20 February 2010

[BFG] Video Game Art Review

Video Game Art by Nic Kelman. New York: Assouline Publishing, 2005. (Cover image copyright Assouline Publishing and Konami.)

Being poor and a lover of books, I often find myself shopping in the remainder (aka "Bargain Books") section of Chapters, even though both Chapters (big box store for books) and the idea of remaindered books are a little dubious. Still, it's possible to get fantastic deals there, especially in art books.

Anyway, on my most recent trip, when the boy and I went after the holiday rush was over, one of the books I brought home was Video Game Art by Nic Kelman. I picked it up mostly because I'm interested in the whole phenomenon of digital art, and it's nice to have mementos of well-designed games that I'll probably never play again (for the same reason, I have art books from Gadget, Myst and Syberia--and the Syberia one is in French, of which I can read only a very small amount). The cover of the book does not inspire confidence, featuring a tacky lenticular image as it does, so I wasn't expecting a whole lot more than a superficial look at the art design of games coupled with some nice pictures.

So I was pleasantly surprised to discover a very readable scholarly essay on why we should count video games among the media allowed in the hallowed records of art history. The author placed particular emphasis on how games reflect myth and the heroic journey, which is a strong argument. It would be interesting to compare some video games with Joseph Campbell's hero's journey (even though I think Campbell vastly oversimplified mythology, he's very popular in film scholarship).

This book would make useful reading for game designers, as Kelman points out some of the ways game design has become codified (or petrified), and how it could venture into new territory. The emphasis is primarily on games with narrative structure, though there is some discussion of non-story-oriented games, too.

My primary quibbles with Video Game Art are physical. The gimicky cover I've already mentioned. The paper was also a little problematic. Though the heavy, smooth stock that the publisher chose was really good for reproducing the images, the book is not particularly large for an art book, so the stiffness of the pages made turning and holding them for reading more awkward than it should have been.

The really big issue was a printing problem. In at least three places, when a sentence broke off at the end of the page, it simply vanished and was never completed. And the last time this happened, instead of picking up at the next sentence or paragraph, the opening paragraphs of the chapter were repeated. Add this to the rampant minor typos, and the copyeditor in me was continually jarred out of the joy of reading the otherwise well-written prose.

Anyway, problems aside, Video Game Art is a useful addition to the so far scarce scholarly literature on video games.

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