Design: action replay

From the early abstractions of Pac-Man and Tetris to the hyper- real alternative universes of Lara Croft and Tekken, computer games have always had a distinctive, hugely influential visual style. The games industry is now bigger than Hollywood. About time, then, for an official history. By Jessica Cargill Thompson
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The megastar status of the computer game is something that not even the most stubborn technophobe can ignore. It's not just that it's a pounds 1bn industry in the UK alone, raking in more money than cinema (worldwide, the takings on Tomb Raider II were greater than those of the movie Titanic), or the fact that 30 new titles appear each week. The real feat is that computer games are now officially part of our visual culture, infiltrating other media and flaunting their own distinctive look. Tomb Raider heroine Lara Croft is advertising Seat cars, hip magazines such as The Face draw heavily on computer-games imagery, and Sega games now has its own theme park complete with obligatory spin-off merchandise.

Once thought of as something for kids, games now appeal to an older audience - the average age of a PC games player is 29, and 22 for video games. Many players have grown up with the developing medium, but games have also become more challenging and adult-oriented, boasting increasingly sophisticated graphics, better control of characters, taxing strategic challenges and more worldly scenarios.

Liz Faber's book RE:Play: The Ultimate Games Graphics celebrates the inexorable rise of computer games, from the monochrome blip-blip hockey game Pong (released in 1972) to the 3-D realism of this year's hit, Gran Turismo, in which the racing cars are so convincing you can see the advertising billboards reflected in their shiny paintwork.

For games aficionados, the book provides something of a nostalgia trip. While the basic two-bats-and-a-ball of early games such as Pong or Atari Tennis cannot be compared with today's interactive worlds, there is something about their minimalist abstraction that affords them the status of design classics. The simple forms of later characters such as the Space Invaders and Pac-Man have become instantly recognisable icons in their own right.

As games consoles rapidly became more powerful - 8-bit (1986), 16-bit (1991), 32-bit (1994), 64-bit (1996) - the possibilities of what characters could do, and the worlds they could inhabit, expanded. Fighting games were born, with the infamous Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat; the player could explore the virtual worlds in the first person (which usually involved shooting anything that got in their way, such as in the much-imitated Doom, 1993); movements of human characters could be electronically modelled on real people (in the case of sports games, real-life stars); and full-motion video could be incorporated.

The most significant leap has been the introduction of the high-powered 64-bit super console (dominated by Sony whose PlayStation has 79 per cent of the market) and the corresponding use of 3-D modelling software to create more accurate representations of real life. These 3-D worlds can supply incredibly convincing simulations, be it in the movement of a character (Tekken 3, for example, has a different button controlling each of the fighter's limbs) or the creation of realistic experiences (fans say playing the latest Grand Prix games is the next best thing to being at the track).

However, this obsession with realism has been at the expense of pure imagination. The market has simply been flooded with Doom clones and increasingly realistic beat-'em-up, flight "sims" (simulations), driving games and football sims - older abstract games such as the simple yet addictive Tetris, where complex shapes had to be fitted into corresponding spaces, were about pure games-playing combining strategy and speed. Meanwhile, vast 3-D worlds often lie empty, the programmer running out of time and ideas for things to fill them with. The honourable exception here is Mario 64 which creates numerous surreal fantasy worlds without running out of innovative new tasks and challenges.

"Today the graphics of a game are frequently judged on how close they come to reality, rather than any alternative aesthetic aims - the basic visual style of the game is the same," says Philip O'Dwyer of State Design, which produced the graphics for RE:Play. "The processing and display limitations of games systems experienced by early games designers necessitated an economy of visual expression that frequently produced inventive and abstract results."

Violet Berlin, columnist for cult games magazine Digitiser, who has played or reviewed just about every computer game for the past decade, shares this dissatisfaction. "You can do anything with computer graphics so why restrict yourself to mimicking real life? Let's see them create worlds where gravity is non-existent, or where there's no friction ... The replays on Gran Turismo are superb, but anyone can see that on Eurosport. Computer graphics and computer games are a chance to get really creative, and - with the notable exceptions such as Mario 64, Banjo Kazooi and Goldeneye - we don't see much of that."

In an industry that moves at such a pace, people are reluctant to predict future developments, although everyone is poised for the next big launch - Sega's Dreamstation - which will hit Japan in November, and North America a year later. Developed in association with leading electronics companies such as Microsoft, Hitachi, NEC, Videologic, and Yamaha, it will offer superb 128-bit graphics, 3-D Surround Sound and, most important, the opportunity for players to network via the Internet in one huge international multi- player game.

"Predicting the look of games in the future is sci-fi really," says RE- Play author Faber. "John Romero [creator of Doom], whom I interviewed for the book, sees things dipping into soap opera culture in which we are fed a game in instalments via the Internet. But as far as the games themselves are concerned, if they are going to have the mass appeal of film and video, someone needs to create games that appeal to a wider audience. At the moment, they're still quite laddie."

Whatever anyone might have thought at the beginning of the decade, it is clear that computer games are not just a teenage trend. Now firmly embedded in popular culture, they are as much a part of our lifestyle and economy as film, art or pop music. And now that the graphics teams have shown the way, maybe someone will get round to doing something about those terrible soundtracks

`RE:Play: The Ultimate Games Graphics' is published by Laurence King on 3 November, price pounds 19.95.