Shoon is a recently released side scrolling shmup that is fairly unremarkable, except for one quirk: it’s made entirely with art created by Midjourney, an AI system that generates images from text prompts written by users.
It is not a good video game by any means. As far as shmups go, it feels bad. Your character moves too fast, your hitbox is ill defined, enemies and their projectiles move in awkward, confusing ways. However, none of this really matters because the game itself was never the selling point, which is instead the game’s AI generated art.
Midjourney is one of a few AI image generators, alongside DALL-E and Google’s Imagen, which are currently in various stages of heavily publicized beta testing. These AI are fed a prompt, and then generate a series of images based upon the prompt and a machine learning algorithm modeled on other pieces of art. Users can then refine this work through slightly adjusting their prompts to create incredibly specific, highly detailed images.
Shoon uses this technology to produce a broken city, which acts as the background texture upon which your character scrolls, a handful of ships, and a massive bug creature which spawns smaller bugs. Included in the Twitter thread announcing the game’s release is a screenshot of the many, many different images generated by the AI in response to the developer’s prompts. All of these sprites, at first glance, appear to be your average digital painting, but on closer inspection their AI generated origin becomes obvious.
The ships are greebled, sure, but not in a way that makes sense. They do not communicate the slap-shod, barely held together construction of a resource starved resistance movement, nor the brutal efficiency of a machine empire. They don’t really communicate anything at all aside from referencing the gun metal grey hulls and fading yellow paint of hard sci-fi genre standards.
The giant bug is…a giant bug. Its presence feels discoherent, despite sharing the same high detail, realism-heavy style. In the unused art pieces, the bug is backed by a cloudy gray sky as it writhes, alone, in a field. It appears both massive and deeply insignificant. It is a framing and scale that I immediately recognized as a signature of Simon Stålenhag, but it lacks every ounce of the wonder, horror, and melancholic grace which defines his work.
It is distinctive artistic stylings like this that, among other ethical concerns, have led many artists to criticize AI image generators and their use in artistic projects. Midjourney has obviously been trained on the art of Stålenhag and those who work in a similar aesthetic space. They are not receiving royalties or even basic credit on the art generated by Midjourney. Questions about the ethics of this work, and the impact it will have on the labor market for illustrators and other artists, will likely dominate the next few years of online art discourse. Shoon is just an early foray into this dubious space, which will only get murkier as time goes on.