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

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

    Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

    £90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

    Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

    £96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

    Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

    £32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system