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In-game Photography: A Short Introduction

Konstantin Remizov is a key figure in the Russian in-game photography and machinima scenes. Founder of the VK community page INGAME, Remizov has directed a huge number of machinimas, including a three-hour pornographic film and a project on the paintings of Velasquez involving fifteen game engines. As part of his curatorial project about ingame photography, Roman Naveskin sat down with him and talked about how screenshots from World of Warcraft could be turned into contemporary art.

How would you explain in-game photography to three different people — a person who doesn’t understand art, a photographer, and an art critic?

If we assume that they really are three different people, then my three attempts at a definition would look something like this:

1. Games, especially three-dimensional ones, are conducive to photography, if only because they have a camera and the player often has the ability to control it. Even more to the point is the integration of games into social networks and social networks into gaming platforms (Steam, for example), which has been happening since the late noughties. Gamers constantly share their achievements and impressions, which is not so different from how a family photo album or Instagram account works, except that it is also free marketing for developers and publishers. In addition to this everyday use as a means of preserving memories, the in-game camera is often (especially since the popularisation of special photo modes in games) used for aesthetic purposes. This is one of the most basic forms of improvised fun, how players like to amuse themselves when they are not busy with playthroughs and competing[1]. The Grand Theft Auto series is really conducive to this.

2. In-game photography is less a simulation of real photography and more a continuation of it in a new environment and a way of looking at it from the outside. The in-game photographer’s toolkit includes much of what forms the basis of photography in reality, but without the restrictions imposed by real-world physics (for example, the camera can pass through objects and find angles that are not there in reality), and with a number of significant additions that are not typical of photography. Depending on the specific game and a player’s approach, it can be like a kind of street photography in which the photographer subjectively interprets a deliberately constructed world, or a radical version of studio shooting, in which the photographer gets to control the entire world, for example, by stopping time and altering weather conditions, the visual properties of objects and even the most basic physical variables, like gravity. And due to their algorithmic nature, games easily allow any player to simulate unique situations that are independent of the player, but would be impossible without their intervention. Jeff Wall engages in this kind of improvisation in photography[2].

3. In-game photography is a way of interacting with media space from the inside, of pushing our own situation in the real world to the limit. The connection with ready-mades and Richard Prince’s re-photographing[3] is not as vital here as techniques from the Situationist arsenal: in-game photography is akin to both the drift[4] and the detournement[5] of the psychogeographers, along with elements of procedural art. In addition, it is an art form that thrives outside the space of the museum — that is, it flourishes on social networks. It is technically reproducible “termite art”, to borrow Manny Farber’s term[6]. It is popular and heterogeneous enough not to be dismissed as pop art, part of the gamer subculture or someone’s pet art project.

That immediately leads to a fundamental question. What distinguishes, let’s say, an ordinary screenshot from an in-game photograph as an artwork? Context? Intent? The time and work put into it? Or is it something else?

First of all, the context, the image’s connection to the game in which it is made, to photography’s past and present, to new media art and art in general. I wouldn’t like to set any more limits by being unnecessarily specific, since art tends to surpass all limits, especially its own.

Can you tell us about your personal experiences with in-game photography? Taking a screenshot comes naturally to people today, but the question is how we get to the idea of it having intrinsic value, including artistic value. In this sense, of course, we are interested in two things: your personal history and the history of in-game photography’s emergence as an art form.

I think the idea of a screenshot having artistic value is commonplace. Controlling a game camera feels like a creative act in itself, just as most run-of-the-mill photographic techniques would be considered creative (and may well be recognised as art in one way or another). Since 2010 onwards, the press (including the Russian-speaking press) has been writing about the artistry of screenshots[7]. It’s also probably time to insert the cynical remark that making the player feel important is a key marketing strategy in many games. At the same time, the photo modes, whose arrival gave rise to the current popularity of in-game photography, carefully guide users so they don’t accidentally take a screenshot of something that would put the game in a bad light.

As for my personal history, I started working with games six years ago, and it was a bit of a surprise even to me. Before that, I was mainly involved in graphic art and/or whatever is meant by the vague term “illustration”. But I spent a lot of time with artists and video artists and was no less interested in video games, in particular, little-known, forgotten, “crappy” games (the fact that I was a film buff contributed to this approach, of course). Reading Game.EXE in the noughties also left its mark: the magazine was a kind of introductory course to game studies for me, and I suspect I’m not alone[8]. The last thing worth mentioning is my two unfinished degrees: I’m both a dropout programmer and a dropout museologist. For now, I’ll omit everything about machinima, which I saw as a way of crossing my interests in games and film, and which I was heavily involved in doing until early 2016[9]. In the process, I launched the VK community page machine cinema, which featured translations of foreign theoretical texts about in-game art and some of my own ultra-modernist manifestos. It attracted its own crowd, leading indirectly to an artist who calls herself ITSELF9 (who had also worked with games for some time) starting a community lab devoted to in-game photos (INGAME, which I now manage) in the image and likeness of her own community page DIGITAL LOW, where people share lo-fi photos. It immediately became a milieu for a very intense creative exchange (unlike the fading machinima scene), and I quickly got involved in this exchange. Everything that happened after that has been pretty rhizomatic, and I’m not sure I can extract a linear story from it, which is probably consistent with the disregard for game narratives that in-game art flaunts.

There are four quasi-events in the history of in-game photography’s emergence as an art that are perhaps worth mentioning. The first is the work of Miltos Manetas[10], who is also known as the author of the “first” machinima (Flame, 1997) and took several in-game photos during the late nineties and early noughties (in games like Hexen and Mario 64). His images emphasise the fact that, despite significant differences in the appearance of the objects recorded, the mechanics of photography and the image’s possible connotations are quite similar whether you are shooting in the real or the virtual world. The opposite approach, related to the notion of the simulacrum replacing reality, is embodied in the second event, John Paul Bichard’s series The White Room (2004), which riffs on the photorealism of Max Payne 2[11]. Baudrillard himself wrote, in “The Violence Done to the Image”, about the death of photography, which leads to the emergence of digital cameras and digital images, and similar concerns were in the air about digital cinema[12]. This is not the most productive view, although it can be interesting to express these concerns via the tension between the image’s photorealistic and obviously virtual elements. The third event is Eron Rauch’s photo project A Land To Die In, based on World of Warcraft, which Rauch played under the user name Guy Debord, employing the appropriate tactics for subjectively transforming the space[13]. Finally, the fourth is the popularisation and professionalisation of in-game photography, as embodied, aside from social networks and photo modes, by Duncan Harris[14]. It is not that Harris has anything to do with any form of art other than the art of advertising, but this event is the most high-profile of the four and the only one the gaming press sees. Besides, it has had inevitable positive consequences: the intensive work of the community that has emerged on Flickr and Tumblr sometimes has taken an experimental turn and enriched in-game photography’s arsenal with a number of useful tools for shooting. It is this event that has ultimately proven to be the key: it has generated a vast array of data and infrastructure that, like the games themselves, can be used far beyond their original purpose, enabling the liberation of in-game photography from museum and advertising narratives.

I’m interested in meta-gaming strategies in in-game photography that make players see the game in an unfavourable light. What happens at that moment? I see it as akin to a religious feeling: the glitch not as an abasement of the game, but rather as its liberation. Like a hyperlink, the error takes you outside of a closed system. And it can take you anywhere, putting you in touch with issues to do with the game’s mechanics, its surface, and the limitations of its world, or problems with beta testing. What does your know-how tell you about surpassing the game’s boundaries when doing in-game photography and more generally?

Yes, that’s exactly what it is: liberation. This is what Gilbert Simondon writes in his book On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects: enslaved by its own utilitarianism, technology is liberated when the user experiences it through (re)invention, where the artificial boundary between use and technical creativity disappears[15]. This invention radically transforms the relationship between worker and tool, producer and consumer, artist and viewer, generating in their place new forms of interacting with technology and via technology with the world, media space, and imaginary space — what Simondon calls transindividual relations. What distinguishes games from the objects about which Simondon writes is that their prescribed functions are not restricted to alienated labour or even alienated leisure. They are always complex, and overriding and redirecting them involves several vectors at once and opens up multiple potentials. Games are mashups of aesthetics, didactics, socio-economic relations, and sexuality. In one way or another, each game contains a unique visual and mechanical image of the world, which can be transformed into other images. Ridiculing or criticizing games is probably the most uninteresting thing you can do in these circumstances (after, of course, composing tautological dithyrambs), since interaction with the liberated game enables you to go beyond existing hierarchical and genre classifications and the prevailing discourses about games. If we try to pick out the most general question from the tangled and constantly growing network of questions with which in-game art constantly confronts us, it would probably be the question of what a transindividual society would look like and what meanings, images, and games it would produce.

Can you give us a few examples to explain your strategy, your actions as an in-game photographer? How do you seek out a good shot? In other words, how do you hunt for photos as you voyage through different games?

Broadly speaking, I explore the game’s functional mechanisms and its world, looking for ways to use them outside of their original role. Sometimes I do this with a purpose in mind (as with my series on Daidō Moriyama), but usually I don’t have one and I work intuitively[16].

The simplest (although no less effective) tactic is to fragment and abstract the environment, usually at the technical level. This means shooting with a free camera with a small viewing angle, similar to working with a long-focus lens. A detail is snatched out of space, putting it at odds with its presumed context. Or two unrelated objects, located on the same line, interact with each other in the tight plane of the frame: they are thus montaged, producing a statement that the game did not intend.

As examples, here are two pictures. First, a simple abstraction from Morrowind [01]. I managed to get the shot after I had tried for an hour to get stuck in a lighted candle. Second, a much less difficult picture from the strategy game Ancient Wars: Sparta[02]. It is, of course, about auguries, although there are no augurs in the game: stacked on top of each other are a bird, a question mark over the head of a slave (signalling the player that the slave needs to be given a task) and a bonfire, which I shot through to get the visual distortion.

I also work with deformations that are controlled by various modifications and console commands: the outcomes of these can be varied and unpredictable. Here is a shot from the game Return of the Musketeers [03]. (The character is unrecognisable, but it is a digitised version of the popular Soviet/Russian actor and singer Mikhail Boyarsky, who played d’Artagnan in the 1978 Soviet screen version of Three Musketeers.) I got it by fiddling with the enabling/disabling of textures in the game and the viewing range. When you disable textures, the game selects one or two textures that originally belong to objects located next to the character, wrapping them around the entire world. You can see that the texture of the sky in the background is a real photo, and I find that the way games themselves recontextualise a photo as an object present in the world or as an action available to the player is one of the most interesting things. Another possible source of visual deformations is the textural level of detail, which is often controlled from the console or in the game configuration files. (A good example is a picture from the first part of Harry Potter [04]. In this case, after setting the detail and viewing angle, I waited an hour and a half for the ghost I was interested in to appear in the frame — their movements are quite chaotic.) You can also fiddle with the near clipping plane, which determines how far away from the camera we begin seeing objects. If you move it too close to the camera, you will be flooded with visual information. Bits of textures will try to drown each other while constantly flashing, and it may be hard to make out objects amidst this. (The attached picture from Utopia City [05] is another fairly tame example.)

I have already mentioned “studio” shooting and constructing algorithmic situations, which draw on procedural art and often go against what the game is trying to simulate. This comprehensive approach can simultaneously involve modification of game files, controlled glitches using console commands, and NPC algorithmic provocations. I’ve done much more of this with machinima than with in-game photos, but here are two images from Fallout 4 [06][07] that might serve as examples in a sense. I employed not only the game itself, but also modifications to it — in the first case, combining inappropriate use of originally heterosexual animations with controlled lighting glitches, and in the second, simultaneously staging an orgy and a shootout. (The translucent body in the foreground is the body of a character resurrected through the console, and the two red lines are shots from a laser rifle.)

Multiple exposure (available in a number of games when you use controlled glitches, but available in almost any game when using ReShade) is also quite important to me[17]. Multiple exposure is the same as snatching images out of context and colliding/fusing them: the linkage between them can become stronger than their connection with the original environment, but in this case they are also freed from the condition of adjacency in space. (The two attached screenshots are from Return to Castle Wolfenstein [08] and Oblivion [09].)

Tell us about INGAME’s specific thematic projects — for example, the Week of Post-Soviet Games. What exactly did you want to explore?

We always see themed projects as a way of searching for new optics, new objects and methods of shooting. In this case, we tackled atypical objects in order to extract paradoxical imagery from them and distance ourselves as much as possible from the established canon of how the post-Soviet gaming industry has been perceived. The problem of tradition, canon, norm, and what resistance to them might look like is quite pressing in the post-Soviet space, and along with it, the problem of the national identity of media. Computer games emerged largely as a result of the overproduction of the military-industrial complex, the technological mobilisation occasioned by the Cold War. Russia is a country that feels as if it lost that war, and computer games are often regarded here as tools of ideological expansion, something alien to the national tradition — you need only look at the statements made by ex-Russian culture minister Vladimir Medinsky (for example, “All computer games [are] an absolute evil, the devil”) or attempts to develop hyper-ideologized “national” video games. In post-Soviet conditions, where the framework of national tradition and models of resistance to it are so strictly established (in particular, the distinct tradition of protest art or forbidden art), the most interesting things are anomalies, not national but local specifics, and how this local element is possible in a media space where the national and the global collide.

Let’s talk about machinima. Its main difference from cinema is clear — the means of production. But here’s what I want to ask. What are the differences between machinima and cinema in terms of artistic value?

In contrast to current machinima, early machinima was based on demo recordings and saved replays, which are still used for shooting but not for distribution — for example, in GTA V. Henry Lowood[18] pointed out the specific nature of the format, which makes it possible to situate machinima between cinema and video games as a special form of machinic performance, something that is not merely reproduced, but it is enacted again each time. Although it lacks the interactivity of the game, it nevertheless has parametric variability, including the ability to replace textures, models, animations, and character dialogue. It is still important that when shooting a machinima, the camerawork can be performed after the event has been documented. Machinima is certainly a variation on animation, but it is animation that functions like cinema, often like documentary cinema, like a first-person reportage or performance film à la Stan Brakhage, with the attendant subjectivity and intimacy. (It is no wonder that Brakhage’s close friend and colleague Phil Solomon turned to shooting in GTA San Andreas[19].) Here, the paradoxical documentation of the fictitious, the unreal, and the imaginary is made possible by the very algorithmic improvisation with which, unlike other forms of procedural art, the filmmaker interacts not only from the outside, but also from inside the action, via an avatar or avatars.

Don’t you think that, due to the imperfection of facial animation technology, there is a kind of slippage in actions and emotions in games today, as in some types of avant-garde theatre? In other words, a straightforward statement that is synchronised at the level of content and emotions is seemingly impossible in machinima. Or am I wrong? In this sense, is ‘mainstream’ machinima a real thing? Or, until the technology has been perfected, is it doomed to defamiliarize and inadvertently send up straightforward ‘capitalised’ emotions?

The gap you are talking about does exist, and there is no way of discussing synchronisation of any kind that would not hinge on the Kuleshov effect[20], even if we are talking about an animation carefully constructed in Source Filmmaker[21]. There is another, related gap. Mainstream machinima adopts the logic of Hollywood movies, but the defamiliarization of the game’s source material is always visible beyond this borrowing. Viewers unfamiliar with the game experience this gap simply as an uneven tone, while those who are familiar with the game see in each object and animation a refraction of their original in-game meanings. One of machinima’s main motifs — the depiction of an event with means not designed for that purpose — impart to it an inherent conditionality, taking it beyond realistic representation to the realm of children’s games, in which places and things are given new names, to the stage of the Shakespearean theatre, where a sign reading ‘seashore’ stands in for the real thing. A variety of machinima that is much more popular and widespread than the conventional ‘cinematic’ mainstream kind employs just these inconsistencies, hyperbolizing them, turning the cinematic into the emphatically animated, and casting recognisable character types in absurd roles. The key role here is played, of course, by recognition, working with the commonplaces in the gaming experiences of millions of people, which is the opposite of what I have been trying to do.

Your answer made me think of machinima in terms of children’s games, in which toys from different collections, series, materials, and game systems are used to fashion a single coherent narrative. Tell us about your research and successes in machinima. Where has it brought you at the moment? Which of your machinimagraphic films are you most proud of and why? What have you been able to realise and discover within this form?

What I’ve definitely succeeded in doing is turning six hard drives into graveyards of unfinished machinimas. The longest of them, on the paintings of Diego Velasquez, which I was shooting and from time to time have continued to shoot in several games (there are currently around fifteen of them), I still intend to finish one day, and it will probably be my most narrative work. From the get-go, I was mainly doingstructural film and rethinking American experimental cinema, especially the works of Deren, Marcopoulos, Brakhage, and Benning[22]. Beginning with variations on the theme of A Study in Choreography for Camera[23] that I shot in The Movies, and continuing with strict metric montage, by 2016 I was making somnambulistic music videos. The two videos I shot for the group Crimson Butterfly in GTA Vice City incorporated a lot of what I have found interesting in machinima: glitches, abstraction and recontextualization (in the first video, the game’s basic animations — what you might call its everyday gestures — take on a choreographic logic), and documenting the unexpected consequences of the game’s algorithms.

Two other works of mine — zombie improvisation machine and The Deer Hunter — are based entirely on algorithmic improvisation. The first of them is an account of an architectural whimsy that I built in Minecraft — a concert hall in which music is produced by the random movements of zombies on pressure plates that activate musical blocks, procedural music that relies equally on the software and spatial components, despite the game’s rudimentary acoustic model. The second is a documentary comedy made in Stronghold 2. Here, I indirectly staged the absurd movements of the characters in space. In addition to this, I re-assembled the audio track, partially filtering the sound from the game through a MIDI converter and constructing artificial soundscapes from the game’s materials for several scenes.

And perhaps it is worth mentioning hauntology 1, an investigation of the paradoxes generated by the vision of cinema embedded in the business simulation game The Movies. A film’s quality and popularity depend primarily on the number of scenes, the novelty of the props, the relevance of the genre, the psychological state of the crew, and the relationships that develop within it. Storytelling and an underlying logic are completely optional, so I took advantage of this to make high-grossing, Oscar-winning films that were either completely illogical, or were powered by a logic atypical of Hollywood cinema, using glitches and emphasizing anachronisms. Besides producing an ironic image of a commercially successful experimental cinema, I think it is important that there is a link between defamiliarizing contemplation and successful playthrough, which are usually contrasted, especially in experimental machinima. Contemplation is often used as a way to distance oneself from a game’s problematic content, from the action, which often means violence, but I prefer to explore a different kind of collision between action and gaze — a camera on the hood of a car, dispassionately registering an accident (this was the subject of my first full-length work, filmed in GTA San Andreas, Journey Across a Crater, based on J.G. Ballard’s eponymous story)[24], or voyeurism, which can be indistinguishable from watching your own body. (It is a topic I dealt with, for example, in Visitor, a three-hour pornographic film that was painful to make and is just as painful to watch. Or just very boring — whether in a Cagean sense or the bad sense of the word, I don’t know. Despite the structured editing, it is a rather foul montage of images filmed over the course of a month in the sex clubs and art institutions of Second Life.)

Six hard drives, a three-hour porn film, fifteen game engines powering a large-scale canvas about Velasquez’s painting… I want to ask you this: have you been compelled to take on machinima for some reason? (Is it due to your personality, economics or the shape of the industry?) If we set aside these realities for a second, would you like to bring your ideas to life in cinema? Or does machinima give you something that movies can’t?

I work with machinima not due to a lack of opportunities, but simply because I’m interested in the specific nature of machinima as an independent medium, and the ideas that I materialise emerge as a result of studying these unique features. I don’t have any ideas that are independent of the medium and can be translated either into the language of machinima or the language of cinema, nor have I ever had them, probably. But I don’t rule out picking up a film camera one day. And I have already been involved in cinema. I have starred in two films by the Nizhny Novgorod video artist Dmitry Stepanov, including the feature film The Far Room. And I’ve made a quasi-documentary Situationist film about the leftist political subculture and urban space, Infrared May, in collaboration with Sofia Pigalova, Grigory Frolov and Anna Raevskaya.

How do you make your movies? Do you start with an aspect or idea that you want to explore? Do you act on a hunch or do you follow a clear plan? Do you record random moments of gameplay, saving them in hopes of embedding them in the montage of a future film?

When I shoot, usually it’s mostly an intuitive, improvisational process. I study the engine in advance, choosing the parameters that I’m going to work with and some key points — for example, certain types of objects or events that interest me. After each stage of shooting, I review the raw footage, draft a preliminary editing plan, and make corrections to the overall plan. Of course, an idea might be significantly transformed during the shooting process itself: it is something like an unpredictable and extremely rich dialogue with the machine. Random moments of gameplay, of course, are often useful and can even serve as starting points. Are there machinima directors (international or Russian, including people involved in INGAME andmachine cinema) whose work you follow? What works have been absolutely essential to the genre? What works have you found particularly striking and why? The machinima scene has been quite impoverished in recent years, and most of the machinimators I find interesting have not released new works for a long time. Or, even more sadly, they have fallen into all too recognisable and more or less unchanging individual patterns. Nevertheless, I follow what COLL.EO, SaveMe Oh and Kent Sheely are doing, and everything that happens on the Russophone VK community page The Machinima Creators, especially the work of Alexander Reznov. (My involvement in shooting his series Butylka and Yaichkin is one of the strangest experiences in my filmography, an expressive injection of Dadaism with a touch of baroque thrash.) Among international creators, I would single out Chris Burke, best known for his show This Spartan Life, which featured interviews conducted in a multiplayer session of Halo 2– for example, with Malcolm McLaren and Criterion Collection co-founder Bob Stein. This Spartan Life combined thoughtful staging with complex choreography. It documented the specific synthesis that occurs when dialogue is situated in the context of the game, not only providing an endless series of unpredictable obstacles, but also generating a quasi-space of fiction, where the ideas discussed are easily materialised without being straightforward illustrations. In addition, Burke collaborated on several works with Tamara Yadao (their duo was called foci + loci), including several dealing with procedural music; they, of course, greatly influenced my own experiments in this area. Among other landmark works, I would note Jim Munroe’s drift in the world of GTA III: My Trip To Liberty City (2004) is one of the first examples of détournement applied to the game space and basically the first Let’s Play or something like it. I would also single out Parallel, a series of video essays by Harun Farocki. It is a very austere and persuasive attempt to dissect, generalise and analyse how video games look and function, focusing on their photorealistic imagery.

Narrative machinima usually makes me depressed, but at the same time, I see it as the most interesting trend: projecting external narratives on game worlds with due attention to the properties of these worlds and using techniques specific to machinima can lead to the most unpredictable results. It’s no secret that the vast majority of machinimators who work with storytelling are bound by their attachment to Hollywood conventions and/or gamer subculture, and many of the remaining ones have been overly influenced by Peter Greenaway, who once appeared in Second Life, instilling the creators there with a fondness for excessive illustrativeness and stringing images on wordy subtitles and soundtracks. From this endless series of glamorous surreal parables, however, we should single out the machinimas of Hypatia Pickens, which are mainly adaptations of Old English poetry[25]. In addition, among my favourites in the narrative machinima genre there are quite a lot of Russian-language works — for example, the aforementioned Alexander Reznov (Work as Endless Opportunity and A Slap in the Face of the Stupidity Shot) and Mikhail Sakharmentov (The Hyperbole of the Fiasco Sandwich or The Elegant Axe’s Journey from Samara). I was very impressed by Eschaton: Darkening Twilight, a machinima from Hugh Hancock and Strange Company, the folks who coined the term machinima. It was made in 1998 in Quake and, like many works of the time, it benefits from the clumsiness of its attempts to look like a mainstream movie. But the main thing about it is its conscious demolition of the fourth wall, which occurs when one of the characters, an abstract artist, exposes the programmatic nature of reality through his painting, and the creators illustrate this, among other things, by making the in-game console flash. This is the simplest excuse for using glitches as a means of expression, and it has been employed many times since, in video games and movies. In my opinion, however, there has not yet been a full-fledged, detailed study of what software failures (and, more broadly, the algorithmic nature of the game world) can lend to the narrative, without their being cyberpunk poses, purely decorative devices or straightforward displays of emotion.

Have you encountered examples of successful teamwork in machinima, something akin to a film crew (minus the actors, for now) in terms of functions and assigning responsibilities? I’m not even talking about parallels with cinema, but about lightening the load of authorship, as voluntarily borne by the lone machinimator. Am I wrong to think that such loners make up the majority in the movement? I also wanted to ask about language — not as in a visual system, but as mundane speech, which can do lots of things, from fleshing out characters to generating a different (albeit purely narrative) level of drama.

The possibility of making things collectively was present in machinima from the very beginning: often called the first machinima (although this is not quite true), Diary of a Camper and similar works were productions in Quake, created by so-called clans of players, so each character was controlled by a player-cum-actor[26]. The first Russian machinimators, the Q2TV clan, complicated the collective aspect by making a modification that allows each player to control an entire group of characters, partly assimilating the process of making machinima to gameplay in a strategy game but, I must say, I don’t remember other instances when such tactics were used. In addition, in machinima, every actor is a potential cameraman, and interesting collective forms could coalesce around this point, but apart from This Spartan Life, few people have explored this. Anyway, “clan” productions made up the lion’s share of all machinima until the mid-noughties, when The Movies appeared, and this single-player format, complete with the ability to run your own movie studio in this instance, sidelined the team-based shooters. But now the multiplayer format is used quite often — in GTA San Andreas, for example. And at this point, perhaps, I should return briefly to the previous question, because I completely forgot to mention the famous video Leeroy Jenkins, which actually seems to me to be one of the most important machinimas[27]. It is a collectively directed reconstruction of an event that actually happened in a game, using quite simple but effective staging. The location of characters in the frame clearly indicates to viewers who is speaking, since the game’s stingy animations do not provide such cues, of course. The result is documentary theatre in which the documentality is further emphasised by standard camera angles and the presence of an onscreen interface.

Machinimas, including those filmed in single-player games, often feature multi-person voice-overs, but in many communities it is customary not to send actors the script in its entirety, only the lines of their characters, and so the distance between emotion and action of which you spoke increases many times. In The Hyperbole of the Fiasco Sandwichthis is deliberately pushed to the limit. In all the scenes where Sakharmentov uses other people’s voices besides his own, sound effects and the lines themselves make it seem as if the characters are talking to themselves instead of conversing with each other, as if they are ignoring one another. Again, this is a technique often employed in experimental and not-so-experimental theatre.

I tried to handle voice-over in the opposite way (however, this has never made it into any of my completed works) by putting the actors in situations where they had to improvise the dialogue, which I would then match up to similar situations in the game. The ILL Clan[28], who started in the late nineties in Quake, worked with this in real time, improvising both as actors and as players, but there are probably no good examples of the approach, only fairly dull comedy sketches. The virtual theatre tradition that already exists (first of all, in Second Life) could be quite useful in this case, but it does not seem to intersect with machinima at all, since it has been busier reconstructing classical theatre pieces (Shakespeare plays for example) in virtual space than researching the peculiar features of virtual performance.

That the collective aspect of machinima is not well developed can be explained by the fact that it is mainly done on goodwill and cannot easily be monetised (due to, say, copyright issues), and it is usually conceived as work for art galleries or content for YouTube — that is, outside the film distribution model that maintains the collectivity of cinematic production. The kind of collective identity associated with clans in multiplayer shooters and MMORPGs gave the genre a very strong push in that direction, but now it is quite difficult to imagine something that would enable further intensive development.

How do you imagine the future of games as an art? The future of game visuality if I can put it like that?

What interests me most in the hypothetical future of game visuals are changes not so much in visualisation technology as in the modality and structure of the gaze. One of the critical and most obvious areas of development, in my opinion, involves complicating the relationship between the player’s avatar and the game world, rejecting the player’s central role in events, and fostering greater autonomy and multi-factor simulation. The AI of F.E.A.R., tied to the A* search algorithm and finite automata, still seems revolutionary for all its simplicity, and the use of more complex algorithms could significantly enrich game storylines. Another is the search for fundamentally different means of player/world interaction, something that is necessary in a situation where even the FPS/RTS hybrid genre looks innovative vis-à-vis the prevailing meta-genre. In this case, of course, the emergence and spread of new interfaces, such as the defunct Kinect and the growing popularity of VR technology, can help. If they do emerge, the same FPS/RTS hybrids in VR will inevitably be more complex in terms of modality than anything we have seen before, allowing us to take a fresh look, for example, at Artavazd Peleshyan’s concept of “distance montage”[29], at which David O’Reilly has taken a crack in Everything[30]. The third direction concerns the possible transformation of the relationship between the virtual and the real. I’m not just talking about augmented reality, but also, for example, the closer integration of games and social networks, and games as tools for defamiliarizing memories. (As I understand, Will Wright is now working on this[31].)

The history of the development of computer games is the history of their individuation, of the emergence of the stable forms with which games are now associated. In this case, I am less interested in the forms that will inevitably arise as technology evolves, and more in certain side-tracks, unrealised potentials that remain behind the scenes — for example, the ideas of Chris Crawford[32], which were probably rolled out to the full extent in only one 3D game — Sentient, released in 1997[33]. And, although we now have an opportunity to rethink and develop what Steve Grand[34], best known for the Creatures series, did in the nineties — using neural networks to simulate the behaviour of artificial organisms — this, I think, will again happen outside the mainstream. As much as it would be nice to talk about an “art singularity”, about the machinima of the future as an embodiment of Cocteau’s dream (“Film will only became an art when its materials are as inexpensive as pencil and paper”), this is also quite removed from the industry’s mainstream: game modifications (“mods”) are now consistently marginalised.

Can we build a bridge from, draw a parallel between machinima, between this non-pragmatic, anti-pragmatic perspective on the virtual world, and the exploration of new realities — virtual realities, mixed realities, augmented realities? Are the virtual theatres of the future not the heirs of today’s and yesterday’s machinimas? Isn’t the staging of our upcoming customised avatars, whether voluntary or invisible and ideological, related to what you are doing now? Is it code that is open to research and tweaking that awaits us beyond the threshold?

Virtual reality is usually defined via immersiveness or verisimilitude, which I probably find less interesting. An alternative definition of virtual reality can be found in the work of one of its pioneers, Myron Krueger: for him, VR’s key property was these virtual worlds’ capacity for existing independently and, consequently, having a more complex interaction with the user (hence the possibility of algorithmic provocation that I mentioned earlier)[35]. What Krueger was talking about and implementing in his projects migrated to computer games long before the advent of VR as a standalone commercial product, and I would look there for the possible bridge you were asking about, especially if VR becomes one of the interfaces with neural networks. Besides, with the transition to VR tactics, machinima can be employed in a stronger nexus with the language of performance, theatre, and live role-playing games — something definitely capable of enriching digital art and bringing us closer, for example, to the theatre of cruelty, which once upon a time inspired Artaud to coin the term “virtual reality”. But there is also something that we lose in this transition (and that may need to be re-invented): the game as an object within the world, including as a background object or cinematic surface. I mean the capacity for detached observation, for being a kind of Brechtian spectator smoking in the last row, for existing outside the body or as a sum of bodies, for treating the camera as a thing separate from the body. But then, of course, it will be all the more interesting to find the right loopholes and restructure the gaze.

Translated from Russian by Thomas H. Campbell.


[1] Roger Caillois introduced the term paidia in his book Les Jeux et les hommes (1958) to denote the “power of improvisation and joy” — that is, spontaneous, unruly play that is a means of drawing attention to oneself and feeling oneself the cause of events. “I shall define it, for my purposes, as a word covering the spontaneous manifestations of the play instinct: a cat entangled in a ball of wool, a dog sniffing, and an infant laughing at his rattle represent the first identifiable examples of this type of activity. It intervenes in every happy exuberance which effects an immediate and disordered agitation, an impulsive and easy recreation, but readily carried to excess, whose impromptu and unruly character remains its essential if not unique reason for being. From somersaults to scribbling, from squabble to uproar, perfectly clear illustrations are not lacking of the comparable symptoms of movements, colours, or noises”. Roger Caillois, Man, Play and Games, trans. Meyer Barash (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001), pp. 27–28.

[2] Jeff Wall is a Canadian conceptual artist known for his large-format photographs, stylised as documentary shots.

[3] Richard Prince is an American contemporary artist. In 1977, Prince re-photographed photos from the New York Times, violating their copyright. The newspaper sued Prince, and the high-profile case made the works based on these reshoots his most renowned.

[4] The dérive or “drift” is a revolutionary psychogeographic method for the non-mediated study of urban landscapes, guided by the aesthetic impulses and drives of individual subjects. The term was coined by Guy Debord in his essay “Theory of the Dérive” (1956): “In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there”. Guy Debord, “Theory of the Dérive”, trans. Ken Knabb, Situationist International Online.

[5] The term was introduced by Guy Debord in the article “A User’s Guide to Détournement”, written in collaboration with the Lettrist artist Gil Wolman and first published in the May 1956 issue of Les Lèvres Nues. Détournement is a process that, according to the Situationists, was supposed to undermine the system of “authorities” and “brands”. In contrast to the spectacle, which transforms revolutionary ideas into commodities, the Situationists suggested taking a brand name or advertising concept and, by means of annoying repetition or distortion, reducing the original idea to absurdity.

[6] “Termite art” was coined by the painter and critic Manny Farber: “A peculiar fact about termite tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity. The most inclusive description of the art is that, termite-like, it feels its way through walls of particularisation, with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement”. Manny Farber, “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art”, Film Culture 27 (Winter 1962 — 63).

[7] See, for example, David Gilmour, “The Art of Video Game Photography”, Vice, July 18, 2015.

[8] “Game.EXE is a now-defunct monthly Russian magazine focused on video games. It was initially launched as Toy Shop (Магазин игрушек) from March 1995 to December 1996. Starting 1997, it was renamed Game.EXE and ran until June 2006, with the last 4 issues all published in June”.

[9] Machinima is a method for creating films and videos using computer game graphics engines.

[10] Miltos Manetas is a Greek multimedia artist.

[11] John Paul Bichard is a pioneer of in-game photography. “The White Room is a set of photographic prints resulting from an in-game photo shoot that documents a series of constructed disasters. These interiors were set up by the artist using the videogame Max Payne 2, a “Film Noir” thriller that tells a tale of lost love, deception and betrayal. The shoot took place within the game’s developer mode using the GOD and GETALLWEAPONS cheats and BenDMan’s “bloody mod 1.2.” By transforming the game environment into a ready-made urban studio space, the objects and interiors were altered using the in-game weapons with the gore from dead enemies being used to “paint” the sets before being unceremoniously blasted out of view and the scene captured”. Annotation from the exhibition The House in the Middle: Photographs of Interior Design in The Nuclear Age (2004).

[12] “The ultimate violence done to the image is the violence of the computer-generated image, which emerged ex nihilo from numerical calculation and the computer. There is an end here to the very imagining of the image, to its fundamental “illusion”, since in the process of computer generation the referent no longer exists and the real itself no longer has cause to come to pass, being produced immediately as Virtual Reality. There is an end here to that direct image-taking, that presence to a real object in an irrevocable instant, which created the magical illusion of the photograph and made the image a singular event. […] Digital, numerical production erases the image as analogon. It erases the real as something that can be imagined. The photographic act — that moment of disappearance of both subject and object in the same instantaneous confrontation (the shutter release abolishing the world and the gaze just for a moment, a syncope, a petite mort that triggers the machinic performance of the image) — disappears in digital, numerical processing. All this leads inevitably to the death of photography as original medium”. Jean Baudrillard, “The Violence Done to the Image”, in The Intelligence of Evil or the Lucidity Pact, trans. Chris Turner (Oxford: Berg, 2005), pp. 95–96.

[13] “‘Leveling 1-70, (A Land to Die In)’ is [a] large installation of a photographic screenshot laid out in an expansive grid. These images are a record of every single corpse of a fellow player that I came across while I acceded up to the maximum level in World of Warcraft. […] Each server often boasts tens of thousands of players and a complexity of virtual geography and culture to match. But with all of the promise of adventure, there is also inevitable death. Whether it be from trying to take on too many brigands, falling too far, or stumbling into [an] ambush of hostile other players, to play is to die repeatedly amongst the wonders of the game’s world”. Eron Rauch, “A Land to Die In”.

[11] John Paul Bichard is a pioneer of in-game photography. “The White Room is a set of photographic prints resulting from an in-game photo shoot that documents a series of constructed disasters. These interiors were set up by the artist using the videogame Max Payne 2, a “Film Noir” thriller that tells a tale of lost love, deception and betrayal. The shoot took place within the game’s developer mode using the GOD and GETALLWEAPONS cheats and BenDMan’s “bloody mod 1.2.” By transforming the game environment into a ready-made urban studio space, the objects and interiors were altered using the in-game weapons with the gore from dead enemies being used to “paint” the sets before being unceremoniously blasted out of view and the scene captured”. Annotation from the exhibition The House in the Middle: Photographs of Interior Design in The Nuclear Age (2004).

[11] John Paul Bichard is a pioneer of in-game photography. “The White Room is a set of photographic prints resulting from an in-game photo shoot that documents a series of constructed disasters. These interiors were set up by the artist using the videogame Max Payne 2, a “Film Noir” thriller that tells a tale of lost love, deception and betrayal. The shoot took place within the game’s developer mode using the GOD and GETALLWEAPONS cheats and BenDMan’s “bloody mod 1.2.” By transforming the game environment into a ready-made urban studio space, the objects and interiors were altered using the in-game weapons with the gore from dead enemies being used to “paint” the sets before being unceremoniously blasted out of view and the scene captured”. Annotation from the exhibition The House in the Middle: Photographs of Interior Design in The Nuclear Age (2004).

[14] Duncan Harris aka Dead End Thrills is “a screen and video capture artist for videogames. Over the years, [he has] provided promotional assets (trade show reveals, print screenshots, trailer footage, Steam and console store pages, etc.) for studios and publishers big and small. Franchises/titles [he has] worked on include Tomb Raider, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Hitman, Crysis, Minecraft, EVE Online, The Evil Within, Wolfenstein, Need For Speed, Titanfall, No Man’s Sky and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice”.

[11] John Paul Bichard is a pioneer of in-game photography. “The White Room is a set of photographic prints resulting from an in-game photo shoot that documents a series of constructed disasters. These interiors were set up by the artist using the videogame Max Payne 2, a “Film Noir” thriller that tells a tale of lost love, deception and betrayal. The shoot took place within the game’s developer mode using the GOD and GETALLWEAPONS cheats and BenDMan’s “bloody mod 1.2.” By transforming the game environment into a ready-made urban studio space, the objects and interiors were altered using the in-game weapons with the gore from dead enemies being used to “paint” the sets before being unceremoniously blasted out of view and the scene captured”. Annotation from the exhibition The House in the Middle: Photographs of Interior Design in The Nuclear Age (2004).

[15] Gilbert Simondon (1924 — 1989) was a French philosopher who posited the genetic laws governing technical evolution. They were the subject of his most famous book, Du mode d’existence des objets techniques (1958), in which Simondon sought to elaborate a general phenomenology of machines.

[16] Daidō Moriyama is one of the most famous practitioners of street photography in Japan. He has published over 150 photo books, including Farewell, Photography (1972), The Hunter (1972), and Light and Shadow (1982).

[17] ReShade is a set of software libraries (ReShade32.dll, ReShade64.dll, etc.) that enable the user to inject and run third-party shaders (both the shaders built into ReShade and shaders available for free download on the internet), significantly improving the graphics by adding fog, reflections, water drops, and many other effects.

[18] Henry Lowood is Curator for History of Science & Technology Collections and Film & Media Collections in the Stanford University Libraries. He is the co-editor of The Machinima Reader (2011), Machinima! Teorie. Pratiche. Dialoghi (2013), and Debugging Game History: A Critical Lexicon (2016). He was a lead researcher on the Preserving Virtual Worlds projects (2007 — 2013) and was the co-head of the project How They Got Game: The History and Culture of Interactive Simulations and Videogames.

[19] Phil Solomon (1954 — 2019) was an American experimental filmmaker noted for his work with both film and video. He earned acclaim for a series of films that incorporate machinima made using games from the Grand Theft Auto series: Memoriam, Mark LaPore, and EMPIRE. Solomon was an associate of the influential American experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage (1933–2003), with whom he taught film at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Solomon and Brakhage collaborated on three films. (Adapted from the article at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phil_Solomon_(filmmaker).)

[20] The Kuleshov effect refers to the new meaning that emerges when two shots are montaged one after another in sequence. It was described by the Soviet cinematic pioneer Lev Kuleshov in the book The Art of Cinema, published in 1929, as well as in his earlier articles.

[21] Source Filmmaker (SFM) is a tool for making movies on the Source game engine.

[22] Maya Deren (1917 — 1961) was an American experimental filmmaker, choreographer, ethnographer, and theorist. Her films include Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) and Meditation on Violence (1948). Gregory Markopoulos (1928–1992) was an American experimental filmmaker and co-founder of the New American Cinema movement. He made numerous experimental films, which he refashioned in 1991 into the eighty-hour-long metafilm Eniaios. James Benning (born 1942) is an independent American filmmaker. His films include 11×14 (1977), Grand Opera (1978), American Dreams (1984), and Used Innocence (1989).

[23] A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945) is an experimental short film directed by Maya Deren.

[24] “Journey Across a Crater” (1970) tells the story of a spaceship pilot whose mind is damaged during an emergency landing.

[25] Hypatia Pickens is the pseudonym of Sarah Highley, a professor of English at the University of Rochester in New York. She writes and publishes poetry and fiction and organises a weekly open mic in Second Life called “Strange and Sudden Literature”. She has created several machinimas.

[26] Diary of a Camper (1996) is a short (1 min 36 sec) film made using id Software’s 1996 first-person shooter video game Quake. It was created by United Ranger Films, then a subdivision of a popular group of video game players, or clan, known as the Rangers. The video is generally considered the first known example of machinima.

[27] Leeroy Jenkins is a meme, a virtual character from World of Warcraft, created and controlled by player Ben Schultz. Jenkins gained fame after a comical video depicting his reckless behaviour during a co-op run through one of the game’s dungeons was posted on the internet. In the video, the players discuss a complex plan of action before the battle, after which Jenkins suddenly rushes the enemy, shouting his own name as a war cry, thus scuttling the plan and getting the entire group killed. The video was staged.

[28] The ILL Clan was one of the earliest machinima production groups. They made a variety of machinima shows, the most popular of which was Tra5h Ta1k.

[29] Armenian filmmaker Artavazd Peleshyan gives an illustration of his concept of “distance montage” in the book My Cinema (1988): “Many believe that a close-up cannot be directly montaged with a long shot, that they can be spliced only via a medium shot. I believe that this is a myth, a made-up standard. The possibilities of editing are endless, in my opinion. Who can deny that it is quite possible to montage an extreme close-up of the human eye with a long shot of the galaxy!” Artavazd Peleshyan, Moe kino (Yerevan: Sovetakan grokh, 1988), p. 135.

[30] David O’Reilly is an Irish filmmaker, former street artist, and the creator of Everything, an open-ended interactive game in which there is no right or wrong way to play — the game allows players to do whatever they want.

[31] Will Wright is an American computer game developer and designer, and founder of the game development company Maxis and, later, Syntertainment. He is best known as the designer of the computer games SimCity, The Sims, and Spore.

[32] Chris Crawford “is a computer game designer and writer. He designed and programmed several important computer games in the 1980s, including Eastern Front (1941) and Balance of Power. Among developers he became known for his passionate advocacy of game design as an art form, founding both The Journal of Computer Game Design and the Computer Game Developers Conference (now called the Game Developers Conference). In 1992, Crawford withdrew from commercial game development and began experimenting with ideas for a next generation interactive storytelling system. In 2018, Crawford announced that he had halted his work on interactive storytelling, concluding that it will take centuries for civilisation to embrace the required concepts”.

[33] “Sentient is a first-person adventure developed by Psygnosis and released on the PlayStation and PC (DOS/Windows) in April 1997. […] The player’s actions in the early part of the game determine which path they will travel through later on”.

[34] Steve Grand “is a British computer scientist and roboticist. He was the creator and lead programmer of the Creatures (1996, CyberLife) which he discussed in his first book Creation: Life and How to Make It (2001)”.Every copy of Creatures contains a unique starting set of eggs, whose genomes are not replicated on any other copy of the game”.

[35] Myron Krueger is an American computer artist who developed early interactive works. He is also regarded as one of the first-generation virtual reality and augmented reality researchers, and a pioneer of hybrid art.

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