I had the privilege of attending a fantastic presentation by a few Naughty Dog concept artists around October of last year, and while I was there I got the opportunity to raise my hand and ask something that had been on my mind for a while.
“How does your knowledge of the process of creating the games you work on affect how you experience the game in its final, published version?” I asked.
One of the concept artists motioned for another to pass him the microphone and, once it was firmly in his grasp, looked to the audience, sighed, and said,
“I can’t play The Last of Us.”
It was an answer I’d nervously expected, but had hoped not to hear. And it was an answer I really did not want to hear – I respect the companies who make my favorite games, and it logically follows that I’d like to work for them someday. But as the words “I cannot play The Last of Us” echoed in my head… I began to rethink. The Last of Us is one of my all-time favorite games. It’s a masterpiece. I’d love to work for Naughty Dog someday, but I’m such a huge fan of their work that I’d almost rather work for a company I don’t respect as much, just so I can play ND’s games and continue to experience them as I do now.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot since then, and despite that artist’s words I remain steadfast in my desire to work in the video game industry. I can’t really imagine myself doing anything else. I love video games, I love being creative, I love the idea of making something that other people can experience. I want to inspire people the way my favorite games have inspired me. I love the artistry involved in making games, and I want to be a part of that. And I love the concept of being the change you want to see; I like the idea that I could help provide the video game industry with a fresh perspective that will help it as a whole to become a better thing.
While I respect him and his work immensely, I think that Naughty Dog concept artist was being a little too negative in his outlook on his career – with that attitude you’re going to have a hard time playing any video games, especially the ones you worked on. However, while I do believe I’ll be able to work on games and still be able to enjoy them, I understand that my enjoyment will be different than it would be if I didn’t work on the game; my growing knowledge of how video games are made is definitely a double-edged sword.
I’ve always considered video games to be a massive art form in the same way that movies are an art form – there are so many different arts that go into the big, finished product. It’s a really massive undertaking to create a video game, and as I gain knowledge about things like programming or 3D modeling I gain even more respect for all the games I’ve played in the past that had those down to a ‘T.’
On the other hand, I’m now more qualified and more likely to notice & point out all the little (and big) mistakes game developers make. In this article I’m going to focus more on visual mistakes rather than gameplay/story mistakes, although I see those a lot, too. While playing games I see clipping issues, bad facial animations, floating characters, poorly synced lips, low-res textures, or weirdly placed walk cycles, and instead of brushing these things off like I might if I didn’t fully understand what’s behind these errors… I sit there cringing a little inside, and I find my mind wandering to ways I would fix these things.
I think it’s very important to be critical of the media you consume, but when I notice these things it definitely takes me out of the game’s immersion. These mistakes remind me that I am playing a game and that the things I am experiencing are not real, which is something you generally don’t want as a game developer. You want the user to be immersed in the story you’re telling or the gameplay they’re experiencing. You want the player to mentally be walking in the shoes of the main character. More than anything else, my knowledge of how games are made affects me in this way: I’m often too aware that I’m playing a game, and sometimes that can be a real bummer.
On the flip side, though, I now know exactly how much time, effort and devotion goes into even the smallest components of a video game.
I never thought I’d say it, but I am now impressed by rocks. There is literally an entire thread on Polycount devoted to 3D modeled rocks, and all the rocks on it are works of art in themselves. It takes a lot of time to model and texture a convincing rock structure, and that’s something I would completely overlook if I wasn’t a digital artist.
Sometimes while playing a game I’ll see things that are just so well done that I can’t help but ogle at them. I’ll just stand there sometimes and admire the way things were modeled or textured. I feel that this adds to my experience of the game rather than detracting from it; the games I hold close to my heart are very artfully made, and having knowledge of what went into accomplishing that makes me enjoy them even more.
I’m grateful that I understand just how difficult it is to model a character, to rig that character, to texture that character and to animate that character. The more I learn about the inner workings of video games and the things that go into making a good game, the more I appreciate games as a whole. Now, even more than before, I really believe video games have the potential to be one of the highest art forms there are.