In December 1890, a group of artists decided to break off from the well-established Paris Salon — the dominant venue for artists to exhibit their work at the time — and start their own exhibition. They later became known as the Impressionists, whose experimental and unorthodox approach to painting helped clear the path for the next hundred years of modern art.
Like the Paris Salon, in all its steadfastness, the modern videogame industry tends to prioritize a certain aesthetic above all else. As Eron Rauch argued on Videogame Tourism: one need only browse the web for image resolution comparisons, or excitement over new consoles and graphics card upgrades to form a picture about what is generally prized in the videogames sphere: highly photoreal and representational imagery, as opposed to stylistic, abstracted or experimental.
Unlike the videogame industry’s mega-studios, which are cursed to compete in a high-fidelity arms race, there is ample opportunity among smaller studios and developers to explore the infinite spectrum of visual styles from which games have barely sampled. Brendon Chung is one such developer. Through his studio, Blendo Games, Chung has made a number of titles that challenge our basic assumptions about what games should look like and how they should behave. Games like Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving are well known for their innovative use of cinematic jump cuts, in particular. And while much has been written about this filmic aspect of his creations, there hasn’t been as much focus on what these games mean in an art historical context.
Visually, Chung’s games — in particular: Gravity Bone, Thirty Flights of Loving, and his most recent game, Quadrilateral Cowboy — are closely tied to his preferred method of production: the idTech 2 and 4 engines, which haven’t been used to make games commercially since the late 1990s.
Chung often speaks of his use of such an old platform in pragmatic terms: “I have a fairly basic rule: don’t let art become a choke point.” But the playful and imaginative nature of his art style suggests that he also seeks to create art that is joyful and expressive. “There is great joy in diving headfirst toward a direction you think is interesting. That joy is reflected in your work, and players instantly recognize it.”
And Chung does take immense pleasure in the objects he crafts, this much is obvious. Whether it’s in the step-by-step modeling instructions on his development blog, or the Quadrilateral Cowboy art book which allows you to rotate his models, count the polys, and study the textures, Chung exhibits a loving, personal connection with the elements that make up his papercraft-like worlds.
Chung exhibits a loving, personal connection with the elements that make up his papercraft-like worlds.
Chung’s method of using an ancient game engine and his choice to eschew photoreal high-fidelity representation is an approach which shares principles with the stripped-down flat perspectives of Cubism, the Dada-ist junk sculptures of Kurt Schwitters, and the material-focused art form of Minimalism. What all these movements share in common is a belief that the tools with which one depicts an image are just as important as the image itself.
In his book What Are You Looking At?, curator Will Gompertz writes on Cubism: “For the first time, art was being produced whereby the canvas was no longer pretending to be a window — an instrument of illusion — but was being represented as an object itself.” Of course, this approach faced steep resistance from the traditional art press – dismissed famously by one critic as “pictures with little cubes.” Likewise, game art often seems intrinsically at odds with any kind of “less is more” approach. Imagine seeing a demo video for the new Unreal or Crytek engine that depicted an abstract or minimally detailed scene rather than the usual overladen, over-detailed fantasyscape or sci-fi space station.
There’s a reason virtual reality has been marketed so heavily without having much to show for it.
Big publishers want to sell the audience the illusion of a believable, inhabitable world. There’s a reason virtual reality has been marketed so heavily without having much to show for it. It’s a technology that promises to remove the physical barriers between you and the game, after all. But the breakthrough of Cubist artists like Picasso and Braque was in saying that we shouldn’t try and erase the evidence of a canvas (or a monitor, in videogames’ case). Chung’s blocky, lo-fi, faceted shapes reflect a confidence in his canvas.
As Jonothan Bourroughs, co-creator of the recently-released Virginia, told Vice: “There was something about Thirty Flights that was, like, pulling up the floorboards. It’s like you can see the paint strokes as well.” Chung paints with a lo-fi brush, but the images they depict — the spies, the careening birds, the menacing cityscapes — feel more purposeful and more memorable than the vast majority of bump-mapped, glossy game art currently making your console fan spin up with an angry groan.
When the Dada movement first appeared in the early 20th century, it was a response not just to the wasteful decadence its members saw in art, but in the world at large. The Dadaists saw themselves as resisting the ceaseless impulse to embrace the new or the expensive, instead reusing garbage and found objects such as the plumbing materials and toilets repurposed by Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and Marcel Duchamp. You can see this philosophy reflected in Chung’s choice of game engine. After all, why spend time and resources learning a brand-new engine, or filling the screen with as many objects as possible, just for its own sake? If you can accomplish your artistic goals with a tool from 1997, where’s the sense in using anything else?
In using a game engine long relegated to the junk pile, Chung echoes the Dada-ist artist, Kurt Schwitters. Schwitters used found objects to construct his art as a way to bring the spheres of fine art and normal life closer together. He believed that if anything could be used to make art, then anything could be art. To take Schwitters’s logic forward: if anything can be art, anything can be a game as well. The engine that made Quake 2 can, in turn, make a game as emotive and powerful as whatever’s being showcased at E3 this year.
There also happen to be strong parallels between Chung’s work and that of the Minimalists, who likewise shed extraneous details and emphasized the materials used in their work. One minimalist, Donald Judd, said in a 1964 radio interview that “The more elements something has, the more ordering of those elements becomes the central point of the work and therefore takes away from the form.” You can’t look at Chung’s first-person games and come away ignorant of the form. Boxes, two-dimensional planes, bold modernist text, giant iconic textures and strong retro-inspired color schemes — his forms aren’t hidden; they are starkly laid out before us.In a 2011 blog post, Chung wrote: “Is it a smooth ride? No. Will it function well? Probably not. Will it appeal to a mass audience? Not a snowball’s chance in hell. But it’s damn satisfying on a personal level.” That personal level of satisfaction was equally important to Schwitters, who was famous for his Merzbau: a house made of found materials that he continued to add rooms to for years until he fled from the Nazis. There are similarities here with how Chung approaches his own craft — a process which he describes as “nibbling forward purely for the love of nibbling.” His is an art form devoted to experimentation, iteration, and reusing of the detritus of the past — which so many others tend to overlook.
Chung claims that the “monumental task” of modeling “cabinets, floors, tables, salt-shakers, egg-beaters, kitchen sinks… would crush [him] like a bug,” to explain why his work is so minimal. But it’s worth noting the objects that he does include: The wrinkled, distrustful face of the waiter in Gravity Bone; the solid, plinking geometry of liquor bottles and bullets in Thirty Flights of Loving; the greased, clunky feel of your deck in Quadrilateral Cowboy -all stand out precisely because they exist as islands of expression in an otherwise sparse world. His minimalism may be out of necessity, but is also responsible for more iconic imagery. In tightening his focus, we are treated to formal work that is far stronger than if he had spread himself thin populating his games with useless and carelessly implemented props.
All these movements in art I’ve discussed here are united by the way they re-examined tools that were once overlooked, or used for other purposes. Cubism was about changing how we think about paintings; not merely as facsimiles of the real world but as more holistic and stripped-down representations of what an object really was. Dada rejected the stuffiness of high art, the prestige of galleries, and went looking in the cast-off bins for inspiration. Finally, Minimalism put form and materials on a pedestal, and removed any extraneous and unnecessary detail that might distract the viewer from the simplicity of their work. Chung’s games share these principles. His objects are stripped down as can be; there is no waste in his process — partly because the idTech 2 and idTech4 engines simply don’t allow it. When we play his games, we don’t feel that we are simulating real life but partaking in Chung’s rich, imaginative landscapes, built from a lifetime of research.
Chung’s quirky spy thrillers, built atop mechanized, fantastical worlds, wouldn’t be the same in a more modern engine.
By carefully choosing the tools that can best represents his ideas and narratives, Chung diverges from the status quo of game art, which can be summed up by plunking down for the best game engine and aiming for absolute verisimilitude. Marcel Duchamp believed that the idea must come before the medium. While Brendon Chung’s choice of medium was certainly influenced by available resources, it was not an arbitrary one. His quirky spy thrillers, built atop mechanized, fantastical worlds, wouldn’t be the same in a more modern engine. The choppiness of the ride matches the cobbled-together nature both of his vision and his workflow. In this way, we are allowed to see the artist in his tools, the paint strokes smeared on canvas. And as a result, the work feels far more honest, personal, and joyful than polished photorealistic games ever could.
Editor’s note (11/11/16): a previous version of this article named the idTech 4 engine as behind all of Chung’s games. In reality, only Quadrilateral Cowboy was built in idTech 4; Thirty Flights of Loving and Gravity Bone were built in idTech2. The article has been modified to clarify this.