Earlier this week, The A.V. Club’s resident illustrator and art expert Nick Wanserksi gave us the first taste of what he has in store for his new visual-design-focused column, Art Of The Game. In this debut installment, Nick looked back at the over-the-top box art of Atari 2600 games, writing about how they ended up that way and what they conveyed. Down in the comments, Jakeoti added some more interpretations:
You really have to wonder how much the designer was actually in contact with the studio. Especially given the fledgling industry, it wouldn’t be surprising to me if the artists were often just told a concept and never got to actually play the game. There’s also something to be said for how different territories took on box art, with western versions often going for a more “mature” look than their Japanese counterparts. One only needs to look at the old Mega Man box art for examples of that. And that is another neat look at these Atari boxes: So many of the Hendricks and Spohn artwork is clearly meant to be mature. The intended audience is adult. It would have been easy turn the colorful blocks of Breakout into cartoon characters or have the Othello box be two kids playing the game. But, no. The Atari wasn’t marketed as a toy. That role would be played by the NES in a post-crash world. The Atari was expensive, so it marketed itself as an expensive piece of tech. The box art definitely reflects that.
Elsewhere, Tempasfugit brought up a good point about the rainbow motif, which Nick reckoned was a method of representing games as a dynamic medium, that was seen on Activision’s games of the era:
The rainbow served the same purpose it did in Apple’s logo in the 80s: It was saying “These games are in color.” It might be hard to believe for current generations, but in the late ’70s/early ’80s, if you were lucky enough to have a “second TV,” it was inevitability a black-and-white TV. Also, a lot of computers were black and white (hence Apple’s distinction, despite its own B&W foray, the original Mac). The rainbow was mission-critical advertising to make sure consumers knew they were buying a color product at the time. Lots of black-and-white games had color elements in their box art, so the rainbow—a suitably ’70s friendly motif—was the go-to standard, at least in my experience.
And Tony Macaroni told us about the awesome stories those wild covers inspired:
When I was a kid, I found old Atari video games and made up movies in my head based on the cover art—including Backgammon, which was a Color Of Money-style look at the high stakes world of the professional backgammon circuit; Basic Programming, which was about a space station controls operator trying to deal with a possible malfunction with the computer system that could lead to catastrophe; and Street Racer, which was kind like Two Lane Blacktop combined with Fast And The Furious (long before that film was released) and was about a couple daredevil racers trying to make it in the illegal racing circuits driving everything from motorcycles to classic muscle cars.
In his article, Nick singled out Othello is one of the weirder Atari boxes and wondered who that man on the cover is supposed to be. The Space Pope has an idea:
I’m surprised at the confusion over who the guy on the Othello cover is supposed to be. It’s clear to me that this is William fuckin’ Shakespeare himself, traveling centuries into the future to ruin your shit at a game he doesn’t even have anything to do with, just out of spite that some marketing flack slapped the title to one of his masterworks on it. You see that sly little smile of his? That’s the smile of a certified grade-A genius taking his vindictive cross-time jaunt completely in stride because listen son, he wrote The Tempest, you think this fourth-dimensional shit’s going to faze him? Fuck you, I’m William Shakespeare, all the world’s a stage and all the men and women are merely worse players of Othello than me. Your turn, future man. Go on, surprise me.
Also this week, Internet Culture Editor Clayton Purdom weighed in on his experiences with the first hours of Sony’s latest PlayStation 4 exclusive Horizon: Zero Dawn. He talked about it in relation to a prevalent sub-genre he called “map games,” those like Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry where most of your time is spent chasing after the dozens of icons that fill up your map of the open world. In the comments, DL reckoned this style of game has become so pervasive that it’s now down to the setting and trappings to make them stand out, rather than how the game actually plays:
This article comes up just after I messaged DrFlimFlam identifying a video game by the tabletop category of “Thematic.” Certainly, that’s exactly how Clayton is describing “map” games in this article. They all share a common basic loop and core elements, but narrative aspects and variations on the gameplay make all of these similar games unique and identifiable. Players will be drawn to one based on whether they want to experience that theme, be it Gotham City/Batman or Historical Locale/Assassin or Medieval Fantasy/Political Manipulator extraordinaire. In this case, I even mentioned last week to someone that wasn’t clear on the game that I thought Horizon: Zero Dawn‘s main draw was interacting with large, interesting robotic creatures. According to this article, it pretty much jibes with that concept.
Sometimes, if games are sufficiently good at how they play, the theme is irrelevant. Mario games come to mind, as the theme is so wacky it’s practically unidentifiable. Miyamoto famously works on gameplay first, and they develop a theme around it. It seems that the more open-worlds we get, the more the theme begins to take priority, followed by the way an individual game implements mechanics that have been done many times over and how those work within the narrative and style of the world that was created.
And DrFlimFlam himself responded and expanded on that notion:
It makes sense, too. Sometimes the difference between a game someone likes, whether it’s played on a screen or a table, is the theme. I love a board game called Thurns & Taxis, but I cannot for the life of me engage my gaming group to try it because it’s about maximizing efficiency and breadth of mail delivery in 16th-century Germany. But I can engage some other family and friends with Marrying Mr. Darcy because they like the Jane Austen setting.
These map games seem to be expanding on that, as Clayton and DL have outlined. Heck, Assassin’s Creed went seafaring to shake up the setting, if not much of the gameplay (aside from ship battles, which are clearly tied to the aesthetic). And soon we’ll know how much of Breath Of The Wild is “Map Game But Zelda,” or if it’s more its own beast altogether.
And speaking of that last point, I checked in this morning after spending five hours in Breath Of The Wild, and I can confirm that it’s not really a “map game.” In fact, it takes some strides to being the opposite of one of those. You have a map, but it’s almost completely empty, and aside from a few key locations, the only icons on it are ones you’ve placed yourself after discovering something interesting. Wolfman Jew expounded on this inversion of open-world tropes down in the comments:
I want to talk about the map, because I think this might be one of the places where Nintendo has tipped its hand. At least from both Matt’s preview and the footage I’ve seen, the map’s pretty empty. You’ve got the temples and major spots you’ve found, but they’re much more widely spread than the increasingly absurd clutter of Skyrim. And…that’s about it. There’s no notification of places to get food or horses beyond a town, which demands you still actually go out and explore just for the sake of preparation. And while there are markers you can place, there isn’t a lot of direction for getting there.
A lot of modern sandbox games have the option to turn all of the notifications and map icons off, but that’s not really the way those games are designed to be played. The systems are clearly made for those aids to be on and used. (It’s borderline impossible to find locations in Skyrim beyond the major towns.) We’ve got more indie games that do this (and yes, Dark Souls), but BOTW is a modern sandbox and even when those allow you freedom to do things, there’s still a lot of hand-holding. It’s not inherently wrong for a game to do that, but it does cap the sense of just being on your own a little bit.
BOTW doesn’t go quite as far as the first Zelda. There’s an actual map, for one thing, and it even has the modern convenience of highlighting places you’ve been to, but there’s none of that fussy micromanaging or clutter you’d get from, say, the Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood map. Nintendo has been repeatedly presenting this as a return to the original Zelda, but at least from a distance it also seems like a bit of a rebuke to the modern sandbox games to which it aspires. Which is really cool! If that’s the case, it’s not just “open world Zelda” but something that provides a new flavor to other sandboxes.
I’d say, yes, that’s pretty spot on. In any case, that’ll do it for this week, my friends. As always, thank you so much for reading and commenting. We’ll see you again next week!