new challenger

I make games. I also play them. I talk about both activities here.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Symbols, Icons, and the Best Games Ever Made

Exclamations > Snake.

I’ve been thinking a lot about photorealism lately. In the midst of the current console transition, the actualization of what could truly be considered photorealistic recreations is upon us. Personally, I find this to be a great thing; there are many games that will benefit from the ability to accurately reconstitute the subject matter upon which they are based – racing and sports games in particular will undoubtedly experience a golden age within this console cycle. But the wholesale push towards photorealism concerns me quite a bit as well. I think in many cases that voraciously replicating real-world objects, settings, and characters can actually have a negative impact on a great many games. In fact, I assert that some of the most successful videogames ever have utilized iconic and symbolic imagery to reach unparalleled levels of consumer penetration and cultural awareness.

A symbol is one thing that is meant to represent something else. In the case of videogames, it's typically a graphically simplified version of an object used to convey a concept or idea. You know, like the hunks of meat that drop in Streets of Rage, symbolically representing potential health rejuvenation. A symbol becomes iconic when it retains a core likeness with the object it represents. The mushrooms in Super Mario Bros. are iconic representations of the magical mushrooms from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The usage of symbols and icons throughout history is well documented, and the human aptitude for symbolism allows us to make associations between objects and concepts on a level far exceeding any other beings on earth. It's is an innately powerful ability that videogames have taken advantage of since their inception, when graphical limitations precluded the ability to do much of anything else. However, with the advent of new and more powerful technology that frees us from iconic “restrictions,” it’s important to recognize that in many cases, symbolic imagery is more effective than other, more complicated means of communication.

Symbols are so intrinsic that the brain doesn’t even recognize them as unusual.

There is one thing we should get out of the way here – good graphics and technological advances impress people, including me. Project Gotham Racing 3 and Fight Night Round 3 both attracted enormous (deserved) attention due to their stunningly photorealistic graphics. Resident Evil 4 has also received enormous acclaim for exhibiting a graphical level considered impossible on the Gamecube (which is strange, considering on paper the Gamecube is in many ways significantly more powerful than the Playstation 2…). But what has not kept up with the graphical achievements in these games is the nature of interaction that the player has with these worlds – players interact with PGR3 and FNR3 in much the same ways as they did in their predecessors. In Resident Evil 4, for all of its graphical prowess, players still move along largely linear paths, rarely (if at all) interacting with the world in any meaningful way - certainly not in any way previously impossible due to graphical limitations. So perhaps the assumption on the part of publishers and developers is that photorealism yields better sales than advancements from a gameplay standpoint?

That forest sure is pretty. Too bad you can't touch it.

Well the evidence just doesn't support it. In 1980, a little wonder of a game called Pac-Man was unleashed upon the world, spreading like wildfire and ultimately becoming the most successful coin-operated videogame ever made. Pac-Man is a stunningly well-executed collection of symbols. The game space is defined by a simple blue border. Enemies are rendered as iconic ghosts. The pills/pellets are simple off-white balls; the small ones are required to clear a level, the large ones imbue Pac-Man with the ability to eat his enemies. And Pac-Man himself is a yellow circle with a wedge removed. Few games have the public awareness saturation that Pac-Man entertains; its infectiously pure gameplay coupled with its universally appreciated symbols and icons made it a certifiable phenomenon the likes of which is unseen in videogames today. So what, then, does constitute a cultural peculiarity in today’s marketplace?

Pac-Man – perhaps the perfect iconic game.

Chess - another game that has entertained some moderate success through the use of symbols.

Well, The Sims is a good candidate. Also known as the best-selling PC videogame of all time, The Sims single-handedly kept the PC videogames industry afloat for half a decade (until a moderately successful role-playing game came along to help shoulder the burden), and it continues to be a videogame juggernaut with its subsequent sequels and expansions. The Sims is a fascinating jumble of both universally recognized and contrived symbols, such as the green diamond “plumbob” that shows which Sim is currently selected or the entire Simlish language, that has no publicly understood meaning yet is nevertheless effective (coupled with emotional voice-recorded delivery) at communicating the states, moods, and emotions of the denizens within the Sim world. Certainly the game could achieve a more realistic portrayal of people and objects if it sought to, but what exists is powerful enough to communicate the general ideas and concepts that the creators wish to convey. The Sims 2, which deviates even further from a realistic style to near complete iconography, is compelling evidence that the creators are purposefully attempting not to recreate reality, and are being rewarded for their efforts with stunning commercial success.

Sims 2 - Easily mistaken for reality.

What about consoles? I know what you’re probably thinking – Super Mario Bros. is a perfect candidate for discussion, what with its iconic imagery and status as the best-selling console videogame of all time – but that might lead to indeterminate conclusions. After all, Super Mario Bros. was released at a time when virtually all videogames took advantage of iconic imagery. It’s difficult to conclusively argue that Mario’s symbols were any more significant than any other games’. Instead I’m going to talk about the most successful console videogame of the modern era – Grand Theft Auto, which relies heavily on symbols and iconic imagery to convey its messages to more people than any other series in gaming today. I’m going to skip over the first two games (like most people do anyway), because it could be argued that those games relied on icons due to technological limitations. Instead I’ll focus on the GTA trilogy (3, Vice City, and San Andreas), and the PSP game Liberty City Stories. First off, all of the games rely on a highly stylized depiction of reality – character proportion, lighting, and world logic like car physics all behave as gross approximations of the entities they represent – a cornerstone of symbols. But it is in GTA’s crucial gameplay identification system that uses symbols in the extreme. Want some health? Look for floating red hearts encased in blue circles. Looking for a way to get the cops off your back? A blue shield with a golden star will do the trick. And what about that star system? One star prominently displayed represents the basest level of law response, with subsequent stars directly correlating to the escalation of retaliation against the player. The world layout is expressed through a thoughtfully useful iconic mini map, permanently displayed in the corner of the screen, indicating where weapons can be purchased (little handgun icons), food can be eaten (disembodied chicken head icons), the game can be saved (house icons) and missions can be undertaken (letter icons). It all makes for an immediately communicable experience, one that again, reaches more people than any other photorealistic game can claim to.

Hail to the King.

I could go further and talk about Tetris, the best-selling handheld videogame of all time, but by this point my argument has been pretty well exhausted; suffice to say Tetris is about as stripped of any real world graphical representation as you can get.

Symbols 4, Photorealism 0

I personally am all for graphic and technological advancement - but "advanced graphics" is not synonymous with "photorealism." There are many games – like some of the ones mentioned above – that take advantage of bleeding edge of technology while still benefiting from symbolic imagery. This utilization – coupled with all-around good design motifs – has benefited these games and many more with mind-blowing sales figures. And truly, it’s the ability of a game to connect with an audience that makes for the most tangible conclusions regarding its merit (one might suggest that critical acclaim and analyses are valid measuring tools of a game’s merit. I would agree with this if the ruler by which games were judged was a lot more sophisticated). Great games that use symbolic imagery have consistently performed at the top of the industry – and those that remain on top know this, and consistently employ them in their projects.

Thanks for reading.


  • At 12:08 AM, Blogger Derek Daniels said…

    I was watching someone play burnout for the 360 and it reminded me of this thread. They have these GIGANTIC arrows showing you which way to go because the track doesn't give enough clues on which direction to head.

    Realism not only in graphics but in games frightens me. I play games to get away from reality, to have fun with things that I normally don't get to have fun with. I play GTA cause it has fun ramps and jumps to play with when I drive around. The Getaway being modeled after London was great and all, but no fun ramps and jumps.

  • At 6:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Who knows where to download XRumer 5.0 Palladium?
    Help, please. All recommend this program to effectively advertise on the Internet, this is the best program!


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