both from the designers to the artists (to make sure the artists get what the game's target experience is going to be), but also from the artists to the designers (to make sure the experience is genuinely compelling). I definitely agree that there seems to be something amazingly unhealthy and one-way controlling about most big-name RPG book art direction.

  6. Also realizing that the art that inspires me comes from outside of rpgs, from old woodcuts or deviantart or classic paintings or random searches. But agree we need more roughage in the diet, less heroic posing and action combat shots, more of what happens before and after combat or what explains the world or simply is weird for weird sakes.

  7. I wonder if this is why, say, 4e gets some of the rap that it did/does... so much of the art is attractive people in armor, posing.

    1. @Pearce

      I don't think that "attractive people in armor posing" is quite the issue. I mean, there are plenty of counterexamples. Frazetta, Brom, Richard Corben.

  8. The observation about bad design having strong psychic energy immediately took me back to the RIFTS RPG player's guide. Specifically the handful of full color full page art plates. Bound into the center of an otherwise black and white printed book.

    Those few pages ARE a glimpse into the soul of that game world.

  9. The artists I would love to see doing artwork for RPGs

    M. Hutter
    Edward Gorey (would love to see his take on elves and halflings)
    George Grosz (would love to see his take on dwarves)
    Mervyn Peake
    Edward Lear (would love to see his take on a party having a battle in a dungeon)
    George Herriman
    Paul Klee (don't know why)
    Dr. Seuss (dungeon design)
    George Cruikshank
    Odilon Redon (of course)

    That's all I can think of at the moment. Not an exhaustive list, and not really clear why I chose some of them, but any RPG book that had those guys doing the art (especially all in one book) would get my support. System wouldn't matter. Could be completely unplayable and it wouldn't matter because it would be a great springboard.

    And yes, most of them are dead and couldn't be hired any more, but it is only a wish list.

    Would love to hear other people's ideas on which artist, if only so I can look them up and learn more shit.

  10. It's no accident that the best ever art for D&D was the stuff Tony Diterlizzi did on Planescape, and he was involved in things right from the beginning. I think Monte Cook just basically said to him "Paint the Multiverse", and he did, and they made a setting out of it.

  11. My go-to definition of art is Alan Moore's, which I think you come close to articulating in this post. Talking about all art (in fact, to some extent more about words than pictures) he says that art and magic are the same thing.

    To unpack this a little: magic is a way of bringing into the world things which did not previously exist, and which can have major effects on the state of the world, purely through the power of the human mind. Which is what art does. Alan has quite a bit of experience of this in his own work: for example he decided to put a Guy Fawkes mask on the character in V for Vendetta, a phenomenon which leaked out into our world in ways he hadn't predicted. (He also once told Charlie Brooker something along the lines of "if you didn't want David Cameron to be unmasked as a pig fucker, you shouldn't have written it!")

    He points out that historically art *was* magic, with the words spell and spelling cognate, as are grimoire and grammar. And while sticks and stones can kill someone, it takes a satire to curse them in a way that can negatively affect them for hundreds of years after their death.

    Funny that you mention that advertising is not art. In Alan's opinion, advertisers are the leading - or at least most self-aware - magicians of the modern age. They know exactly what they're doing when they cast their incantations.

    That's my interpretation of his position, anyway. It sounds better coming from his mouth (I mean, *everything* sounds better in that rich Northampton accent):