Playing in Perspective: An Art Historical Analysis of Spatial Representations in Video Games

Ruben Meintema
Faculty of Arts
University of Groningen
The Netherlands

Abstract. In this article the similarities and differences between the representation and treatment of space in video games and in fine arts are explained. The evolution from two-dimensional to three-dimensional video games has been very similar to the development of the linear perspective in painting. In fine arts the importance of the linear perspective diminished after the emergence of Modernism; space became abstract, conceptual, and distorted. In games, however, the linear perspective still holds sway over the representation of space, and so video games are still very much stuck in the ‘pre-Modern’ era. I will argue in this article that this arrested development is inhibiting video games from being perceived from a cultural and aesthetic perspective.


The history of video games is typically told from an industrial and technological perspective. This history is usually understood in terms of generations, for example the 8-bit generation, 16-bit generation, etc. This periodization is dictated by the industry. Innovations in hardware and directional choices from corporations are regarded as the landmarks and turning points in the history of this emerging cultural media form [14]; [20]. This could be called the technocentric point-of-view. Although these industry-related factors have certainly been important in the development of New Media in general, and video games in particular, scholars of electronic game history also have to take into account that games have been designed by people and for people, in a context of fictional and cultural mediation. The world of video games and the world of art history are foreign to each other, and therefore the statement by the great historian of Japanese art Ernest Fenollosa more than a century ago could apply in the context of video gaming as well:

Heretofore most books on Japanese Arts have dealt rather with the technique of industries than with the aesthetic motives in schools of design, thus producing a false classification by materials instead of by creative periods. This book conceives of the art of each epoch as a peculiar beauty of line, spacing and colour which could have been produced at no other time, and which permeates all the industries of its day [6, p.xxiii].

Given that video games are especially concerned with representing and interacting with space, it is the purpose of this article to analyse the spatial representations within video games from an art historical and aesthetic perspective. ‘Game designers don't simply tell stories; they design worlds and sculpt spaces’ [11, p.118]. It is through their spatial layout and their architecture that video games provide the player with a particular experience [12, p.182]. Thus, this crucial element of visual (as well as auditory and tactile) experiences and representations in games should be analysed in more detail, and, as we shall see, on this point comparison with the history of spatial representations in visual arts and architecture will be fruitful.

This article is structured as follows. First, the feasibility of a comparison between video games and fine arts is discussed. Do these two cultural forms belong to such fundamentally different worlds that any comparison is deemed impossible? The first part of this article argues that although there are unmistakably some medium-specific differences, video games nevertheless bear the characteristics of both their fine art and architectural cultural predecessors, and the history of spatial representations within video games bears strong resemblance to developments in previous art forms.

These similarities will be discussed in the second and third parts of the article, in which the representation and treatment of space in classic two-dimensional video games, and the transition to three-dimensional games, will be analysed in detail. It will be demonstrated that this development is a repetition of the discovery of the linear perspective in visual arts in the Renaissance era.

In the fourth and final section of this article, the trends in fine arts beyond the Renaissance and into the twentieth century will be traced. The Modernist turn has decreased the aesthetic value of the linear perspective, but in video games this mathematically correct visual structure seems to persist without any attempt at artistic innovation. This is due to the pragmatic function of video game space. Thus, it seems that despite having emerged from a common background, games and fine arts have diverged as they developed, so that video games are seen as a cultural form fundamentally different from the world of art. This article argues that the pragmatic function of the linear perspective in video games stands in the way of the function of providing an aesthetic experience.

Games, and particularly the history and development of games, should be viewed more in an aesthetic and cultural context. It is hoped, therefore, that this article will contribute to a discourse around games as aesthetic and cultural objects, instead of only as practical and industrial objects. If this view could move beyond the confines of academe, it is further hoped that game designers and producers will rise to the challenge to make art works within the context of the world of video games.

Video Games and Fine Arts: Worlds Apart?

Games are located at the crossroads between culture and technology. To produce video games, a considerable amount of technology and ‘know-how’ is necessary. The earliest game designers were technicians and programmers with a technical background. One of the first game designers without a technical background but who was, rather, trained at a school of industrial art and design was Shigeru Miyamoto from Japan. Miyamoto is the designer of the most recognizable and influential game series of all time, Super Mario, and it is this series that will be examined in more detail in this article. Miyamoto was one of the first designers to design games from a ‘humanistic’ design philosophy, what he calls ‘ningen kougaku’ or ‘human engineering’ [15; pp.26, 33, 36]. The games that he has designed have proven to be immensely popular and critically highly acclaimed, but the question is whether these games could be analysed and evaluated within the same framework and on the same grounds as art. Are the spaces represented within video games to be understood in the same way as the spaces in painting, sculpture, or architecture?

First of all, we have to determine whether the spatial condition of video games is of the same nature as the spatial condition of fine arts. Traditionally, at least since the famous analysis of Laocoon by J.G. Lessing [19, p.150], the arts have been divided into spatial arts and temporal arts. Painting, sculpture, architecture, photography, etc. are spatial arts, because they exist at a stable coordinate in physical space. Theatre, music, and dance, on the other hand, are temporal arts, because of their extension in time and because they involve an element of performance. Newer art forms have been developed that (whether or not consciously) break with this distinction, like performance art and cinema. Video games, however, are not easy to categorize in this scheme. They have a spatial extension (although not in physical but rather in virtual space), but on the other hand they are ‘performed’ by the player. Before and after their active ‘performance’ they do not really ‘exist’ as such [23].

So, in this respect, painting and video games belong to different worlds. This is consistent with the claim of the Russian media theorist Lev Manovich, who argues that there are roughly three kinds of screens: the traditional screen, which conveys a static representation of the past; the modern screen, which shows a dynamic representation of the past; and the new screen, which is a dynamic representation of the present. The painting is the paradigmatic example of the traditional screen, film of the modern screen, and video games belong to the ‘new screen’ [21, pp.95-99]. The German media scholar Andreas Korn argues, likewise, that video games are rooted in the tradition of panoramas and dioramas rather than of painting and film. He argues that while paintings consist of a ‘Bild,’ video games rather consist of a ‘Bildwelt’ [16].

The Australian scholar Darshana Jayemanne is also of the opinion that games differ from painting, in that games are navigable and inhabitable spaces that the player perceives in a state of distraction, while the viewer of a painting in a museum perceives the space in the painting in a state of concentration. However, this mode of spatial perception would suggest that video games have more in common with architecture than with dioramas and panoramas [9].

The British scholar and journalist Steven Poole argues that games have inherited a great deal of their visual structure from fine arts. Spatially ambiguous works, however, such as the Carceri etchings of Piranesi or the impossible architectures of M.C. Escher, have not yet been incorporated in video games [29, pp.213-220]. The final section of this article will explain in detail why this would be difficult to achieve, but for now it is sufficient to state that the spaces of games have a pragmatic function, because the player needs a minimum of stable navigability inside the game, while the represented spaces of fine arts are not bothered by concerns like that, and so can aim at performing an aesthetic function. On the other hand, the American game scholars Kurt Squire and Henry Jenkins are of the opinion that video games can be seen as a (spatial) art form, with its roots in architecture. They argue that game spaces also have a broad range of aesthetic functions, and that designers can also design ‘Expressionist spaces’ (which map emotions onto physical space), or ‘Romanticist spaces’ (which endow landscapes with moral qualities) [32, p.7].

The concept of space has indeed become central in academic game discourse, to the point that one could even speak of a ‘spatial turn’ in the discourse [17]. Since Henry Jenkins and Mary Fuller's comparison in 1994 of video games and New World travel writings [10] about the orientation towards spaces, there have been many scholars who have noticed the central role of space in games. Espen Aarseth argued that all games are in some way about spatial exploration and dominance [1]. Laurie Taylor analysed the psychological paradox of the player looking at an in-game mirror from a first person perspective, and Martijn Hendriks has argued that the virtual body moving in space provides a distinct virtual experience [7]; [33]. Michael Nitsche insists that game space maps not only the narrative but also the temporal aspect of games [28]. James Newman asserts that the virtual is deemed realistic not when it looks like a real-life environment, but when it can be navigated without interruption [27]. Georgia Leigh McGregor analysed architectural space as the main structure of games [22]. All these approaches emphasize the central role that space plays in trying to understand video games properly.

If games are indeed a kind of architecture, then they have been following the principles of functionalism. The functionalist credo is: ‘Form follows function,’ which means that the form or appearance of a building would have to be determined by the function that the building is intended to perform. Architects such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Gerrit Rietveld belong to this school. But there have been other schools of architecture in the history of construction, and these schools and styles have usually been associated with other art forms in their time and cultural context. For example, in the Renaissance, the aesthetic principles of Classical Antiquity were adopted by almost all art forms, from architecture to painting, literature, music, theatre, dance and sculpture, but were also applicable to other aspects of society such as politics and law. This could also be said of other widespread cultural and artistic currents, such as Romanticism, Impressionism, Surrealism, Modernism, Abstractionism, etc. [18, pp.3-6, 277-288]. If games are ever to be considered as an art form, or, more modestly, to be considered in a cultural and aesthetic context, then game designers need to be aware of this context, and this awareness should be recognizable in the games that we play.

‘Medieval’ Spatial Representations in Video Games

The development of spatial representations in video games bears some salient resemblances to their development in fine arts. In medieval visual culture, before the widespread implementation of linear perspective, space was represented in two dimensions on the flat surface of the canvas. During the Italian Renaissance, the linear perspective, which was one of the greatest technical and aesthetic innovations in the history of painting, had been developed. This innovation made possible the depiction of three-dimensional space, and provided a consistent point-of-view for the perceiver.

The medieval two-dimensional space is usually viewed from a cross-section point-of-view or a top-down point-of-view. In the cross-section point-of-view, characters and objects are viewed from the side, and the inside of buildings and structures can be viewed. An example of this kind of spatial representation is the Bayeux Tapestry from the late 11th century, as shown in Image 1. In this long, horizontal work, the story of the conquest of England by William the Conqueror of Normandy is depicted. The reading direction of this tapestry is from left to right, and the visual story-telling is aided by the text that is present on the upper part of the image: venit ad eduardu regem hic portatur corpus eadward, etc.

The depicted scenes in this artwork are viewed from the side, and the figures represented seem to be perfectly flat, two-dimensional people. The building to the left of the centre of the picture seems to be sliced through the middle. It is an open structure, and we can observe King Edward inside sitting on his throne. The building on the right of the centre of this detail of the tapestry is not transparent, and one cannot look inside.

Image 1
Image 1: Bayeux Tapestry (approx. 1070-80) Detail
Image 2
Image 2: Super Mario Bros. 3 (Super Nintendo 1988) In-game view

This style of spatial depiction is very similar to the style of spatial representation of one of the classical games from the ‘Middle Ages’ of video games history: Super Mario Bros. 3, as shown in Image 2. This game belongs to the genre of ‘side-scrolling games,’ which means that the character moves from the left of the level to the right, while the space within the level scrolls from right to left across the screen. The depiction of space within Super Mario Bros. 3 is similar to that of the Bayeux Tapestry, as in both, the viewer/player ‘reads’ the space that is spread out on a long horizontal plane, in the same direction, from left to right. The difference is that the space represented in the tapestry is read by moving one's eye over it, while the space within the game is ‘read’ by moving through it with one's character. In the latter case, the perceiver him or herself is incorporated in the space of the picture.

It should be noted, however, that these signature games by Miyamoto are Japanese games, and should therefore be understood in a Japanese context. Not only is it necessary to avoid the pitfall of viewing a foreign art form from a technocentric position, it is just as important to avoid viewing a foreign art form from a Eurocentric point-of-view. Japanese visual arts do have similar traits to the European arts with regard to spatial representation. For example, the scroll is a common element in Japanese culture. The Japanese scroll, however, is organised vertically, whereas the Bayeux Tapestry for example, is organised horizontally. Thus, although the scroll-form was not strange to Japanese visual culture, the Super Mario Bros. game bears more resemblance to the European tradition than to the Japanese tradition in terms of how the space depicted within the game is to be ‘read.’ Nevertheless, it is worth noting that Manovich has argued that the scroll-form recurs within new media, as word processors as well as web pages use a scroll interface rather than a page interface [21, p.84].

Another salient similarity in terms of spatial depiction in both the Bayeux Tapestry and Miyamoto's Super Mario games is the use of the cross-section point-of-view of the buildings and structures in both. In the tapestry, one can simultaneously observe the figures outside of the building and King Edward sitting inside. The same applies in Super Mario Bros. 3; the structure from World 1:1 seen on the detail in Image 2 above is ‘open’ and one can look directly through it. The non-transparent building on the right of the tapestry detail is not cross-sectioned and is closed off from view. This is also the case in Super Mario Bros.; at the end of every level, at the extreme right of the ‘scroll,’ there is a castle that the player has to enter, which is not transparent, but closed off from view.

This brings us to the third similarity: the sizes of the figures and the buildings are not in proportion. The figure of King Edward on the Bayeux Tapestry is much too big for his castle. The same is true for Mario, who is too big for the castle in Super Mario Bros. When the player enters a castle located on the map, however, it is much bigger on the inside, and he or she can explore a large environment, which looked from the outside to be only a few times bigger than the character.

The fourth similarity is the strip on the extreme upper and lower edges of the Bayeux Tapestry, which does not seem to belong to the diegetic world of the rest of the tapestry. It contains information and decorations. In Super Mario Bros., but also in most other platform games, there is also a non-diegetic strip of information on the screen, which tells you how many lives you have left, how many points you have scored, how much time you have left to complete the level, what items you are currently holding, and in what world you are at a particular moment. In this way, this information also functions as a method of spatial orientation in the game.

The medieval visual style also involved many instances of the top-down point-of-view. Maps and city plans were often drawn in this way, but while the general point-of-view was top-down, many buildings, structures, and landmarks depicted on such maps were drawn as if they were seen from a point-of-view from the ground. This has an obvious function, in that viewers could recognize the most important landmarks like churches, towers, fortifications, walls, and squares more easily from this perspective, because it was closer to their everyday perception. An example of this mode of spatial representation would be a map of Constantinople from 1422, as seen in Image 3.

Image 3
Image 3: Map of Constantinople by Florentine cartographer Cristoforo Buondelmonti (1422)

The video game Super Mario Bros. 3 also incorporates a top-down view. Between the levels of the game, the player is able to select the next world to enter, and this is done by letting Mario walk over a map. The various locations on the map can then be entered and played in more detail. The elements on the map, like the trees, rocks, bridge, castle, mushrooms, air ship, and Mario himself, are shown from a perspective that would be impossible to see from a top-down view. Thus, the same mode of spatial representation as is used in the medieval map of Constantinople is used to depict the map of the world of Super Mario Bros. 3.

Image 4
Image 4: Super Mario Bros. 3. Overworld view

The Three-Dimensional Transition

In painting, the development of the linear perspective made possible the mathematically correct representation of three-dimensional space, with a stable point-of-view for the perceiver vis-à-vis the space of the work. This development can be traced back to the Italian Renaissance. The works of the Italian painter and architect Giotto show a primitive attempt at reaching a three-dimensional depth effect, by working perspective lines, but without a vanishing point. This is called the isometric perspective, in which the geometric lines of buildings and floors do create a three-dimensional effect, but go on parallel indefinitely without reaching a vanishing point. Giotto's scenes 1, 3 and 8 from The Legend of St. Francis from 1297-99 are clear examples of the use of the isometric perspective.

In the history of video games, the isometric perspective also takes a position as an early attempt at displaying three-dimensional spaces. This can be observed in the 1993 PC game Sim City 2000. The game consists of a large grid made of parallel lines. The player fills this grid with buildings, roads, and other city improvements, following the lines of the grid, and thus following an isometric perspective. For this type of game play, the isometric perspective works quite well, because it provides an overview of the space from an ‘objective’ perspective (also known as the ‘God view’).

The Florentine artist Masaccio achieved a landmark in painting with his work Holy Trinity, from 1425-26, which has a perfect vanishing point, and which technically and mathematically makes perfect use of the linear perspective. After Masaccio, painters developed greater and greater skill in making use of this technique. The delivery of the keys to St. Peter by Pietro Perugino from 1481-82, The Visitation by Domenico Ghirlandaio from 1486-1490, and The School of Athens from 1510-11 by Raphael are works in which the perspective has matured (although Raphael still made some perspective errors in his masterpiece). The difference between Masaccio's work and that of later painters was that for Masaccio, the Holy Trinity was in fact a showcase of his mastery of perspective. The space on the painting is quite empty, and apart from Jesus and two other figures, the perspective is in fact the main topic of the painting.

One of the first games that makes use of the mathematically correct linear perspective is Wolfenstein 3D from 1992. This game is one of the first in the influential genre of the First Person Shooter, in which the player views the world through the eyes of the character, and usually only sees the barrel of a gun sticking into a 3D world. When viewing Wolfenstein 3D, it becomes clear that this game is also a showcase of linear perspective. The spaces are almost completely empty, which makes the relatively long perspective lines of the walls, floors, and ceiling the most prominent elements on the screen.

Furthermore, one can observe that the technology behind this game is fundamentally different from that behind Sim City 2000, for instance. The buildings of Sim City 2000 are drawn before-hand, and placed on the grid as an existing picture. The walls and floors in Wolfenstein 3D are not drawn before-hand, but calculated by the processor on the basis of the position and viewing-direction of the player, and drawn ‘just-in-time’ on the screen. Moreover, both spaces are constructed from different ‘building blocks:’ Sim City 2000 is built from pixels, i.e. screen elements, that were also the basis of the spaces of Super Mario Bros. Wolfenstein 3D is built from polygons, i.e. ‘multiple corners,’ a three-dimensional model that is calculated and drawn on the fly. That is why the isometric perspective has also been called ‘static 3D:’ it deploys dimensions, but the point-of-view cannot be altered. You cannot look behind a building in Sim City 2000. Polygon models are also called ‘dynamic 3D,’ because the space represented can be calculated and recalculated from different points-of-view.

Wolfenstein 3D is also an interesting case because the sparse enemies are drawn (rendered) in the ‘medieval’ technology of pixels. They are thus pixel models (‘sprites’) in a world of polygons. This shows that Wolfenstein 3D still had one leg in the earlier era of spatial representation in games. Two years after Wolfenstein 3D there were still isometric games like Sim City 2000 being made; one explanation for this could be that the technology of polygons was just developing, while the isometric perspective and pixel graphics were in their later stages and could still compete with the new technology. Another reason might be that the game play in Sim City could easily be displayed from an ‘objective’ perspective, while the game play of Wolfenstein could only be achieved though a linear perspective.

In the painting The Delivery of the Keys by Perugino, see Image 5, it can be observed that perspective painting has matured. Although the space in the background is still quite empty, and lines are drawn on the floor to accentuate the use of the linear perspective, the focus is nevertheless on the scene in the foreground. The figures in the foreground are not painted according to medieval conventions, but are plastic, and fit in the rest of the space. The video game Super Mario 64 can be regarded as a representation of the state of matured linear perspective in the history of video games. In Image 6, one can observe that the space is balanced: it is much less empty than that of Wolfenstein 3D (image not included in this article), although the blocked pattern on the floor functions to accentuate the correct use of the linear perspective, just as in Perugino's painting. Furthermore, Mario is made of the same ‘material’ as the rest of the space (polygons).

In Super Mario 64, the vanishing point towards which the perspective lines are drawn is a painting hanging on the wall (see Image 6 below). In this way, the attention of the player is directed to this object. The game encourages the player to engage the ‘painting’ and interact with it. On the painting a certain landscape is represented: in this case a ship. Mario can jump into the painting, and is then transported to the world inside the painting. This world turns out to be a three-dimensional landscape that can actively be explored. This is a very conscious reference to the origin in the discipline of art of this new kind of spatial representation in video games. But at the same time, the difference between the two forms is being stated. While the painting is clearly a ‘Bild’ that hangs flat on a wall, a video game is always a ‘Bildwelt’ that can be navigated and explored.

Image 5
Image 5: The Delivery of the Keys to St. Peter by Pietro Perugino, from 1481-82
Image 6
Image 6: Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64, 1996). In-game view

In Renaissance painting, one could view the development of showcasing the linear perspective from a position of being more confident and familiar with the technique to ultimately displaying a playful mastery of the linear perspective. When the linear perspective itself was not sufficient anymore to thrill and astonish the viewer, artists engaged in creating more elaborate and complex spaces. This logic finally reached a provisional climax in the ceiling frescos of Padre Andrea Pozzo in the Sant'Ignazio church in Rome in 1691-1694. In this colossal work, the interior architecture smoothly extends into the painting, resulting in the illusion that the church does not have a roof, so that when the church goers look up they look straight into heaven. This final stage of the evolution of Renaissance painting is called the Baroque era.

In the history of video games, a similar development can be observed. Video games developed in a direction of increasing processing power, in which an increasing number of polygons could be added to the model, thereby making the model more ‘smooth’ and realistic-looking. This enabled not only the depiction of blocked patterns on floors and straight walls, but also more curved forms. This same increase in processing power also enabled spaces to be filled with more and more objects, making the balanced space of Super Mario 64 look empty. The First Person Shooter game Crysis from 2007 has been a provisional landmark in this development. The game was extremely detailed for its time, and the space was filled with excessive plant life and other objects. The ease with which these lush environments are created made a game like Wolfenstein 3D look like something from a totally different era. The details of the game covered over the perspective lines, pushing the linear perspective more to the background.

Nevertheless, in First Person Shooters there is always one element that gives away the roots of the spatial representation in the linear perspective: the gun. The perspective lines of the gun are always directed towards the vanishing point of the picture, making us aware that there is no fundamental difference between Wolfenstein 3D and Crysis in terms of spatial representation. In fact, the drive towards increased processing power and the use of more and more polygons has placed video game development in a state of ‘enduring Baroque.’ While the visual arts have moved on into the Modern Era, the development of video games has stalled.

The Modernist Turn: Can Video Games Keep Up?

Video games are caught in an ‘enduring Baroque’ in terms of the representation of perspective. Poole argues that the history of spatial representations in video games has developed towards higher and higher realism. There is no room for spatial ambiguity, and the spatial aesthetics of games are still stuck in the 18th century. The confusing spaces of the Carceri etchings by Piranesi, or the impossible architecture of M.C. Escher, could not be implemented in video games. The ambiguous representation of space in Modernist art, such as in Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, etc. has not yet been adopted in video games [30, pp.213-215]. This is because the spaces of video games are designed to be used, while the spaces depicted in the fine arts are only designed to be looked at and interpreted. Spatial ambiguity and playing with perspective would obviously be confusing for the game player, and would decrease the playability of the game.

The evolution of spatial representation in video games towards higher realism is connected to the history of the increasing processing power of game hardware. Each new generation of consoles boasts higher processing power, and video games serve as showcases of this mathematical might. This explains why the history of video games is relayed mostly through industrial and technological developments, as pointed out in the introduction. In order to be perceived as a potentially aesthetic form, however, video games have to be placed within an aesthetic and cultural discourse. Thus, the development of a ‘Modernist’ spatial representation in video games needs to be critically analysed.

Instances of ‘Modernist’ spatial representation in video games can be observed in several places in the current video game landscape. First, there is the development of ‘art games;’ games that are produced with an artistic intention. Second, there are games that are produced in the regular commercial context, but that nevertheless display ‘Modernist’ principles of spatial representation. These principles are: 1) the diminishing importance of correct perspective, and in correlation with this: 2) the diminishing importance of the naturalism and consistency of the fictional world. In the world of art, the first principle was already apparent in the post-Impressionist painting of Paul Cézanne, while the second principle could be seen as a logical result of this process in the paintings of the Cubist period of Pablo Picasso [4].

Apart from the distinction between ‘Bild’ and ‘Bildwelt’ discussed in the previous section, there is another difference between painting and video gaming, as Manovich has already alluded to; the former is a static representation, while the latter is a dynamic representation. In video gaming, the perspective is able to move, due to medium-specific characteristics not available to painting. The computer has enough processing power to draw a new perspective, painting multiple times every second. It is this feature that gives the video game the ability to represent a ‘Bildwelt’ instead of only a ‘Bild.’ The Belgian-Dutch art duo JoDi has shown with their art work Untitled Game that the navigable spaces of video games are in fact an illusion created by the gradually changing perspective that the computer draws multiple times per second. They do this by revealing the ‘apparatus,’ of the game – the processing power of the computer – opaquely on the screen; this can be seen in Image 7. JoDi argues that video games are not spaces but rather ‘perspective engines’ [8, p.156]. Games are then nothing more than hyperactive paintings. The art game of JoDi can thus be read as a critique of the ‘enduring Baroque’ in video gaming, in which the perspective is still the only method of depiction.

Image 7
Image 7: Untitled Game by JoDi (1998) Available at

But it is at this point of dynamic instead of static representation that video gaming has more in common with cinema than with painting, as both Poole [30, p.133] and the Danish scholar Walther have argued [34, p.4]. The dynamic character in cinema is twofold: on the one hand the represented objects move vis-à-vis the camera, but on the other hand the camera can move vis-à-vis the represented objects. In the first movies made by Lumière for example, the static camera was placed in front of a dynamic situation, which was then captured on film [2, p.182]. The development of the steady-cam made possible the second kind of movement, i.e. the movement of the viewing subject through the filmic space [29, pp.182, 211, 234]. It is this second type of movement that video gaming has borrowed from cinema, and this has been essential for the representation of space and the experience of this space by the player. Perceptual psychologists point out that the perception of space is not only based on stereoscopic vision, but also on the movement of the perceiving subject through this space [18, p.9]. This point has been missed by JoDi. Dynamic forms like film and video games can offer this kind of spatial representation, while the static form of painting could not.

JoDi's art game shows the first ‘Modernist’ principle of spatial representation (anti-perspective), as well as the second principle, because it does not try to hide the apparatus of the video game and instead consciously displays it. Walther is of the opinion that this is exactly the point at which video games' spatial representations borrow from Modernist art. He argues that Modernist art has viewed ‘space’ and ‘representation’ itself from a meta-perspective. The way spatial representation is treated and created in the work La tentative d'impossible by René Magritte (see Image 8) is an example of how the illusion of artistic representation is foregrounded; Magritte lets a diegetic painter draw a model that is also inside the same diegetic space of the painting. Parallel to Magritte, video game space is also produced ‘on the fly’, and it literally unfolds itself from static binary code into a visually perceived environment in the course of game play [34, p.4]. But Walther misses the point in his comparison. In video games the space is constructed on the fly, but all effort is directed towards disguising this in order to maintain the consistency of the fictional world, while conversely in Magritte's painting the space is created only once, but all effort is directed towards bringing the moment of creation into view, thereby unbalancing the consistency of the fictional world. Magritte has consciously foregrounded the moment of the confusion of intra- and extra-diegetic creation, but in video games loading times are masked as much as possible, and ‘pop-up’ is decreased to a minimum, in order to make the space as ‘smooth’ as possible. As I have pointed out in a previous article, various types of editing are used in video game editing, but the efforts are nonetheless directed toward ‘smooth’ transitions [23].

Image 8
Image 8: La tentative d'impossible by René Magritte (1928)

It is no coincidence that one of the commercial games that does not follow Baroque conventions but instead plays with perspective itself is a part of the Super Mario series. Super Mario Bros. played an important role in the ‘medieval’ era of video gaming, and the same could be said about Super Mario 64 in the Renaissance of video games. Several games in the Mario series have tried to innovate in the spatial representation of the ‘enduring Baroque’ era, as can be seen, for example, in the interesting spatial make-up of Super Mario Galaxy [24]. It is Super Paper Mario (Image 9), however, that truly plays with perspective itself. Super Paper Mario begins as a two-dimensional game, in the style of the traditional side-scrolling games. But when the player encounters an obstacle that he or she cannot overcome, for example a wall that is too high to jump over, he or she can immediately switch to a three-dimensional perspective, in which the wall appears to be high but flat, and Mario can then easily circumvent it. This type of perspective changing is not only an interesting puzzle element to the game, but is also a conscious reworking of the two-dimensional roots of the Mario series. The game is not dependent on a side perspective, nor on a linear perspective: it places itself above both these perspectives. As a critical examination of perspective, Super Paper Mario is the final step in the use of linear perspective in video gaming.

Image 9
Image 9: Super Paper Mario (2007). Three successive screenshots [31, p.80]

It is not only the conscious treatment of perspective that makes Super Paper Mario a ‘Modernist’ game, it is also the conscious departure from a consistent fictional world. In the game, the entire world is made of paper. This fact alone diminishes the illusion of the fictional world. Moreover, at the beginning of every level, it is revealed that the entire world is drawn up at the moment of playing. As can be seen in Image 9, the screen initially portrays a blank piece of paper, onto which the lines of the ground and the trees are drawn, and these are coloured in at the last stage. This is exactly the same situation that applies in Magritte's La tentative d'impossible, in which the world being depicted is also drawn at the same moment that it is being viewed.

Another game that displays Modernist features is Echochrome, a game from 2008 for the PSP. While Poole argued in 2004 that impossible Escherian architecture would not be represented any time soon in video games, four years later the design studio Game Yarouze produced Echochrome (see Image 10). In this game a character (a dummy, which is also a reference to painting) walks over a seemingly impossible structure. The player is asked to change the perspective so that as the view changes, the structure of the space is also changed, and the character can walk over to the next section of the space. This is a clear reference to Escher, and thus to a ‘Modernist’ conception of space. The minimalist design of this game is also an instance of departure from the ‘enduring Baroque,’ and Echochrome also plays with perspective in a similar way as Super Paper Mario does.

But is Echochrome a game that can keep up with the Modernist challenge in art? I think not. Echochrome is a puzzle game. At first glance the architectural space of the game seems impossible, but the eventual purpose of the game is to understand it and solve the puzzle. The impossible architectures in the works of Escher, on the other hand, are not intended to be fully understood. They are intended to postpone indefinitely the moment of solving the puzzle and thereby to challenge the perception and the mind of the viewer, so to provide an aesthetic experience. This is a fundamental difference between art and video games; the former functions to provide an aesthetic experience, while the latter functions to provide another kind of experience. The philosopher of art Monroe Beardsley has argued that the aesthetic experience does, in fact, involve an aspect of puzzling. One of the conditions of an aesthetic experience is that there is an active exploration of connections within the work, which leads to the pleasure of understanding a pattern and solving a puzzle [5, pp.52-54, 59]. This puzzling and solving is not directed towards an end of ‘conquering’ the art work, but rather towards coming to an interpretation of the art work. The art work's puzzle is a ‘rhetorical ellipsis,’ according to the philosopher of art Arthur Danto. The art work poses a problem of interpretation, which the viewer then has to solve [3, p.80]. This is consistent with the claim of the American game scholar David Myers, who has argued that the crucial semiotic difference between video games and popular fiction on the one hand, and art and literature on the other, is that the former strive for familiarization of the player or reader with the sign system, while the latter strive for defamiliarization of the viewer or reader with the sign system [26, pp.105-108]. The function of this defamiliarization of the art work is to provide an aesthetic experience, a function that Echochrome clearly does not have, because its purpose is to familiarize the player with the seemingly impossible architecture that is eventually to be solved logically. There is not rhetorical ellipsis but rather a logical ellipsis. From this follows that the perception of game space is distracted, as opposed to being concentrated in the case of art, as Jayemanne has stated [9], and this inhibits the function of providing an aesthetic experience. That is why, even after the release of Echochrome, Poole's hope of a truly ‘Modernist’ or Escherian representation of game space is still to be fulfilled.

Image 10
Image 10: Echochrome (PSP, 2008). Left: character, right: in-game view

For Super Paper Mario the same is true. Although it is not a pure puzzle game like Echochrome, the perspective play is used primarily to advance in a level, instead of to provide an aesthetic experience. The Dutch scholar Lies van Roessel argues that while the ‘Modernist’ features of constructedness and perspective play have not developed into a genre convention, Super Paper Mario remains an estranging and artistic game [31, p.83]. This points to the fact that all games, and not just puzzle games, are subject to familiarization. Familiarization occurs not only within a genre of video games (the PSP game C.R.U.S.H. already relies on the same principle of 2D to 3D perspective change), but also within one game. Super Paper Mario consists of 8 levels. In the final level, the changing of perspective is probably no longer providing an aesthetic experience. Moreover, it has become a trick, which experienced players can probably perform naturally. The challenge for experienced players is, rather, to implement the trick in new situations. It should be noted that art games, like JoDi's, are different in this respect. They are not meant to be played over and over, level after level, but rather to be perceived, interpreted, and left as an object of reflection. Thus, the purpose of JoDi's art games is defamiliarization with the sign system.

The constructed nature and inconsistency of the fictional world, however, is also something that should be understood to work differently in the context of video gaming than in other arts. In previous work I have explained that there are three kinds of ‘metalepses’ (breaking through the narratological boundary of the ‘Fourth Wall’) [25]. First there is ‘accidental metalepsis,’ which occurs when something happens in the game that is not foreseen by the designer. The second is ‘conventional metalepsis,’ which is constantly maintained because of the necessary connectedness of the player to the virtual world via his controller. The third is ‘stylistic metalepsis,’ which is consciously deployed by the designer in order to reach a stylistic effect. Super Paper Mario makes use of stylistic metalepsis, but it is not unique in this respect, as there have been a number of games with this feature before [25, p.66].

A number of other developments in video gaming could signal a move away from technocentric dominance and realism, and towards the aesthetic and artistic standards of Modernism. First is the movement of retro gaming. Recent years have seen increased popularity of the two-dimensional games of the past. This could be regarded as an acknowledgement of exactly the aesthetic qualities of the Mario games discussed in previous sections of this article, despite their unrealistic and visually poor appearance according to today's standards. The critically acclaimed and popular status of these games can be compared to the respectful and important art historical status that medieval art works such as the Bayeux Tapestry enjoy. Second, we could point to the movement of ‘indie gaming,’ which is also treated in an aesthetic and artistic discourse, as can be seen in the case of the independently developed game Passage by Jason Rohrer. This indie gaming movement is highly interconnected with the retro gaming movement. Third, the current generation of consoles has continued the tradition of boasting increased processing power, for example the Microsoft Xbox 360 and the Sony Playstation 3. But Nintendo's current generation console, the Wii, does not have significantly more processing power than its predecessor from the previous generation. Nintendo has deviated from the standard path, and some game scholars have expressed their hopes that this might increase the development of aesthetically and artistically interesting video games [13]. Fourth, a video game such as Ico for the Sony Playstation 2 has implemented spatial aspects of art movements such as Surrealism. In this game, the lighting, the unheimlichkeit of the environment, the dreamlike landscape, and the box art are all conscious references to the spaces painted by the proto-surrealist Giorgio de Chirico.

Whatever direction the evolution of games will take, it is hard to predict from the position of gaming at the present moment. And this is a good thing, because for games to be viewed in an aesthetic manner, it is not at all necessary for them to imitate the Modernist turn of the fine arts. It is necessary to do something completely new, to deviate from the predictable paths dictated by commercial needs, but also to stand alone vis-à-vis fine arts. Games need not be art per se; games need only to provide experiences that can be enjoyed in a comparable way to other cultural products from our imagination.

Concluding Remarks

In this article I have treated the development of spatial representations in video games from the perspective of art history and art theory. In the first section I posed some problems associated with adopting such an approach, because painting and video gaming have different medium-specific characteristics. Nevertheless, some important parallels in the development of both media can be emphasized. The evolution of spatial development within gaming can be divided into three phases. In the first phase, the representation of space in video games bears close resemblance to that in medieval visual arts, with regard to the use of the cross-section perspective as well as the top-down perspective. In the second phase, the linear perspective was implemented in three-dimensional video games, a development that bears close resemblance to the method of painting that evolved in the Italian Renaissance.

The third phase in painting, however, is the Modernist turn, in which the importance of perspective has diminished, and the representation of space has become more abstract, ambiguous, distorted, and conceptual. It is in the third phase, moreover, that the development of fine arts has diverged from video games, and video games have come to lag behind. In video gaming, the linear perspective still reigns supreme, and the aim is still toward enhancing realism instead of toward an artistic representation of space. The equivalent of the Baroque era in the world of art endures in the world of video games. The rare games that have tried to treat space innovatively have run into the boundaries of the medium-specificity of video games: games are aimed at familiarisation, while art's semiotic function is defamiliarisation. It appears, therefore, that with regard to spatial representation, video games as a ‘new’ medium are still very much stuck in ‘old’ traditions.


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About the Author

Ruben Meintema (1983) has a Research Master's degree in Literary and Cultural Studies from the University of Groningen (the Netherlands), with a focus on Game Studies. He has contributed to De Game-industrie. Een inleiding (2007), and his article ‘Games, Frames, Screens, and Seams. Spatial and Temporal Editing in Video Games’ was published in Frame. Journal of Literary Studies 23.1 (2010). His article ‘Beneath the Skin of Digital Characters: Race and Body in Japanese Fighting Games’ is forthcoming in Race and Racism in Modern East Asia: Western Constructions and Local Reactions (2012).

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