For centuries, art movements have established themselves outside of what was critically thought of, or accepted at the time, as art. In the early 1900s artists such as Alphonse Mucha, Jules Chéret, Toulouse-Lautrec and others helped transform simple poster advertising into an art-form it was called Art Nouveau. At the time, the advert designs weren’t widely fawned over in galleries and not commonly critically acknowledged as ‘art’ like they are now. Fans of the style knew different and time has proved them right. Sound familiar? The same thing can be said about art in Games. Whether you consider Games themselves as art or not (and yes that is worth exploring albeit another time perhaps, read MoMA and the Question of Video Games as Art for some thoughts), the video game industry is one that effectively cultivates incredible illustrative artwork within the medium.
Since the 8-bit era, games have attracted an eclectic mix of ambitious artists to its cause. Just as the modest pixel games of the 80s spanned into blockbuster franchises over the decades, the career trajectory of many games artists has similarly soared.
As Dragon Quest took off, it would span countless sequels and still goes strong. Toriyama is still a core part of every game’s design team. You can’t talk about the artist’s work within games without mentioning Chrono Trigger either, still regarded by many as a masterpiece of the RPG genre like. Toriyama also did the artwork for the Playstation fighter Tobal 1 and more recently Blue Dragon (Xbox360) and Blue Dragon Plus (Nintendo DS). Ok, it goes without saying that it seems as if a new Dragon Ball Z game is being released every 30 minutes (which he oversees art for with the aid of assistants at his ‘Bird Studio‘), but it’s his consistent artistic commitment to original games art that has helped bolster Toriyama’s portfolio, particularly in Japan, where it’s associated with his style on a par with his comic work.
A year after Dragon Quest first drew near, future publishing partner Square released their own RPG property and had also actively assigned an imaginative illustrator to help envision it. Final Fantasy came out in 1987 and introduced Yositaka Amano’s art to the world of games. Amano was noted as somewhat of a protégé. He was hired by Tatsunoko animation studio in 1967 as a concept artist at the age of 15 after reportedly leaving a sketch book behind during a visit. He designed characters for Gatchaman, Tekkaman and Casshan among others. In 1983 he was illustrating the Vampire Hunter D novellas and as such was an established artist by the time Final Fantasy entered production. Square wanted to bring a high profile artist help elevate the unknown fledgling series and it worked so well that it’s debatably now the most impressive thing on Amano‘s resume. Since then he has created design work in varying capacities for every major release of the franchise, most notably the signature title art.
Many artists have since established parallel careers is both games, comics and illustration in this way. But few within such enduring franchises. There are artists who’s styles evoke their game work whatever they do. Through the 90s Capcom had an incredible team of artists working for them that created designs for everything from Street Fighter to DarkStalkers and set a precedent for how other studios would use their publicity art. Artists such as Akiman, Kinu Nishimura (more recently a character designer on ChunSoft’s Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward and Agashima Entertainment’s Code of Princess, both on the 3DS) , Dai-Chan, Ikeno and Shinkiro (formerly creating designs for SNK on King of Fighters among others, has also created comic artwork for Marvel and Udon comics) were identifiable by their highly distinct styles. Their artwork was not just featured as part of the game, it was also the advert for the game.
It’s not unheard of for game designers and creators to do the artwork themselves either. Daisuke Ishiwarari did all the iconic manga style artwork for Guilty Gear (as well as writing the script, music and voicing characters. Sheesh!). Square-Enix producer Tetsuya Nomura has regularly contributed art to many of the games he’s worked on, such as The World Ends With You (Nintendo DS) and the Kingdom Hearts series. Often art directors not only oversee but contribute too. If you’re a fan of Atlus then you’ll notice the artwork in many of their games shares the same style. The style belongs to Shigenori Soejima who, like many illustrators in the industry, worked his way up from a lowly programming designer to an art director role creating artwork on Persona3, Persona 4, Catherine and others.
Basically art is important in games and important for games. Parrapa the Rapper wouldn’t have been so memorable were it not for Rodney A. Greenblatt’s imaginative and unique artwork. Katamari and Noby Noby Boy would never have been so bright and eccentric had creator Keita Takahashi not infused it with his particular artistic sensibilities. The grit and drama of the Metal Gear Solid and Zone of the Enders is expressed expertly through Yoji Shinkawa’s frantic brush strokes. The games we love act as a mirror to the artwork that conceived them.
Even in this era of photo realistic digital art, traditional art is effectively used to promote Games and whip up the viral frenzy. All we know about Grand Theft Auto V at present is that it’s going to feature a ‘would be Scarface’ executing missions and gangland rivals. But, we also know it’s going to have kick-ass graphic artwork. Rockstar understand that the value of attractive artistic design goes beyond merely resigning it to the concept stage. As with Anthony MacBain’s bold poster art for Red Dead Redemption and previous GTAs, the vivid art of GTA V will be stealing away our attention toward billboards, game magazine covers and most importantly shelves when it hits. For a game publisher good design sets your product apart, if you’re an artist it sets you apart.
Games are not limited to a small world of art styles, the creative scope is limitless. From crisp minimalist approaches seen in Loco Roco, Journey, Eufloria and Sound Shapes to the nostalgic pixel art (an art style unique to games) of Bit Trip Runner, Cave Story, Fez and Sword and Sworcery EP. You can see abstract art in games like Rez and Child of Eden. You can find Cézanne inspired impressionism in the Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. Art is abundant in games and as long as this flourishes and isn’t marginalized too much by styles formulaically popular in the yearly AAA releases, there isn’t any reason why this won’t continue.
It took less than 20 years for Art Nouveau to peak as a creative movement, achieve wider acknowledgement as an art form and dissipate beneath the wave of new trends. Games consoles have been in our living rooms for over a quarter of a century and the artwork attributed to the medium is still yet to become recognized by a wider critical audience as anything more than nice pictures.
From Mar to Sep 2012 the Smithonian Art Museum ran “The Art of Video Games” exhibition and a whole lot of that has to do with the many forms of creativity in games, not just the artwork. I was lucky enough to go to the The Games Art Exhibition at City Hall during the London Games Festival this year and the hand drawn concept art for Dishonored and Arkham Asylum blew me away – it’s a shame you never usually get to see this stuff. It increasingly seems like we’re finally on the right track of being able to appreciate what incredible artistic talent the world of video games offers and how it reflects the culture of our generation.
We should enjoy and applaud the flourishing illustrative art we find in games, we‘re in a golden age and barely realize it. As a collector I’d encourage any fan of art and/or games to take a look at what incredible art books and fan sites are out there. If you played a good game recently, no matter the genre chances are some incredible artist drew it into life. Good art helps make a good game great! You might not always find game artwork hanging in galleries, but it’s always where it matters most, and that’s in the game itself.