Monday, May 18, 2015

Illuminations 5.18.15

Games and Gifs

So, for a while now, this has been one of my favorite things on the internet: fighting game backgrounds as gifs!

If you are wondering what exactly these are, they are backgrounds of several fighting games from the late 80’s and 90’s (featuring art from: Vampire Savior, Street Fighter II: Super Turbo, Street Fighter: Alpha 3, Street Fighter: Third Strike, The Art of Fighting, Last Blade, Garou: Mark of the Wolves, King of Fighters, Samurai Showdown). Normally, there would be two fighters, in higher definition, controlled by the players or AI, who would interact in the foreground of these stages. 

So being me, rather than just post them and remark on their prettiness, for my last post I wanted to examine both their ludological implications and their merit in the realm of comic and cinematic studies. So. Get ready for some rambling thoughts that aren’t well connected and go nowhere.

Ludology, for those not in the know, is the budding critical study of video games and, since gifs are for the most part collagistic affairs, in that they isolate and manipulate already existing works of cinema or art, I thought it might be helpful to discuss for a moment one of the sources of a few of these gifs.

Street Fighter II is one of the the most influential video games ever made; it defined the side scrolling fighter game for years to come (to illustrate, one of the most anticipated video game releases of this year is Mortal Kombat X, a direct descendant of SFII). What I’m getting at is that these have cultural implications. Also, I really just wanted to post this article about the making of SFII. It’s long, but it reveals pretty well how much work went in to these animations; it’s fitting to finally have these animations, normally just the backgrounds that players barely register, finally receive the focus. But this isn’t to say that they do nothing within the game, I would argue they are actually quite important.

Within the game they can even establish a mood in the implied narrative -

A spar here becomes an epic and desperate battle for the fate of the world.
Here, a hectic and jarring battle in the middle of a larger conflict.
Here, a focused, almost meditative one-on-one spar between two great fighters.
Here, an impromptu meeting succeeded by front of monkeys!

The motion also creates interest; the fact that you aren’t fighting in front of a static background places the fighting characters into that world, or at least less pasted over it. It also situates the player as both the spectator, watching the fight just as the monkeys watch, and also as an active member, controlling the fighters. Interestingly enough, this is the part of the game that the player has possibly the least control over; in modern games of this type, there is usually some way to interact with the stage. Removal of the player is necessary for these to maintain their sense of permanence.

So that gives you an idea of the role these serve in the game. But what exactly are these animations? This article, by game designer Blake Reynolds, gives some sense of what exactly these pieces are, and some of the craft that goes into creating them; each image is made up of thousands and thousands of pixels, individually filled in. Just to throw a name at you, they’re like Chuck Close paintings. Or Classical mosaic art. Except animated. As part of the knee-jerk recoil against any pop medium claiming any elevation, gifs have been criticized as emblematic of the new generations’ lack of focus, revealing that kids these days are only able to sit still for a ten second clip on repeat. Certainly no one is clamoring to compare these to Pompeiian mosaics. But I think that argument is missing the point of these images entirely. AD Jameson argues they should be viewed as their own form of cinema.

Chuck Close, Bill, 1990

But to answer this, I’m going to not answer it and instead totally change the subject by moving back to my one true love: comic theory! Scott McCloud defines comics as “sequential art” and acknowledges that this means that it can include animation. The thing is, these aren’t really comics. They aren’t really meant to go with one another, they’re just pictures. They do not contain the spatial aspect, that is, the physical layout of each frame, the way comics do. They do not imply the movement, like a comic would; rather they create the movement themselves. They operate in time, rather than space. But do they actually? 

See, it’s true that these are animations. But when you take a step back and look at what they are accomplishing, they become something more akin to aspect to aspect transitions, or frames meant not to convey plot necessarily, only to supply a sense of atmosphere. 

From Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics"

While McCloud does argue that there needs to be some movement from one of these static frames to another, each frame on its own can certainly include motion. For example, what happens when you put these three images together?

Obviously these three were meant to be considered as a series. Rather than linear animations, they become contained frames of movement, leading into each other and implying a change of time and atmosphere. So are the movements then necessary? Well, the motion itself becomes the point. In a sense they become a sort of “long photograph,” an image that doesn’t capture a single moment in time, but rather the essence of the movement in a slightly larger amount of time. it is only a slightly larger amount of time, because that’s all it needs - the repetition implies a standard, a norm, a usual routine. Counterintuitively, the movement in these images reinforces their never-ending stasis, their very immovability. And so it is rather poetic, that something so supposedly focused on immediate conflict, something so fundamentally temporary, (a fight in timed rounds) becomes endless.

Ultimately, a lot of the appeal for these admittedly is nostalgia, a force Reynolds warns against - he argues that a game cannot be sustained by nostalgia alone. But their crudeness is part of the appeal for me too in an odd almost impressionistic sense. And hey, you can’t say they aren’t pretty.

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