Thursday, June 4, 2020

My Art Is Better Than Your Art

I've clocked up around six hours in My Time At Portia now. That's not long but, boy, do I have a lot to say about it. So much I barely know where to start. To save from splurging a whole slew of incoherent impressions I think I'll try and focus. Let's begin with how it looks.

In the comment thread to the original post several people suggested I should try Stardew Valley, which is either a much superior take on the same genre or the game MTAP blatantly rips off, depending on how you look at it. Either way, it does the same things only better.

Except it doesn't. Not from my perspective. In much the same way Tobold was clearly looking for something in Animal Crossing: New Horizons that the game was entirely unequipped to give him, so I'm finding something in My Time At Portia that Stardew Valley can never offer - a three-dimensional, soft-focus environment that looks like an animated movie.

Graphics in video games. Hmm. It's a minefield, isn't it? No-one wants to admit to being a graphical snob. I like to think of myself as having an eclectic, open-minded attitude to all the arts, not least because that's a comfortable self-image to hold, but like most people I have quite strong preferences and, indeed, prejudices.

When it comes to first impressions, graphics are probably at least as important to me as gameplay. Maybe more. It's not so much that I'd keep playing a dull game that had great visuals as that I wouldn't stick with a game that looked bad for long enough to find out what the gameplay was like. Indeed, I wouldn't be as likely even to try a game that looked visually offputting in screenshots and videos.

When we're talking about open world games or anything that purports to simulate a virtual environment, graphics are what pull me in. I always score highly as an Explorer archetype on Bartle and similar tests but I'm a very particular kind of explorer: I'm a virtual tourist.

The explorer archetype encompasses discovery in all its forms, not least gameplay, but I'm the kind of "explorer" who likes to take snapshots. One sure sign of whether I'm going to stick with a new game at least for a while is how long it takes before I open the Options menu to search for keyboard shortcuts so I can take screenshots and hide the UI.

In My Time At Portia I was already taking screenshots before the opening boat trip ended and I wasn't listening to Presley's introductions because I'd tabbed out to google how to take screenshots without the UI. It seems you need to do a quest first and you can't get that quest until you persuade some NPC to like you enough that they want to give it to you. More on that if and when I find out who it is, where they are, what they want and how to get it.

It's all very well saying I like the graphics in MTAP but what do I mean by that? I'm no art critic but I know why I like. Time for a little show and tell.

I've cropped this shot to lose the UI although I haven't tried to clean up the quest-tracker text on the right. I do that in some shots. I'm kind of picky that way.

The screenshot above covers several aspects of why these particular graphics work so well for me. Both the colors and the surfaces are very flat, something I always find hugely appealing. In comics, I always responded strongly to the kind of mid-20th Century abstract naturalism of Alex Toth, a style explained very well in this short article. Carl Barks, Disney's "good" duck artist is another fine example of what pleases me.

It's not going too far, I hope, to bring in Rothko and the colorfield artists. When the Tate describes that style as "characterised by large areas of a more or less flat single colour", that's very much what we see in many video games and animated cartoons. Or, at least, in the good ones.

There's a lot more going on in that shot above than use of color, though. The use of textures is exemplary, I think. The paint on the doorframe, the bricks in the wall, the grain of the wood in the grandfather clock (which tells the correct in-game time), they all give just enough of a nod to naturalism to trigger recognition. It's a brilliant balancing act between what things look really like and the impression they leave.

This is the interior of my house. I made the table but I found the sofa. Art and gameplay intertwine.
Even though it's a static shot, you can also see the excellence of the animation, something I find increasingly influential in my enjoyment of the games I play. Firstly, my character is sitting on a seat. It's strange just how powerful that feels.

The ability to position the player-character convincingly on items of furniture has become a commonplace but not all games do it well. This one does. Look at the angle of the legs, one foot slightly turned, raised, the other flat. That's such a natural posture. And look at the axe, laid across her lap, her hands loosely clasped across the shaft. Honestly, it's a joy just to look at her.

Then there are the paintings. One of the things that struck me very early on about My Time At Portia was the way the artists use art within the internal context of the simulation. The paintings, posters and signs in the streets are convincing and evocative. The buildings' interiors display a wealth of decoration that never seems notional or random.

I just noticed the way her fringe (bangs, if you must) displays differently - and more appropriately - under the hat. That's some attention to detail.

Here's a fine example. This is the nave of the Church of Light. In the background we see Lee, the pastor. At this point I'd already had a long and difficult conversation with him, during which he told me plenty about his apocalyptic post-post-apocalyptic religion. I was scared, as you well might be if a crazy person lectured you at length about doom and destruction in the street.

When I came to look around his church I found it decorated with these massive murals depicting the destruction wrought by the previous civilazation, out of whose burned ruins the world we see in the game has painfully rebuilt itself over centuries. The paintings above depict huge war machines creating floods and fires as despairing citizens are slaughtered.

On the opposite wall of the church we see the rest of the story. The picture on the left is, I think, a representation of the long, wild years, when nature took back its own, while the few survivors did what they could to weather the storms.

Then we come to Peach. I don't yet know Peach's story but Peach saved the world, somehow. There's Peach, standing heroically a top a rock, cloak flowing in the wind, as the people give praise. The sun rises through the clouds in a glorious new dawn.

It's all there in the art, which complements the dialog from an entirely seperate moment in the game, bringing nuance and context. I thought it was brilliantly done. It was one of the highlights of the six hours I played yesterday.

What I don't know is whether the foreboding I feel when I look at those paintings is foreshadowing, something intended by the artist, or whether it's something I'm bringing in to the gameworld from outside. That's how art works.

Art in a video game, though, can never be just art. Graphics exist to serve the game. Something in those murals may exist to be elaborated upon and opened out by plot and gameplay. The poster of the lost dog could be bittersweet set-dressing or a pointer to some quest yet to come.

That's something pictures in a gallery don't have to contend with. In video games, perhaps trying to separate graphics and gameplay is foolish. But we are all often fools when it comes to the choices we make.

I'm over-influenced by the way things look but at least I know it. Maybe, to some extent, I even understand the how and why of it. And even if I don't, well, at least, like any Philistine, I know what I like.


  1. I'll be honest in that I never saw those paintings before, mainly because I spent so little time in the church.

    However, I will say that I've yet to see any details of Peach's story, other than he "brought back sunlight". Nobody seems to know exactly how Peach did it. For all I know, he used some of the same machines that Lee rails against.

    1. Oh, and one thing:

      Art in a video game, though, can never be just art. Graphics exist to serve the game. Something in those murals may exist to be elaborated upon and opened out by plot and gameplay. The poster of the lost dog could be bittersweet set-dressing or a pointer to some quest yet to come.

      Considering some of my favorite video games of all time were purely text based, I'm not so sure I agree. Yes, art in a video game exists to serve the game, but perhaps the statement that art provides is that the game itself is the art, and breaking out video game graphics as a point of emphasis misses the mark.

      It's like saying that someone prefers the revived version of Doctor Who because the special effects are better than Classic Who.

    2. I wrote a long reply to the art comment but it's very hard to clarify without just confusing things even further. I don't think there's any conflict between saying the graphics exist to serve the game and saying the game itself is art. They are both art, separately and together, in the same way set design is art but serves the opera or play, or cinematography is art but serves the film. Special effects often don't get treated as art but in your example the relationship is the same.

      The point I was trying to make is that when something is a part of a greater work of art, even if it is also intrinsically art itself, it can't be "just" art, the way a painting or a statue can be (although of course those aren't always and don't have to be "just" art either).

      Whether someone has a preference for the part rather than the whole is entirely up to them. I think it probably happens all the time. If a lot of people seem to be focusing on one particular aspect, as often happens with all the examples used so far, it does say something about the relative qualities of the component parts and suggests something less than ideal about the totality.

      I also think this might be getting too abstruse for a comment thread. I've had to retype this comment three times and I'm not in the least convinced I know what I'm talking about!

    3. It's all those philosophy classes obscuring "what is real?" that's making my head hurt, I suppose.

  2. I'm right there with you on the Stardew Valley vs. My Time at Portia. I really, really wanted to like Stardew Valley but I just couldn't get into it. But My Time at Portia was as natural to get immersed in as anything I've ever experienced.

    1. I am finding MTAP immersive. The setting and world are very easy to settle into. The gameplay has that "one more go" compulsiveness, too. That's one of the reasons it reminds me of Landmark.

  3. I've never played SV, but I will say that every time I look at screenshots of it I'm turned off. They give the impression of a tiny world crammed with systems. One where the setting is a complete afterthought.

    I enjoy text based Roguelikes (e.g., Moria, Angband, Nethack) so it's not like I'm a graphics snob. However a game where the entire draw is the simulation aspects needs to be in a genre I'm absolutely wild about, and farming sure as heck isn't it. I will also say that the commentators that show up to declare SV the only game worth playing in this entire genre any time something similar (like AC) comes up awaken my contrarian streak.

    1. I certainly don't want to rag on Stardew valley, not least because I've never played it. Visually I wouldn't be able to assess its merits very well because I've spent so long avoiding things that look like it I don't realy know if its a good, mediocre or bad example of the class of things that look like that. I assume from the stellar reviews its a good one but I'm happy to take that on trust without trying to test it for myself.

  4. I think most who claim to be unswayed by graphics to be deluding at the very least themselves. I think similar to you good graphics are unable to sustain me for long in an otherwise bad game, but 'bad' graphics can certainly turn me away.

    Where we differ is what trips this for us. Pixel art in the style of SDV is OK to me. Heck, I can even handle playing Dwarf Fortress (albeit with a tileset).

    But if the jump to 3D is made, I start getting very picky. Janky animations and I'm gone fairly quick smart. Older titles that I carry no particular nostalgia for are also problematic. *Unless* they adopt a more cartoony style which tends to stand the test of time a little better.

    Interesting stuff though. It certainly seemed quite the thing some years ago to make the claim 'Graphics don't matter to me!' as a sort of virtue; but I hadn't heard much of it for quite some time.


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