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Do Games Have A Visual Language Problem?

This month's Critical Distance roundup looks at what games communicate (or don't) through visual language.

by Critical Distance
Nov 17 2017, 9:57pm

Image courtesy Nintendo/Konami

It's right there in the name: video games are a hybrid medium that combines moving image and sound (video) with structured play (game). A lot of the discussion in games criticism focuses either on the systems that structure play, or on the narratives that video games communicate. There's less recognition of the visual language being used to communicate, and sound design is talked about even less.

To some extent, this is a reflection of a broader cultural issue. Visual literacy is not highly valued in most education systems—a person can easily go through their entire schooling experience without ever having been taught how to read an image. On top of this, the video games industry's close relationship to consumer technology has driven an overwhelming focus on high-fidelity rendering as the ultimate measure of "good graphics." However, visual storytelling is a core part of the discussion when it comes to film criticism. Shouldn't it be the same for video games?

In this month's Critical Distance digest, I'd like to highlight four articles published in the last month that hint at what games criticism might be like if we paid more attention to the visuals—not the number of polygons or frames per second, but the visual language of the screen.

Zolani Stewart pens something close to a manifesto, laying out a way of thinking about images and visual communication that has been largely neglected in games criticism until now.

"If video games struggle with meaningful, powerful imagery, it’s probably because our culture has never been able to recognise the form’s unique visual language that’s distinct from a technical visual language. We know video games have a language for telling players what to do, and giving them instructions, but what’s our visual language for communicating relevant ideas, however abstract, and making gamers actually feel things? Where are those lessons and those histories within our shared dialectic?"

In what might be one example of the kind of writing that Stewart is asking for, leeroy lewin calls for a low-fi aesthetic divorced from ideas about games a medium driven by technological progress.


"Instead of contrasting Breakout as a relic of time gladly past, I want to see games like it reclaimed and retrofitted with a new kind of meaning, in terms of being compassionate game design that easily fits in a person’s life. To recast “simplicity” as minimalism. To acknowledge that not everything this shambling culture moved away from points to some kind of necessary, futuristic improvement."

Selective Chromophobia & Castlevania | Brick By Brick

What happens when the cultural narrative about a game overrides what's actually being shown on screen? Doshmanziari sees bright, vivid colors where others either don't see them, or don't remember them, and gives us screenshots to prove they are re

"it’s disappointing that it’s been fifteen (fifteen!) years since Harmony of Dissonance’s release and its appearance is still regularly treated as a radioactive object, as if an appreciation of the series about meaty men hitting Dracula to death in a hell-zone for the hundredth time requires a polished, antiseptic sense of Good Taste. Why! I’d never be caught DEAD enjoying such a garish object! Remove it from my sight—at once!"

The final piece I've selected isn't just addressing visual language, but spatial, sculptural communication as well. Robert Yang calls out the indie games sector for not thinking beyond the screen when it comes to the display of games, and describes some positive examples of festivals and exhibitions that have displayed games thoughtfully.

"I get it. You don't have money or staffing to spend on your exhibition design, and/or the event is fighting just to survive and exist. But if the whole purpose is to create an elevated mood and space for games, why are aesthetics still so low on our priorities?"

Critical Distance is a community-supported endeavour aiming to curate, contextualize, and archive insightful writing on games. If you found this article helpful, please check out our website (critical-distance.com) for the full weekly roundups, and consider supporting us on Patreon (patreon.com/critdistance).

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