Last weekend, I ended up on a surprise trip to Rome, thanks to my fantastic partner and her Gollum-level secretses skillz. We had a right good explore around the city, as well as the highlights of the Vatican (somewhere I’ve always wanted to have a good look around). Some of the stuff we saw sparked a lot of thinking, from the profound to the profane. Something that really got the mental juices flowing, wherever we were in Rome, though, was art. Sculpture, paintings, frescos, architecture, gilding, even the food. It’s a heady and confusing pile of beautiful, ugly, ostentatious, elegant, grand and understated.
So here’s where my country bumpkin brain wandered to while I was gawping at some seriously old bits of rock.
A lot of the time when we’re designing a game, whether its the mechanical aspects of when and where to shuffle your cardboard and plastic pieces across the tabletop, or the artistic style that we want to instil into it – we talk about the constraints of a project. Most of the time we talk about how much things will cost to produce, how much time it will take, whether we have the resources to do it, whether it meets the requirements of the projects, or how much it communicates the ‘message’ of the project.
Particularly when we’re diving into the artwork, we spend a lot of time talking about the limitations of a particular style and how choosing one style over another can have profound implications for the rest of the work on that game. It could mean that presenting information on cards or tokens becomes more difficult, or more simple, it could mean that the game is more unique, or more marketable.
What we never really bother to think about is how those constraints, limitations, whatever, of each art style are more *features* of that style, and not a negative trait that needs to be overcome to get the best for the project.
In recent years, after a decade-long surge of hyper-realistic graphics in the video games industry, there’s been a resurgence of pixel and low-poly art as an indie art form, utilising the features of simplicity as much as complexity. Artists are using the challenges of the medium to communicate more, by letting the onlooker fill the gaps with their imagination, and spark a greater, personal, understanding of the world they’re being presented with, rather than presenting it to them preconceived in its entirety.
It’s certainly the case that the most enjoyable experiences when playing a game, reading a book or whatever you do for fun are when you’re fully immersed in the thing that you’re doing. In the case of video games, this is often achieved by making the world as realistic as possible within the constraints of the graphics card you’ve got, and the technical ability of the team that made that game. Particularly in tabletop games, immersion is often seen as an impossible challenge, with many designers opting for abstract games or ‘pasted’ themes to get around the issue of not being able to immerse players *enough* to warrant attempting it. Video games have the distinct advantage of having sound, light and movement to help them bring you in to their world. It’s kinda hard to do that with cubes of wood.
But the interesting part comes with video games like ‘Papers, Please‘, where you play the role of a soviet-esque border guard, checking incoming citizens, foreigners and potential terrorists’ papers in an attempt to weed out those that do harm to the motherland. It’s proper retro, and barely uses any artistic flourishes to get the job done. It’s a beautifully immersive game in that it uses the simplicity of the pixel art medium to communicate the bland simplicity and bureaucratic malaise of Soviet era society. With this game, you can easily communicate people’s racial biases with the change of a couple of pixels, and make people realise they’re doing it at the same time. It’s an ingenious game, and it doesn’t feel like the artistic medium used to communicate the style and message of the project is compromised by the perceived limitations of that medium.
It then begs the question, what can you do with something so simple? How far can you take it? How much can you communicate with limited information? For pixel artists, this is their bread and butter. How few pixels can I use to make a thing look like a thing.
Some take it to the extreme.
Others take a more liberal approach.
Now the question is, if something so simple can say so much, what’s to stop us using the same logic in tabletop games? Tabletop games are naturally far more sociable than video games, in that in general you’re around a table with friends or adversaries, directly interacting with each other (even in games with indirect economic competition like Dominion). This means that you’re likely to get a lot more decent conversation than if you’re playing COD with some errant pre-teen half way around the world, spouting misogynistic speculation about the private life of your parents. This can lead to some really interesting interaction with the game’s theme and content, between players, discussing what those gaps *could* be. When you’ve got room to interpret, people will swiftly realise that they look at something in a completely different way, and that can generate some pretty high quality table talk. Ideas are fun.
So swinging all the way back to my wee jaunt to Rome last weekend. What on Earth does all this garble have to do with Ancient Rome?
The Ancient Romans and their successors were pretty great at making things look fancy, from sculpture to architecture to my personal favourite, aqueducts. While craning my neck in the cavernous and awe-inspiring (and I mean that in the literal sense) St Peter’s Basilica, the centrepiece of the Vatican, I saw thousands of paintings and sculptures daubed up every surface, but the things that caught my eye the most were the mosaics. Rather than being ostentatiously intricate and frankly over the top, the mosaics were incredibly expressive, carrying with them the care and thought of their artistic parent, as well as the looming presence of the message to be communicated behind them, without giving away too much.
To an extent, the mosaics were most interesting when you squinted at them a bit. What were they thinking of when they arranged these anisotropic chunks of coloured ceramic, what emotions did they experience and how did this influence using this colour over that, carefully placing them row by row or flambouyantly throwing them down as they saw fit. Most of all, what were the key ideas behind the art? With the more realistic style of renaissance era paintings that dominated the vast church, it was kind of obvious. It didn’t really make you think too much. It was more of a ‘That’s a big picture of that specific scene of that bit of the Bible with a post-counter-reformation slant on it’.
What was most interesting were these wiggly expressions of the same ideas that inspired and guided the more intricate paintings, a kind of old-school pixel art. You’re probably thinking at this point that this article is getting a bit weird. First I was talking about deciding between different art styles, then I was talking about thoughts and ideas between pixels, and now I’m waffling on about wandering about an old building and how I liked the crappiest thing there.
What I’m getting to is that with careful choice of style, we can use the perceived limitations of tabletop games as a medium of artistic expression to our advantage to tell a compelling story, or present a novel idea, or say something powerful. This could be as simple as including a diverse cast in a game, refusing to use racial stereotypes, or as complex as embedding thousands of years of history and religious doctrine into a sculpture of a chubby winged baby.
We *should* try to do this. Games are fun, games are joyful and entertaining, and for the most part can be a great way of sharing in a positive experience with others. Games are, however, another form of art, just like comics, books, paintings, sculptures or architecture. Everything creative is inherently political in a way, even if it’s not intended to be. Every choice we make when we make something informs the consumer of that thing on our thoughts, experiences, biases and prejudices. In this way we have, as creatives, a responsibility to take control of the message we are communicating with our art, and make it a good one. That doesn’t mean it can’t be negative, though. There are some wonderfully powerful and bleak games, like Underground Railroad, which don’t seek to be a ‘fun’ experience, but an informative one, much in the same way as you don’t visit a Holocaust museum as a ‘fun activity’, you go because it’s a way of informing yourself and engaging with History.
The point is, to come to a roundabout conclusion, a choice of artistic style/medium isn’t just a question of what ‘looks good’, but a more serious choice of how you choose to communicate an idea, a feeling or emotion, and the manner in which you do that.
That famous phrase should probably read ‘A picture can be worth a thousand words’
Let’s make them ones that mean stuff.