Urban Art's Virtual Reality

August 10, 2014

The existence of urban art within the digital world has been part of public discourse for some time now. It has become clear that the virtual reality represents “just” another playground for urban art. However, if we were to leave aside the arena of social media, on-line galleries and websites, what other corners of virtual reality have been conquered by urban art? Are there, in fact, entire worlds inspired and affected by the urban art scene?

Feng Zhu, concept art
Feng Zhu, concept art

An Artistic Expression Within an Industry

The gaming industry has shown an amazing progression during the last two decades, especially considering two distinct aspects: on the one hand, a transformation is visible in the regard with technological innovations, combined with the changes in aesthetics; on the other hand, the development of the industry is clearly notable when we look at the market value. However, we are interested here in the aspect of the artistic expression within the design process. This can only point us in the direction of a simple, yet controversial, question: Are video games an art form? It is not the intention of this article to question this stance, because it lays on a premise that the video game design process surely incorporates different forms of artistic expression. The contemporary discourse seems to correlate with this presumption – the Creative Europe programme 2014-2020 is to support projects in video game development; on the other hand the Museum of Modern Art in New York intends to showcase forty historically important video games as an art form; the Smithsonian American Art Museum even held an exhibit entitled The Art of Video Games, showing the artistic nature of video games, and trying to examine the impact on creative culture. But let us turn to the artists themselves…

Feng Zhu, concept art
Feng Zhu, concept art

The New Urban Artist

When could an individual involved in the game design process be considered as an urban artist in his own right? Let us reflect upon the three roles, among many, within the game design process which can indeed be construed as artistic expressions par exellance. A concept artist is responsible for creating not just certain aspects of the game, but for constructing a whole world. The design process begins without an elaborate set of illustrations, drawings or even paintings at the initial stage of development. It is the task of a concept artist to understand the storytelling, the purpose and the desired aesthetics of a world, so they can create an entire universe. On the other hand, it is a mission for an environment artist to recreate the conceptual pieces and build the world itself, understanding the perspectives, complex layering, and animation aspects of the virtual surroundings. Finally, if we look at the role of an art director, it revolves around every stage of the creative process, from concept art to the very details of an almost final product. He needs to understand the expression of every member of his team. Could this be a role any different from, say, the role of Damien Hirst who creates a series of artworks with his team of painters? What is more, we needn’t think long to reach the realization that an urban artist may be the perfect person for any of these roles. Still, is the final product a work of art?

Half-Life 2, concept art
Half-Life 2, concept art

A Worthy Example

In 1998, one FPS (first person shooter) game changed the entire game genre, and became known as one of the best video games of all time. It was a sci-fi action game with a unique way of storytelling and level design, called Half-Life. Six years later, the sequel of the game revolutionized the industry once more with breathtaking aesthetics and a new methodology of 3D modeling. But, let us turn to the aspects of the game which truly coincide with the artistic expression of urban art. With large city landscapes absorbed in an Orwellian dystopia, where mankind is being consumed by a powerful and faceless alien race, the game unravels an abundance of visuals and mesmerizing imagery, which seem to be so innate to the mind of an urban artist. And just like the suggestive and seductive artworks of artists who understand their urban surroundings, for example Vhils or Banksy, the context of this game’s world has been masterfully executed – the concept art of a transhuman character, a graffiti on a city wall, or even the urban surroundings itself. All of the art pieces send a cultural or social message, just like when one stands in front of the artwork of FAILE, Saber, C215 or BLU. Ten years later, the fans, and even the general public, are in anticipation of Half-Life 3. It will be very interesting to see the work of emerging artists in game design, and who knows which names from the urban art scene might be involved. It all remains to be seen – especially the growth of young artists.

Half-Life 2, graffiti within the game
Half-Life 2, graffiti within the game

The Worlds of Urban Art?

Let us move on from the gaming industry per se, and ask ourselves about the meaning of game, or rather playing. A game is an interactive process which has been a part of many academic discourses. Within the field of sociology of culture, theory of play has an important place, asking the question which implies that all of existence, and especially art, represents a sublime play of revealing meaning. This is clearly notable when we consider the nature of urban art. This can be argued even more decisively when we take into consideration the performative and interactive aspects of urban art. It would appear that we have, in the face of video game art, a whole plane for possibilities of urban art expression. A plane where entire worlds can be created…

Pascal Blanché, concept art
Pascal Blanché, concept art

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