Dead End Thrills: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
Video games can be ugly, violent things—full of torture and discrimination, shattered hopes, and exploded skulls. Everyone knows this. The newspapers tell us, so do our parents who read those rags and ask, “Really, someone sometimes pays you to write about computer games?” I know, it’s incredible, isn’t it? But here we are.
But games can be beautiful, too—often, those very same ones that task the player with murder, attacking an enemy base, or overthrowing some despicable despot lurking at the top of a mountainous tower positively brimming with evil. Or games that take us into space, into imagined lands and over fantastical horizons. These worlds—these homes and cities, whole continents and entire galaxies—that exist within our games can become as real to the participants as the mold that spreads across whatever that is at the back of the fridge. And they can be absolutely stunning.
Game art site Dead End Thrills, founded and maintained by former Edge writer Duncan Harris, specializes in a very striking strand of virtual tourism. Harris finds perfect pauses amid the hyperactivity of contemporary gaming, capturing moments that contain distinct moods that might be wholly unrelated to the wider context of what is playing out onscreen, a calm amid a cacophony of alerts and warning sirens.
Dead End Thrills: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Harris uses a variety of tools and mods to realize his visions, all of which are listed in pop-ups accompanying each image. But the real talent is in the framing, his photographer’s eye. Plenty of people take screenshots, but few quite like this.
“I’ve taken screenshots for a living for about ten years now,” Harris told me. “First as a critic, and now as an actual ‘screenshot artist.’ There wasn’t one game that inspired me to start Dead End Thrills; [it was] more a period where games were evolving to a point where they started to fleetingly resemble concept art, and this frustration of having to capture that for reviews.”
Harris’s work is a valuable counter to the perception that publishers prefer "bullshots"—heavily doctored screenshots—to preview their forthcoming releases. “People assume that every marketing department wants bullshots nowadays, but it's really a tiny, albeit visible, minority,” Harris said.
Dead End Thrills: Spec Ops: The Line
As the profile of Dead End Thrills has risen, Harris’s to-do list has grown. Head to his site now and you'll find images from titles including Dishonored, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Grand Theft Auto IV, and Mirror’s Edgen—all games with a clear visual appeal, even before Harris has found their beautiful images. “I’d love to say there was still a selection process,” he said of the pictures on his site. “Fact is, though, that the list of glaring omissions—the big games on my to-do list—is only getting bigger.”
It was Skyrim, Bethesda’s gargantuan 2011 release that won a multitude of awards, that inspired another games journalist to focus on the beauty of what he was playing. Unlike Dead End Thrills, Other Places posts videos of the chosen game environments in (albeit very sedate) action, set to music that aims to complement the often serene scenes. It’s the brainchild of writer Andy Kelly, a.k.a. Ultrabrilliant on YouTube and Twitter, who contributes to outlets like the Guardian and PC Gamer.
“Skyrim gave me the idea for the series,” said Kelly. “On the PC, it has built-in tools that let you take control of the camera, and I was flying around the mountains and forests thinking, Man, this is a handsome game. I should make something to showcase this. I recorded a massive amount of footage, then spent an evening cutting it to music from the game.”
Other Places: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Demand for more entries in the Other Places series has grown tremendously since that first video, with game fans recognizing the contrast it provides compared with a lot of commentary-laced gameplay videos found online.
“The gaming scene on YouTube is all noise, people shrieking at horror games, and dubstep,” said Kelly. “I thought I’d try something a bit different. Something slower, more atmospheric, and minimalist. Koyaanisqatsi is one of my favorite films, and that was a big influence.”
Just as Harris refers to big games when talking about his forthcoming additions to the Dead End Thrills library, so Kelly acknowledges that, however gorgeous a game might be, it’s those commercial juggernauts that typically bring in the greatest traffic. His video for Grand Theft Auto V is the most-viewed of any Other Places entry, with more than 120,000 hits. Part of its success is down to timing and publisher support—Rockstar noticed the video and linked to it from its website. But less celebrated, lower-profile titles are proving popular too.
“The Hitman: Absolution video is a recent favorite," Kelly said. "People hate that game, but [developer] IO Interactive’s environment artists are insanely talented. The amount of handcrafted detail and clutter squeezed into every scene is really impressive. A lot of game worlds feel piecemeal, like you can almost see where they snapped the different bits together. But I never get that feeling with IO games.” Kelly highlights EVE Online as another favorite, with “some amazing cosmic scenery to gawp at.”
Other Places: Hitman: Absolution
Kelly has a few future titles in his sights, with Alien: Isolation near the top of the list. “I’m in love with their retro-futuristic art design," he said. "They’re building the world as Ridley Scott would have in 1979, using props and technology from the era.” Also likely is Ubisoft’s Far Cry 4, and perhaps a few odd picks, too. “I try to maintain a good variety of games, although the weirder stuff, like the Proteus video, never do as well as the big games," he said. "I guess that’s to be expected.”
The conversations are leading somewhere, converging on a debate that will never end and maybe should have never started: Can games be considered art? Obviously, a lot of artistry goes into their creation. But can video game designers be looked at in the same way we look at directors, sculptors, composers, or poets?
Dead End Thrills: Mirror's Edge
The late film critic Roger Ebert was fairly outspoken in his rejection of the suggestion, writing, in 2005, “Video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging, and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art.” And yet video games are exhibited in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and curator Paola Antonelli has said, “Are video games art? They sure are.”
“I don’t think games are art, but they’re a great medium for creating art,” said Kelly.
Harris agreed: “Jens Matthies [creative director at MachineGames] will flatly tell you that games are the culmination of all art forms, and it’s hard to dispute that. Others will tell you games contain art, but are not actually art themselves, at which point you’re already in a subjective quagmire. Who needs games to be considered art, and who the fuck cares?”
Call them art, call them heartless, call them playthings for simpletons who could spend their time more wisely by getting outside more—however you see video games in the 21st century, they've undeniably progressed as visual experiences. Personally, I love seeing games like Titan Souls, Hotline Miami and its sequel, and Hyper Light Drifter adopting old-school pixel vibes—but in terms of that full immersion, that truest escape, it's the likes of Skyrim and Grand Theft Auto V that best suck you in and leave you awestruck by the most powerful vistas.
Dead End Thrills: Dishonored
“Most people just sprint through games, oblivious to their surroundings,” said Kelly. “But take the time to study these places and you realize just how much work goes into the textures, models, layout, architecture, and animation. The people responsible are unsung heroes.”
“Games are more arresting nowadays,” said Harris. “As for what Dead End Thrills has inspired? I don’t think that’s for me to say. Maybe nothing. It certainly encourages certain things.”
Like, for instance, just delaying an exit from any given gaming space, a level, to reflect on its creation, its minutiae, its art. “I’ve spent a lot of time poking around game worlds over the past year, while making this series,” said Kelly, “and it’s given me a newfound respect for the people who make them.”
It’s an appreciation that’s spreading, as the freeze-frame Photo Mode on PlayStation 4 titles Infamous: Second Son and The Last of Us: Remastered is proving. YouTuber Grant Voegtle put together a trailer for the latter, and while it’s a total spoiler party (seriously, if you’re yet to play The Last of Us, don’t watch it), its affecting mix of player-captured imagery and Gustavo Santaolalla’s haunting music had the game’s director, Neil Druckmann, calling it “unbelievable.” Second Son is pretty damn handsome, too.
If you still doubt that video games can contain beauty that stands apart from all the discourse and controversy surrounding the medium, have a look at this. And remember to breathe.
Follow Mike Diver on Twitter.