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The RPG Scrollbars: Artbooks Of Adventure

Game artbooks just get better and better

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I’m a big fan of artbooks, which is quite lucky since not only are there plenty of them around right now, the quality of them has never been better. Forget the scrappy little affairs that used to be used to bolster out the Collector’s Editions of games, much as concept art used to fill in for interesting secrets to unlock. Today’s artbooks are typically huge, prestigious affairs, that come hardbound and printed on excellent quality paper. You might not put them on your coffee table, but they certainly look great on the shelf. This week, I thought we’d take a look at a few of the RPG ones that have found their way to mine – not all the recent ones by any stretch, but a few.

Of course, not everybody gets the point of them. After all, if you’ve got the game, you’ve seen it all, right? To some extent, yes. I think there’s a bit more to it than simply enjoying the pretty pictures though, including seeing unseen parts of your favourite games (though typically they don’t show that much in the way of failed concepts and cut content, which is certainly something I’d like more of). In particular, there’s an appeal in simply pausing to appreciate the work and depth that goes into creating a modern game. It’s never been easier to be blase about that, writing off worlds as complex and gorgeously rendered as, say, Dishonored for looking a bit like Half-Life 2, or a traditional RPG for ‘just’ being several other games thrown in some magic blender.

Even in those cases there’s always almost always more going on than there appears. Plus in general, it’s hard to appreciate art. We’re not only surrounded by so much of it and at such high fidelity that we shrug off modern wonders like the creation of cities with ‘yeah, seen it’, the games themselves rarely want you hanging around and smelling the roses. Even something as arguably over-designed as Deus Ex: Mankind Divided quickly fades into the background as it whooshes past and gets excited about conspiracies and guns and whatever. Seeing things from a different angle is the only real way to appreciate it to its full, as in in Andy Kelly’s Other Places series, or in text form in Keza MacDonald and Jason Killingsworth’s You Died.

Here’s a few of the ones that I’ve collected. Just to quickly clarify, I only tend to bother with books of games that I like/play or find fascinating, so the absence of, say, Eve: Universe or The Art of League of Legends mostly just means ‘I don’t play them’. It’s not a knock on the books or the art – though in the case of League of Legends, it’s definitely linked to that price. $75?! Christ… Also, if you’re shopping on Amazon, most feature a handy comment somewhere where a reader has shot video of themselves flicking through the pages. This is a good way of seeing what the book’s focus is – just the art, more of a guide through the world, or something thrown together without very much actual meat on its bones. That’s fairly rare these days, but it does happen. And conveniently enough, the four I thought I’d talk about offer quite a good demonstration of the kind of spread you can expect. Funny how that works out!

The Art Of World of Warcraft

The Art of World of Warcraft for instance is all about concept art, which is great if you want to admire the detail of Blizzard’s work and probably a few Hearthstone cards to be, but you’re not going to get much beyond that, or how a gorgeous painting of the flying city of Dalaran above the clouds ended up being translated into WoW’s low-polygon style. Words are kept to the absolute minimum and only occasionally drop an interesting bit of behind-the-scenes information like the Vrykul originally being vampiric or the origin of the Gilnean crest. The few words you do get are things like ‘Cataclysm opened up the desert realm of Uldum – a land of ancient, long-buried secrets’, or a quick paragraph praising the artists for upgrading Deathwing’s appearance from a simple dragon recolour in the original Warcraft games to his appearance as big baddy in Cataclysm. Each chapter is devoted to one of the expansions, through to Warlords of Draenor, with a more or less random collection of artworks drawn for it, including character portraits and up close versions of faction symbols.

For me, that’s all okay, but it fails to truly represent World of Warcraft as a game or as a world. As beautiful as Warcraft’s vistas are, it’s the character of it that’s the real draw, and most of the images are either empty or just hero shots of particular people. Even in those cases, the description goes little beyond the obvious and without any real digging deeper. Talking about the creation of female pandaren for instance, I kinda want to know about the artist who was told to bring the concept to life and thought “Princess Leia’s slave bikini!” There has to be a story there, right? Or an apology?

Blizzard’s own website media and Hearthstone cards show that it has some really awesome, active pictures of this world that speak to what a crazy and interesting place it is for adventuring, and that’s what I wanted to see in this. Weirdly, one of the best examples – if not one of the best pictures – is when you flick to the end, where two ladies are in pitched combat as a kind of throwaway sepia splash page. Where were the pictures like that throughout this book? Gorgeous as much of it is on a technical level, it’s raw craft more than Warcraft, and its charm killed by being pinned to the page.

The World Of The Witcher

The World of the Witcher meanwhile takes a completely different slant. It’s a gorgeous companion book to the series rather than an artbook per se, but you certainly get your money’s worth in terms of pictures. Instead of being about the games as games though, it presents itself as an in-universe text that combines them with vast amounts of text going into the different monster types, the nature of sorceresses, how Witchers train and so on, with varying levels of seriousness, and supposedly written by Geralt’s bard friend Dandelion and occasional guest authors like Vesemir. The writers don’t always seem to remember that, but it adds a fun spice to the prose when they do (“Vampires. Most of the traits commonly ascribed to these creatures are bollocks.”)

If you’ve played the games then you’ll know most of it already, but it’s a great way of dipping back into the world and filling in gaps that you’d only really know from reading the books. Chapter V for instance is an abridged version of both Geralt and Ciri’s backstories, and then a very potted version of the trilogy. It’s a great celebration of a fantastic series that keeps up the kayfabe right up to the point of advertising a spin-off game at the end, and a book I can easily imagine reading instead of embarking on some 200 hours of RPG when I want to fondly remember Geralt’s adventures.

The Art of Deus Ex Universe

By god, there’s a lot in this book. The recent Deus Ex games have to be second only to Bioshock Infinite in terms of being ‘designed’ worlds, and this newest addition to my collection just blows that right open. Sadly, its definition of ‘universe’ doesn’t include either the original or Invisible War, but jumps straight into Adam Jensen smoking in his chair and pondering just how much he did not ask for this. Unlike most of these books though, it’s only another page before it shows off a set of designs described as, I quote, “Douchebag Adam”. Literally the art designer admits to getting: ‘stuck in a phase where we tried to make him look too tough, too badass. It had the effect of making Adam look like a bouncer or a biker, or as we liked to say at the time, a douchebag.”

I liked this book immediately.

Honestly, I’m finding Deus Ex: Mankind Divided something of a slog as a game, but I found this artbook fascinating. It’s full of not only concept art, but the artists talking in some detail about the goals and subtleties of characters – David Sarif for instance needing to represent the cyber-renaissance look, with an augmented arm that he probably keeps up to date to market to clients, and how characters like Pritchard had to stand out by not buying into the overblown style. One of the most fascinating of the Human Revolution characters, to try and avoid spoilers, is the design of Eliza Cassan, the holographic newsreader that nobody is meant to know is an AI. Her colour scheme is designed to subtly reinforce this by using colours that aren’t used in the rest of the game – pinks, purples, violets, standing out as dischordant in a world of oranges, yellows, golds and blacks. Not everyone has some little snippet of that ilk, but the overall feel is that you’re reading a book by a team that’s both proud of its work and interested in talking about it. As usual, it would be good to have some nicely shot versions of how a lot of it appeared in the actual game rather than just the painted perfection of concept art, but more than most games it’s the ideas on display here rather than the implementations. It’s a gorgeous book that more than most leaves you with a better understanding of the work rather than just appreciation.

The Art of the Mass Effect Universe

I adore Mass Effect. I love its universe and characters. I can’t wait for Andromeda. For that reason, I liked this tour of its art, but it’s not the easiest to actually recommend. Big, impressive pictures are fairly rare, with most of it being focused on fairly small variants of characters and equipment that got rejected, and whipping through at such a pace that nothing gets time to breathe. It’s like being led around by a tour guide who just wants to have his lunch. Quick! You want to see the Normandy? Here’s a couple of pictures of the Normandy! Quick, here’s Samara! We spent ages working out how to justify ‘mystic warrior’ translating to ‘boobs hanging out’ and decided it was her armour’s… invisible kinectic barrier… or whatever! Hey, you think that’s bad, check out this early concept art of Miranda! Yeah, watch that spine snap so we can show you her butt.

It’s so frustrating. When the art’s interesting, it’s typically too small to see, while each planet gets so little that even key locations like the Citadel are blink-and-you’ll-miss them. There should be whole chapters on these places, not just a couple of pages per game and the occasional bonus pic later on. Then, the pictures you do get aren’t the most exciting. Shots of a couple of the Wards, a little deserted? Cool. But do we really need three grey pictures of shipyards? Mass Effect has so many gorgeous locations that it’s genuinely strange to sift through a book that doesn’t get what it’s got to play with, and lots of rejected designs that aren’t typically so different from the finished one to tell interesting stories of what could have been. The result is a book that feels oddly technical for a celebration of the art. “We made over 200 helmets” for instance is an interesting bit of trivia, but then seeing 40 of them still feels like overkill.

In short, I was very disappointed by this book. It doesn’t have the meat to let you crawl deeper into the universe, nor the pretty art to simply bask in. For what should be one of my favourites, it ended up a coffee table book in the sense that I wouldn’t be all that upset if someone put their coffee on it. And if it’s not clear I’m speaking as a fan of the series even after That Ending, I own a £70 Tali’Zorah figure. (Oh, for the whole set. Or the disposable income to casually pick up a £279 Mordin on a whim…)

Anyway. Are there any artbooks that you’ve acquired and been particularly taken by, or series that you wish would have them? Increasingly it seems that big franchises are spawning one along with the hideous Funko Pop statues – Fallout 4, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Dark Souls, Tomb Raider, Destiny, Uncharted, Doom, XCOM 2, Assassin’s Creed… Hell, in a sad turn of events, you can get an artbook for Fable Legends, despite it having been cancelled. The audience for them can’t be that big, but I’m glad it’s big enough to take these releases seriously – to celebrate just how good we’ve got it these days, and better appreciate worlds that deserve to be seen as well as experienced.

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