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Game On

Exploring the Art Behind A Local Gaming Company's Latest Role-Playing Adventure

DREAMSCAPE: A screenshot from Rise Of Legends

By J. Bowers | Posted 10/4/2006

Big Huge Games: From Concept to Game

At Maryland Institute College of Art’s Rosenberg Gallery through Oct. 8

Are video games art? In the bygone era of Atari, ColecoVision, and 8-bit Nintendo, this polarizing question rarely, if ever, came up. Back then, Mario, Pac-Man, and other early video-game heroes were little more than thumb-sized smudges of color, and the backgrounds that they jumped, fought, and chomped their way through were considered fabulously innovative if they had more than one moving design element.

These days, though, the status of popular, mass-produced video games in the often highfalutin "art world" is a hotly debated topic. Developers such as Square-Enix, the mastermind behind the internationally popular Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest role-playing game series, have long employed well-known Japanese watercolor and manga artists such as Yoshitaka Amano and Akira Toriyama to create character designs, landscapes, monsters, and other key visual game elements. More recently, Sony Computer Entertainment’s wholly unique, exquisitely beautiful PlayStation 2 title Shadow of the Colossus received as many accolades for its gorgeous art direction as it did for its innovative game play. In today’s plugged-in, computer-driven society, video games are finally beginning to gain widespread respect as a viable art form, worthy of study, analysis, and academic attention.

So it comes as no real surprise that MICA’s Rosenberg Gallery--essentially a hallway on the second floor of the Brown Center--currently features From Concept to Game, a multimedia exhibit documenting the artistic process undertaken by Timonium-based developer Big Huge Games during the creation of its most recent real-time strategy PC game, Rise of Legends. (Big Huge Games is headed up by Dave Inscore, a 1995 MICA illustration graduate, and employs several other MICA alumni.) Billed as a sequel to Rise of Nations, GameSpot.com’s 2003 "PC Game of the Year," Rise of Legends follows the trials and tribulations of a young inventor, Giacomo. Thrust into power after the brutal murder of his brother Petruzzo, Giacomo travels through the imaginary steam-punk lands of Vinci, Alin, and Cuotl, leading his people into battle against a host of fantastic mechanical creatures, mythical beasts, and realistically rendered human foes.

Pretty cool idea for a game, sure, but how do you translate an art form as complex and multifaceted as a video game into an intriguing gallery show? From Concept to Game features several walls’ worth of concept sketches, in-game menu icons, blow-ups of magazine covers praising the game, and full-color renderings of characters, monsters, and landscapes. A pair of souped-up flat-screen computers, enabling visitors to sample the finished game firsthand, supplements the exhibit’s still offerings. (Be prepared to figure this fact out and turn the computers on yourself, however.) There’s also a pair of wall-mounted flat-screen monitors, apparently intended to show off Rise of Legends’ intense opening animation, in which a sluglike tattooed creature with a flaming bald pate orders an army of men astride armored, scorpionlike beasts to attack an amazing-looking city. Apparently, that is, because these monitors also were inactive during a midday gallery visit--an unfortunate oversight on someone’s part. As an integral part of the exhibit, these elements should be viewable at all times.

In the brief statement accompanying the show, Dave Inscore’s team--which features animation, art history, and architecture graduates--cites an impressive list of influences and inspirations, most notably Mayan architecture, Leonardo da Vinci, and Japanese anime auteur Hayao Miyazaki. (There’s also a fair debt owed to Star Wars.) Indeed, Leonardo’s influence has an obvious hand in the existence of a vaguely Italian inventor character like Giacomo--who resembles a young Joaquin Phoenix--but Big Huge’s designers also took pains to re-create several of the Renaissance master’s clockwork designs as working 3-D models. In Rise of Legends, flying machines that Leonardo only imagined are fully operational, integral parts of the world.

Miyazaki’s influence is evident in the charming, jerky movement of creatures--such as the seemingly mass-produced Clockworkman, a gangly, gear-heavy behemoth that follows Giacomo’s traveling party during the game’s first few moments. Designed--or is that engineered?--by Ted Terranova, a Carnegie Mellon architecture graduate, Clockworkman is one of the game’s most original designs.

The ever-present influence of Dungeons and Dragons-style high fantasy also plays a major role here: several drawings are of dragons with jagged glass shards for scales, something called a Glass Golem, and other creatures that take their cues from classic sword and sorcery archetypes. As a whole, the game appears to be an amalgam of styles, borrowing from several cultures and time periods, both real and imagined, to create a unique escapist fantasy for its players. And with the exception of a few dumpy-looking horses, as a work of art, it, well, works. As you play Rise of Legends, computerized trees tremble slightly in the wind. Subtle variations in light and shadow create contour and a sense of depth. The game play is similar to other titles in its genre, but the graphics and animation--the all-important bells and whistles that set "great" games apart from simply "good" ones--are topnotch.

A final curatorial note: From Concept to Game’s almost complete lack of labels and written exposition makes it difficult to understand truly the progression from still art to finished product. A suggested protocol for enjoying this exhibit: Begin at the computers, playing the game for 10 minutes or so, then take a look at the concept art. You’ll appreciate the drawings more once you see how they all fit together.

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