Videogame Art by Nic Kelman took me a bit by surprise. I had seen the cover, a lenticular image shifting between Abe from the Oddworld series, and a striking image of Konami superstar Solid Snake by Yoji Shinkawa. I had expected it to be a coffee table-style pictorial portfolio similar to another book I had reviewed earlier, 1000 Game Heroes. However, the title is somewhat misleading. Instead of Videogame Art, a more appropriate title would have been Videogames As Art.
Although it's true the book is filled with interesting and beautiful images taken from a wide variety of games, the focus is not on the visual. Instead, it launches head-on into the debate regarding whether or not videogames can be viewed as a new artistic medium, or whether they are entertainment and nothing more. Clearly, the author feels very strongly that games not only can be art; he feels that they already are, but current culture has simply not recognized it yet. Although some would say that I'm biased, based on this volume, I think that he makes a very strong case.
The book begins with an excellent preface by Dr. Henry Jenkins, probably the foremost expert and proponent on this topic. After such an auspicious opening, Kelman launches into the introduction and states very clearly the premise of his book; not meant to be an in-depth analysis of any one aspect, it instead aims to open the discussion about videogames as art and touches on a variety of topics including protagonists, the evolution of narrative storytelling, and the significance of environments and level design. In addition, there is also examination of antagonists and peripheral characters, the role of objects and items, and a brief look at the current (and possibly soon-to-be-over) trend towards hyper-realism.
Above anything else, I want to give praise to Kelman for tackling such a huge subject—his approach is broad and inclusive, and necessarily so. However, instead of simply stating his case, the volume is full of valuable insights and astute observations. As someone who has more than 20 years experience playing videogames, I was completely unaware of some of the things that seem
so obvious in this book before reading it. For example, the chapter discussing the structural relationship between enemy characters and the hierarchy within those enemies themselves seems blindingly simple when laid out the way it is here, yet it was something that had only vaguely occurred to me in the past. Easily taken for granted, this concept proves to be one of the core building blocks of any good adventure and yet is digested without a second thought by most gamers, myself included.
This observation is only one of dozens within Kelman's book. There are many more ideas and truisms to be found here, most of them extremely fascinating—his discussion of videogames as the modern-day equivalent of mythology is worthy of a book unto itself, not to mention the fact that the visuals alone would warrant several volumes as well. On page 14, a key piece of art by Kaneko from Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne is shown alongside Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights. The juxtaposition is stunning, and speaks worlds about the kind of thinking, artistry and skill that go into game creation—Roger Ebert be damned.
From a production standpoint, the book is very high quality but not without its flaws. As I mentioned earlier, the cover is stunning. The pages are of an extremely thick stock, the quality of printing superb. However, the way the text is interlaced between images can be extremely distracting at times. It's quite common to have half a page of text followed by two or three pages of graphics. I would have preferred that the actual act of reading the book flowed a little more naturally. Additionally, I found two instances of pages that were printed with the wrong text. Starting one thought, these sections would end with a segment of writing that had been erroneously reprinted. Neither instance ruins the book, but a good editor should have caught these errors and made sure that the author's full message was thoroughly translated to the page.
Although theorists and ludologists may not get as much out of the book due to its relatively shallow depth, after going cover to cover myself, I would say that Videogame Art absolutely qualifies as recommended reading for anyone who is even halfway serious about videogames thanks to its extremely comprehensive breadth. If nothing else, Kelman has succeeded in touching on so many aspects of videogames that anyone reading this book will find it impossible to empirically dismiss the concept of games as art—consider the discussion underway.
Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.
Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.
Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway