My piece for Artslant On The Parallels of Mario Kart and Rubens …..

(Among others …)

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How Mario Kart Is Like Rubens: The Classical Principles of Video Game Art

by Jade Angeles Fitton

Remember those misspent days spent playing Golden Axe? Remember your parents confiscating yourMario Kart? Turns out your parents didn’t appreciate good art when they saw it.

Golden Axe, Atari

Super Mario Kart, Super Nintendo

Today many people passionately acknowledge computer game art as relevant, “legitimate,” art. Others believe that computer game art is dumbed down, that the pinnacle of artistic talent was the Renaissance—with “The Masters,” like Caravaggio, Leonardo Da Vinci, Rubens, and Titian—where light, lines, and shapes were studied endlessly and used in emotive ways to create powerful windows onto worlds. Well, breaking news, readers: the same is true of computer games.

Computer and video game art use exactly the same principles as the old masters: the basic shapes in both classical works of art and in games influence emotion, and the art divines purpose. For example, spherical images evoke a feeling of safety, whereas angular images tend to be more aggressive (but let’s not get in to the psychology behind this right now…) .

Illustrated below by Chris Solarski—author of Drawing Basics and Video Game Art: Classic to Cutting Edge Art Techniques for Award Winning Design—is the effect of shapes and angles on characterization and emotion.

Illustration copyright © 2012 from Drawing Basics and Video Game Art: Classic to Cutting Edge Art Techniques for Winning Video Game Design (Watson Guptill 2012) by Chris Solarski, featuring from left to right: Kirby by Masahiro Sakurai, The Scythian by Superbrothers, and Bowser by Shigeru Miyamoto

Kirby (the pink ball) is spherical—and circular is sweet, gentle, and approachable. At the other end of the spectrum we meet Bowser (the spikey red-headed turtle thing) who, we instinctively surmise, even without having played Mario, is a “bad guy”: nasty, spiky, dangerous.

In the same vein, Solarski demonstrates how the use of archetypal curves and angles in both classical works of art and in video games influences emotion. Angular shapes make scenes more aggressive and dramatic:

Gears of War, Epic Games 2006

Whereas spherical lines and images evoke a feeling of safety and calmness:

Illustration copyright © 2012 from Drawing Basics and Video Game Art: Classic to Cutting Edge Art Techniques for Winning Video Game Design (Watson Guptill 2012) by Chris Solarski, featuring Diana and Her Companions (c. 1653) by Johannes Vermeer (left), and Massacre of the Innocents (c.1610) by Peter Paul Rubens (right).

Super Mario Galaxy (2007), Nintendo

Below is another example of basic shapes and aesthetic constructs being the same, whether from 1585 or 1985—all that has changed is the medium.

The building blocks of a group of figures by Luca Cambiaso (1527 – 1585)

The building blocks for  a 3D character base in computer game

The principles remain the same whether you’re Botticelli drawing an alluring bottom, or Mario Bros. drawing a friendly ally. These basic shapes, these archetypes hit a primal note with us.

Computer games theoretically have the capacity to take their audience even further emotionally by allowing the user to interact with the scene, however primitive it might appear. As Sean Fenty describes in his essay “Why Old School Is ‘Cool'”:

Graphic minimalism goes hand-in-hand with the absorptive, World Unto Itself quality that makes these games special…When we play these games, the sketchy visual detail forces us to fill in the blanks, and in so doing we bind ourselves to the game world. Even more, we participate in its creation, we are a linchpin, a co-creator, crucial to the existence of the game world as it is meant to be experienced.

Gaming art is established: this is no longer something new. MoMA has exhibited games and the Smithsonian Institute’s 2012 exhibition The Art of Video Games stated that video and computer games “can be considered a compelling and influential form of narrative art.” With the help of the public, the exhibition chose 80 games and went through 20 gaming systems from Playstation 3 to the Atari VCS. The museum hails itself as “the first to comprehensively examine the evolution of video games as an artistic medium.”

Panzer Dragoon Saga (Adventure) Sega Saturn–One of the 80 games exhibited at The Smithsonian

Museums have also taken further steps to solidify games and video game art within art history by acquiring them for their permanent collections. Games have been selected “as outstanding examples of interaction design.” Case in point: in 2012 MoMA acquired its first 14 video games including Pac-Man,The Sims, Tetris, and Another World for its permanent collection deeming them all “historically, culturally and aesthetically relevant.”

Pac-Man, 1980. Tōru Iwatani of NAMCO LIMITED, now NAMCO BANDAI Games Inc.

Games’ emergence in the art world is not a sudden or recent phenomenon—video game art has been quietly permeating the establishment for the last decade or so. Cory Arcangel revolutionized the way we look at games, with his hacks, including the now iconic Super Mario Clouds (2002)—created by manipulating the game’s hardware and software. The Gnovis Journal has called his exhibitions of hacked and manipulated games an “exercise in nostalgia … exploding the memories many of us cherish of being the sole player in an epic game Arcangel uses nostalgia, memory and simulation to create a present moment in which memories of video game play, and therefore digital cultural memory, are consciously recollected rather than replayed.”

To create the Super Mario Clouds Arcangel opened the game cartridge and replaced the Nintendo graphics chip with a chip containing a program he had written himself. In the tradition of the hacking community, he posted the instructions of how to create your own Mario Clouds (and the F1 Racer modpictured below) at home—tapping into the collective nostalgia of the gaming community for the freedom of information, while also tapping into the individual watching it.

Cory Arcangel, Japanese Driving Game, 2004, Handmade hacked Nintendo Cartridge, Images are courtesy of Cory Arcangel and team (gallery, inc.), New York

The argument is no longer whether Video Game Art is “legitimate art.” The question is now whether computer games have the capacity to take an audience even further emotionally than a 2D painting, and so, is it even a more “legitimate” art form that can be considered even more relevant to today’s viewers?

With computer games, you are in the artist’s world, able to explore it with your own emotions. You can walk through the window of another world. This is evolving with the advancement of virtual reality, and we are beginning to be able to truly immerse ourselves, as wth artist Max Rheiner’s Birdly—where in simulation, you get to fly over San Franscico like a bird (an experience not to be sniffed at). This was featured, among others, as part of the Sundance Institute’s Frontier program during January’s Film Festival, an initiative created to support the emerging artists using new forms of technology and new media to tell stories, artists who in their words are “re-structuring story design.”

Max Rheiner’s, Birdly


From Vermeer to Halo, we are watching the evolution of the old Masters, as a generation of new masters evolve their craft. This could be the point where two worlds collide and the reality of The Matrix is not far off—or it could just be that we appreciate the graphics of Final Fantasy as we would the strokes of Michelangelo. We could be witnessing a pivotal moment in art history. The argument’s answer of legitimacy and relevance however, is up to the individual—and I am yet to fly.

Final Fantasy XV

Jade Angeles Fitton


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