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  • Artistic Concepts in Games

    [08.28.07]
    - Bret Wardle
  •  Most of the popular games for this system were limited to a mix of between four and six colors, and for this reason, many of the games were based on abstract ideas and worlds where a background was not needed. The developer needed to utilize the processing power to play the game and had to make sacrifices in the area of display.

    Much like the primitive computer-generated art before it, the talent of these engineers came in the form of manipulating the system to display what they needed. The Atari 2600 had tricks of its own that many engineers caught onto for later games. This system forced sprites to be drawn in a single color, but through code changes, the developers could change a sprite's drawing color as it was created to make it appear to the end user as if it were two sprites. For instance, a character often had one color for its upper body and another for its legs.

    The View is More Stimulating from Afar
    All early computer game objects were just blocks of color. If you look at them very closely, you usually can't tell what they are supposed to represent. But when we pull back, our eyes fill in the gaps and complete lines that might not be there, and we see a known object. This phenomenon is known as continuity. We use continuity, combined with our imagination, to turn little blips of color into something meaningful.

    In the realm of early video games, our minds were forced to make a lot of continuity conclusions on their own, which is very stimulating. The human mind loves puzzles. It loves the small push of adrenaline we get when we figure out the answer or connect the dots. Although these early games used primitive shapes and colors, the meaning conveyed was crystal clear in context, and the games were mentally and visually stimulating, even though it might not seem that way at first glance.

    I contend that a turn away from this recognition was a large factor in the sub-par games that caused the crash of the industry in 1983. Pac-Man, for instance, was a hit in the arcades, and players loved the abstract idea behind it. The simple shapes displayed on the screen mirrored its simplicity of play. The color variations were subtle yet fully understood by the player. But when Pac-Man was ported to the Atari 2600, it was an enormous flop. The 2600 version featured monochromatic "ghosts" that flickered, a lead character that did not always turn the direction he was moving, and two color blocks meant to represent vitamins (replacing the famous fruit bonuses from the arcade). All these changes affect how the player recognized the game. The pulling away from this visual recognition helped put a halt to what was a thriving industry -- until the next breakthrough came along.

    8-Bit Revolution and 16-Bit Refinement
    Just in time to pull the industry out of the stagnant mess it was in, along came the Nintendo Corporation and its Nintendo Entertainment System. Players saw a few minor upgrades to the processing power for our games. These included a 1.79MHz processor and 2Kb RAM. Sixty-four sprites could be displayed on the screen at a time. The system also used 48 colors and five shades of gray. These upgrades allowed the artist to better portray playing fields, characters, and gameplay information.

    From a visual standpoint, one of the greatest features that this generation capitalized on was painting world backdrops by repeating small graphics, or tiles. The original Legend of Zelda is an excellent example of this. The tiles are simple, and by repeating them, the developers don't use a huge amount of processing power. Although the world still didn't look realistic, it was enough to convey characters traits.

    As you walk around in Legend of Zelda, you learn what types of enemies you're going to encounter based on the surroundings, which creates a sense of anticipation and can help the players make connections on their own, without being distinctly told.

     Although the system allowed for a much broader range of colors, many of the most recognizable games did not need to use them. Instead, the processing power would be used to calculate game mechanics. Did this mean the artistic quality suffered? In some cases yes, but in others it definitely did not. Three of the most recognizable characters from this era -- Mario, Link, and Samus Aran of Metroid -- were composed of only three colors each. The simplicity of these characters in their early forms is amazing, yet they're still some of the most recognized characters not only in video games, but in popular culture.

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