Another year, another crop of video game paintings doing their best to class up the place.
I invited my artist friend Curtis back to lend their expertise to my folder full of screenshots of this year’s video game paintings. We saw a lot of references to existing artists, as well as a lot of strange lighting choices.
This post contains a few mild spoilers for Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, so skip that section if you need to.
Prey is one of the first games I’ve seen that has its own artist statement, which you can find early on in the game. It shows how much thought the developers put into the art that fills Talos I and also explains why it feels so unified.
I made an executive decision that the sculpture the statement references counts as a painting because it’s in a frame.
With its black lines, sense of movement, and the way it busts out of the frame, this piece seems to reference the mimics that torment you through the game. I thought it was a nice thematic touch.
Curtis: This piece is very techno-modernist. It reminds me of Lucio Fontana. It feels like real art in a video game.
Again, I thought the lines felt a bit like the mimics. The alpha and omega theme feels echoed through the game as well with its questions of humanity evolving. I like its shape—as we learned last year, video games seem to love weird-shaped canvases. I really like this piece.
Curtis: I think it looks like a screensaver.
This feels very Gustav Klimt to me, with the color and the design. It’s weird how the pictures are sort of floating in the frames. I’m really impressed that they’re hung so level; there’s no way I could pull something like this off in my bedroom.
Curtis: The linear order they’re hung in is interesting, like it’s depicting roots, buds, and then full trees. It feels very interior design, though, like something you’d buy at Pier One.
Curtis and I then discussed if we’d ever actually been to a Pier One. They had, and I have vague memories of being a little kid and running around some store with a lot of very big baskets, which was either a Pier One or a design store that was actually on a pier.
Like the statement at the beginning says, these are all very space-themed, with this great sense of orbits and launches. All of these paintings are lit from above, which Curtis and I discussed last year as being kind of annoying because of the glare. One of the lights is out here, though, which is a subtle hint at the disarray Talos I has fallen into.
Curtis: This reminds me of Frank Stella but with this slight hint of futurism. The lighting is a very bank lobby way of lighting a painting, though.
I think this painting looks like those weird round towers you find around the map (which Curtis calls “wizard towers”). As far as I can recall this is the only painting I’ve ever seen in the game, but I’m probably just freaking out too much to ever notice any of the other ones. I took this screenshot while playing with Curtis, after which I probably did something stupid and got us killed.
Curtis: It looks like a Photoshop filter. Judging from the map, I think this is in the lighthouse. I’d like to believe the person who lived in the lighthouse painted this. It’s a bit Thomas Kinkade, with the path leading up the tower and everything.
This game kind of came and went, but it’s a lot of fun. Your boss, Persephone Brimstone, has a ton of paintings, mostly of herself.
Curtis: This is very art nouveau, and the pattterning is cool. But everyone in video games lights their paintings from above! It’d be nicer to have spotlights hooked up in your ceiling, but that would be expensive.
I found this to be true, but that said, Persephone owns a spaceship, so she could probably afford it.
The dialogue here has Persephone saying this work is “striking yet so subtle,” so my question is which came first, the dialogue or the painting? Did the writers stare at this painting and then write dialogue around it, actually finding it striking but subtle? Or did the writers create the dialogue and then the artists had to create something that matched it?
Curtis: The lines are very elegant. The monochrome kind of bores me; it looks like this digital thing where maybe there was color but then they knocked it back. I’m bothered by the detail in the hand versus the looseness in the rest of the painting and the slight abstraction in the rest of her.
After Curtis mentioned this, I couldn’t stop staring at her hand. It started to really freak me out.
Curtis: This is “Joan of Arc’s Death at the Stake” by Hermann Stilke. It’s in the State Hermitage Museum in Russia. It’s actually the right hand part of a triptych. Is this a print or is it supposed to be the original?
I was very impressed with Curtis identifying this so quickly. It also begged the question of why Persephone only has one part of it, and how she got it in the first place.
Curtis: Maybe she licensed it for $575 through Getty Images.
Curtis: This looks like the way art is sometimes stored in the Whitney, like when you’re researching something. It looks like a sort of fake Picasso. I like the bottle of whiskey next to the skull.
I don’t know if that’s a bird in a scarf or a tea kettle, behind what looks like a shopping cart wheel.
Curtis: It’s about vice and death.
Wolfenstein has some great posters, but it also has a lot of great paintings.
I can’t remember whose room on Eva’s Hammer this is. I want to say Fergus, but it might just be because it seems like old man art, like something your uncle would have in the office he doesn’t really use.
Curtis: It’s very “great American landscape paintings.” Where’s the painting of the mallard, though? There’s always a painting of a mallard.
This is the painting that’s behind the set in the scene where you film the movie for Hitler, a line which is as bizarre to write as the scene was to play. Note that it is not lit from above.
Curtis: Yeah, it’s that same bar light, but from below. It’s very melodramatic and looks like a villian’s palace. It doesn’t seem like the kind of painting Nazis would like, though—they wanted to show the triumph of human bodies, Greek culture, yadda yadda. This seems too gloomy.
This is the painting that Max is working on the whole game, and then you see it all together in the end. It feels almost too 60s to me, but at the same time it makes Max feel very of the moment. It’s like he wanted to copy the thing that would have been considered cool in the 60s, which feels like a very 60s thing to do. I suppose they would have gone on to exploit Max in the art world in the 80s.
Curtis: There’s a play on this being the kind of art that Hitler would have denounced as degenerate. It’s so intentionally outsider art.
I don’t think it’s the boat you live on, but I like that the boat has a painting of a boat in it.
Curtis: This is based on Arthur Beaumont I think, who was a big American Naval artist who died in 1978 and was commissioned by the Navy to make paintings.
I like how well this painting fits in this nook. That was either very good luck or they bought a frame that would make it fit.
Night in the Woods’ art is mostly historic, which fits the game really well.
I think all the miners look worried instead of heroic, which is weird, but also good foreshadowing for the stuff that’s going on around Possum Springs.
Curtis: Yeah, they look like they’re running from something in the mine. Because Night in the Woods is already such an arty game, I like that the art in it is just the reality.
There are a lot of things in Mae’s house that could be paintings but are actually photos, which is one of the tricky parts of identifying video game paintings. I find these hangings weird because there are bird people in the game, so are they supposed to be people or what? Which also begs the question of the clock. Imagine having a clock like that, like the board game Operation except...a clock.
Curtis: They feel like very working class family home decorations.
Curtis and I then debated what these were for a while. I thought maybe they were cross-stitches. Curtis thought they were plates. I don’t understand people who put art in the kitchen, but I have a very small kitchen.
Curtis: I lived at this house for a year where these people had paintings of eggplants in their kitchen.
I like that so much of the art in this game conveys stuff about the town, but then that’s sort of the function of public art. It feels super thoughtful as opposed to just throwing something in a frame.
Curtis: It conveys something right away about people who are proud of their town and its industry. Before you’ve even seen the town you know what type of place it is.
Some of these may have been in Dishonored 2, but I didn’t feature them last year, so I thought they deserved another chance. The Dishonored games have so much great art it’s hard to keep track.
Curtis: The Dishonored paintings are always so good and painterly. It actually feels like paint getting smooshed around.
This is one of the collectible paintings. I like that it’s reminiscent of other areas in the games, like the Dust District and a bit the Shindaerey mines.
Curtis: It reminds me of one of my favorite JMW Turner paintings, “The Fall of an Avalanche in the Grisons,” even though it doesn’t look much like it. There’s the same movement and tension of exploding out but not yet fully.
I feel like I definitely saw this in Dishonored 2, but I can’t get over how weird it is. What is the monkey doing? Why is it in, like, a bank lobby?
Curtis: They’re looking at it like it’s stuffed. Maybe it’s in the Royal Conservatory?
I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t think of that. I actually thought it was just a live monkey running around screaming and someone made a painting of it.
Curtis: I like that better.
I like these because of how they’re shaped and how they’re hung so close to the ceiling—I think I’m standing on top of something here. The right one I think is the area in Dishonored 2 where you kill Paolo, because I remember running up and down those stairs while everyone chased me. The one on the left makes me think of the area outside the Hounds Pits Pub but I don’t think it is. It’s weird that people have paintings of random parts of town in their house. These would be important areas in the game, but they don’t seem like they’d matter that much to people who actually live in the world.
Curtis: The one on the right looks like an industrial drawing, which I like. It seems like a byproduct of concept art being able to be used in a video game.
This painting is terrifying, but also not lit from above.
Curtis: Yeah, the lighting is nice. I like the colors and the sense of scale. It’s great! It’s a little Wyeth-y.
It reminds me of the end of Inside.
There’s a very Atlas Shrugged quality about this one.
I debated for a long time over whether these were photos or not. Mostly they seemed too big and too carefully composed, unless someone was a very good photographer. Apologies that they’re a bit dark; there’s not a lot of indoor lighting in The Long Dark.
This one seems way too perfect to be a photo. There’s no way the deer would stand around like that, especially in this game.
Curtis: I like the clumpy brushstrokes. This feels like the same kind of painting that was in that one Wolfenstein room. It’s like how people in New York have big abstract paintings of buildings—you can look out the window and see the buildings, but you want to see them in your house.
This one has to be a painting. Unless it’s a photo of, like, a mom and some kids in a very sad waiting room, crammed together on a tiny bench awaiting some very bad news?
Curtis: It’s like, who lives here and vacations here? What is it like when you’re not dying? This painting gets at that, like a family sitting on a dock on a lake.
What followed was about five minutes of me staring at this, realizing Curtis is probably right that it’s people on a dock, and having no idea what I was thinking. Why would you paint a crappy waiting room? Art, man.
Curtis: This is the PUBG lighthouse. There’s someone in that lighthouse, right now, making a painting of The Long Dark cabin you’re in.