The History of Video Game Art

The Evolution of Gaming Graphics

The history of art and graphical effects in gaming is one of rapid change and advancement, spurred largely by the release of new and more powerful hardware which allowed developers more freedom and flexibility to explore new artistic avenues and directions.

Video gaming started earnestly in the early 1970's with the release of the arcade smash Pong, and the first ever home video game console, the Magnavox Odyssey. Games at this point were little more than white pixels on a black background, though even this far back we can see the origins of numerous future genres of gaming, including the first-person shooter. A game called Maze Wars in 1974 used a wire-frame graphics effect to create a 3-D maze-like labyrinth of passages. Several more systems followed in the 1970's, including the Telstar, the Atari 2600, and the Intellivision. By the end of the decade game graphics had improved to include more pixels and more varied colors, though artistically, the rudimentary graphics prevented any artistic creativity, and all games essentially looked the same.

With the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System in the early 1980's, games could finally begin to develop their own unique aestethics that could separate them from other games on the same platform. While graphics all maintained the same general look and feel, you could instantly tell games apart from one another through their unique sprites, color palettes, and style. It was on the Nintendo Entertainment System that storytelling and music also began to play more pivotal roles in games, leading to the creation of role-playing games like Dragon Warrior, which combined all 3 aspects to create an enthralling adventure for gamers.

It wasn't until the 1990's however that gaming art really started spreading its wings and branching into different avenues. While the main systems of the era, the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis offered lusher and more detailed graphics than the previous generation, both companies also dabbled in unexplored regions. Sega released a CD-based add-on to their Genesis console called the Sega CD. The novelty of the larger space to store games and ability to show actual video clips led to the creation of several Full-Motion-Video games that combined gameplay with video segments. The majority of the games were panned however, and while real-world and animated video clips would live on in gaming, full-blown FMV games would not. Nintendo also released the Virtual Boy in the mid-1990's, touted as a virtual reality, fully-3D system, the device was portable and played through looking into a headset-style device. This too failed the test of time and quickly faded into obscurity however, with critics asserting that the system only offered the illusion of 3D in what were essentially the same 2D-style games as ever. Nintendo would revive 3D gaming years later in a different format with the Nintendo 3DS handheld system, and virtual reality gaming is set to hit the mainstream in 2014 with the Oculus Rift headset.

With the more powerful and expansive CD (and later DVD) based systems of the most recent console generations, gaming as an art form has able to fully develop. Developers were no longer restricted by what they could do, new styles of gaming were created, and different graphical styles were utilized. Each game was now fully capable of expressing itself in a unique way, and could use its artistry and imagery to tell a story in its own right, whether inclusive or irrespective of its actual gameplay. From exploring massive virtual cityscapes in Grand Theft Auto, to exploring the far reaches of the galaxy in Halo, gamers could now be completely immersed by a game's visuals and transported to a different realm like never before.

Graphical Perspectives in Gaming

2D ~ 2D was the most common graphical style of game until the mid-1990's, when 2.5D and 3D games began to excel in popularity. 2D games are essentially shown from one viewpoint, typically either from the top (top-down games like Contra and numerous shooting games) or the side (side-scrolling games like Mario and Sonic, or other shooting games, some of which use both perspectives). A variation on 2D is isometric games, which are games that are essentially fixed-image and 2D in nature, but do so at an angle that lends them more of a 3D appearance. One of the most popular games of all-time, Diablo, uses this perspective, while Fallout and Civilization are some of the others to utilize the technique.

2.5D ~ 2.5D games straddle the line between 2D and 3D, and there's often some confusion as to what a 2.5D game is. Unlike a 2D game which allows movement in only 2 directions, and a fixed viewpoint, 2.5D games typically expand on this by alowing movement in 3 fields (like a 3D game), or allowing the viewpont to manipulated (though not as fully as would be possible in a completely 3D game). Many modern fighting games like Street Fighter IV and Super Smash Bros. are 2.5D games, as are the games Doom, Grandia, and Little Big Planet.

3D ~ 3D has long been the most popular format to deliver games, providing completely immersive 3D environments that can be fully explored and interacted with. Unlike 2D games which are typically composed sprite-based characters atop of still or animated backgrounds or environments, 3D games are fully rendered in polygons, with characters and objects often rendered likewise. There have been some exceptions to this trend, including Breath of Fire 3, which used sprite based characters in polygon-rendered, isometric environments, and Final Fantasy 7, which used polygon-based characters over pre-rendered backgrounds.

Video ~ As mentioned, video has long been used in games to advance the story, and animated or video scenes were often seen as a reward of sorts for progressing in the game, as they were often the most memorable aspects of the game's visual presentation and storytelling. Rendered cutscenes are still used in many games today, especially for opening and ending sequences of games. With in-game graphics capabilities now closing in on cutscene quality however, many games eschew the format entirely and prefer to keep players immersed in the game world through its actual in-game graphics.

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