This article originally appeared on VICE
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.
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.
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 Edge—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.”
Read the rest over on VICE.