Interview with The Daily Bruin at UCLA

I had the honour of being interviewed by UCLA’s student newspaper, The Daily Bruin, during my recent visit to Los Angeles to give talks at UCLA’s Game Lab, and USC’s Interactive Media Division. Visit the Daily Bruin website for the interview conducted by Colin Reid, or read the transcription below.

By Colin Reid, Bruin Senior Staff
September 26th 2012

With a background in both classical art and computer animation, artist game designer and recent author Chris Solarski can be considered somewhat of a Renaissance man. After having worked at Sony Computer Entertainment in London for a time, Solarski attended the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, where he discovered a personal interest and surprising relationship between classical and video game art.

Now, in an era where video games are both acknowledged and disputed as a legitimate art form, Solarski found an audience in the UCLA Game Lab, where he will be lecturing this evening on his new book “Drawing Basics and Video Game Art: Classics to Cutting-Edge Art Techniques for Winning Video Game Design.” Daily Bruin’s Colin Reid spoke with Solarski about the evolution of video games, the similar psychology behind classical and video game art and his views on the virtual medium’s place within the art world.

Daily Bruin: While writing your book, what end goal guided you to its completion, and what were you hoping the book would accomplish?

Chris Solarski: The main purpose of the book is to be a practical reference for game designers. … Although video games have moved on quite far in terms of their entertainment and the experiences they deliver, they are still very much rooted in board games and tabletop games. Now that games are taking inspiration from film and music, it’s surprising how little has changed since the early days, and I wanted to really push the possibilities in terms of what we can deliver in terms of emotional experiences. I do this by exploring the connections between classical and video game (art).

DB: You talk about how basic shapes in art works relate to viewer emotion within your book. What other topics do you explore and why did you feel it was necessary to include them?

CS: I really hope that I have created a comprehensive definition of the aesthetics of video games. This is something which is very important because people still debate whether games are an art form. We have exhibitions at the Smithsonian and many others internationally. But still, no one can actually define in very simple words what the actual connections between the more established art forms are. So the book, from start to finish, covers everything from advanced anatomy to the basics and elements of design.

DB: Can you describe your creative process when designing art for a video game? Do you plan and begin like you’re designing any other piece of art, like a painting or drawing, or is it completely different?

CS: Because painting and drawing is often one (static) statement … there is definitely a (different) process. With video games you can relate more to the narrative that you’re creating, so the process begins with a story. The story can come from one specific experience that you had in your life. It can come from your reaction to listening to a piece of music, or even from something like a painting. And from then on, it is very much the same … The more research you do, the more chances there are for you to discover an unexpected way of communicating it all. Or even the possibility for you to learn about this particular emotion because it’s like a journalistic endeavour, where you really do have to become an expert on what you’re communicating. So that when people come to experience the result, they feel like they’re in safe hands and really feel like the thing that you’re giving them to experience is significant, or a genuine example of these emotions.

DB: How do you define the term “art,” and do you believe a video game could someday be on the same level of artistic ability and public appreciation as say, the “Mona Lisa?”

CS: My definition of an artwork is something that is designed with the intent to elicit certain emotions in an audience. The minute we start to put aside gaming’s roots in board games and puzzle games, … and create more meaningful experiences using the tools I hopefully have outlined sufficiently in my book, then there’s absolutely no reason why we can’t create artwork on the same level as classical art.

DB: You stated in a recent lecture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum that basic artistic shapes, in both classical works of art and in video games, influence emotion. For example, spherical images evoke a feeling of safety, whereas angular images tend to be more aggressive. Why do you think this is?

CS: We have this short term understanding whether something’s dangerous or delicate. Things that are rounded tend to be much safer than things that are sharp. What happens when we see these images on screen is that the artist is creating this illusion of danger or something which is non aggressive. And we respond to these based on our past experiences. So even though the screen is flat and we can’t interact with it physically, we’re still responding to it based on our instincts.

DB: So would you say there’s a kind of psychology to the art?

CS: Very much so … I think more people identify with the idea of movement and animation, like in a Pixar film. Why do we believe that the character breaths? (This is) an illusion, (it doesn’t) actually exist. This magic trick that’s being created is the work of the artist, (and) the illusion is more immersive than ever before. Traditionally, if we were talking about paintings and drawings, then it was just something the viewer would look at and experience. Whereas with video games, all these lines and movements that we see on screen actually become something that the player experiences physically and so it does become more tactile, not in terms of touch, but in terms of physical movement and responding to what happens on screen. And this is something that games can be very proud of. (It) really demonstrates why eventually, when we really do start to create more meaningful experiences, games will become very dominant as a form of expression.

DB: Has the video game medium’s evolution over the decades, from 8-bit to the current console generation, made it more of a legitimate art medium, or less so? In other words, what transformations, if any, in the game development process seem to make critics more accepting or adverse towards the idea of videogames as art?

CS: Well, games have come a long way, and something that I like to point out is that there are so many talented artists on a very high level, (so) it’s not because of a lack of skill that games have not generally been accepted as an artform. The graphics have improved significantly. So visually, we really have every possibility that we want. The thing about video games is that, in terms of artistic experiences, they don’t just rely on visuals. The art of video games connect very much (with) the visuals, the programming, the technologies of running the interactions and also the game design. So all of these disciplines create this emotional experience (but) it’s been difficult for games to bring all of these disciplines together.

DB: So what do you think about IndieCade, the video game conference for independently made games?

CS: Unfortunately I haven’t been there personally, but just reading the reviews from the (Electronic Entertainment Expo), (Game Developer’s Conference) and Indiecade, it was interesting to read that this year many people seemed to be bored by the (Electronic Entertainment Expo). Whereas the things I read about IndieCade seemed to (reveal) that people were really excited. I heard some developers saying there was a magical feeling in the air, that it was like a new beginning … It was interesting to get the impression that there is a transition happening, that indie games are on the rise, and we’ll hopefully see more of them in the spotlight.

DB: Since you recently wrote a complete book on it, there are many reasons and arguments supporting video games as an official art medium. But why are there some individuals who think the opposite and what do they generally believe in regards to this topic?

CS: The general resistance to accepting video games as an art form, something which I share myself, is that we are so rooted in these board games and puzzle games. (As a result), the expressive possibilities of video games are very small. When we look at film and music, there are so many more emotions that these mediums can express. … With video games, it’s usually just the one experience that we have over the length of the video game, and in many cases, it’s an aggressive one. … And so there are so many more emotions that we experience in our daily lives, which are still unexplored. It’s mainly because of this lack of definition of the aesthetics of video games and this inability to articulate what games are exactly, that has in a way stopped us. And I hope that the book will open up these new possibilities and put us on a new level in this creative era.

DB: So where is the future of video games headed?

CS: I hope that they’ll become shorter experiences, not these 10-hour-plus games that are very common. I hope they’ll become simpler to play so that everyone can enjoy them including my mother and grandmother maybe. (I want) to explore games that maybe make you feel sad, like listening to a sad music CD. … Where it’s not necessarily about entertainment in terms of having fun and jumping around the environments. It’ll be much more subtle and in a way that demonstrates what’s to come.


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