Paintings in video games are like toilets: they don't do much, but you notice if they aren't there. They make a space seem lived in and real. They're often unintentionally hilarious, and they're one of my favourite things in games.
I have a whole folder full of screenshots of weird paintings I've found in video games. Not the ones that are part of puzzles, like in Uncharted 4, but ones that just exist in the world, taking up space. I usually tweet them at my artist friend Curtis, who also works as the archivist for New York City gallery Gavin Brown's enterprise. Curtis and I sat down to talk about some of my favourite video game paintings from 2016.
I don't understand why all these paintings are on the same wall. Eichenwalde has a big castle; there's plenty of walls to hang paintings on. Maybe the owner of the castle is one of those phasic sleep people with an ambitious schedule who has set aside seven minutes a day to "appreciate art" and wants to appreciate all their art at once.
Curtis: This is actually super authentic of salon-style hanging. It was all about where your painting was in the pack; the best placement would be eye level, or the corner sort of isolated from the others.
Curtis' art history knowledge makes my joke a little less funny, but I still think this is weird. Also, I like the one still life. This person's interests can best be summed up as "space and, less frequently, objects."
Another instance of the paintings all on one wall! This panelling is also perfectly fitted for these particular paintings. Is this Eichenwalde's Offical Art Hallway? Is this some kind of life hack?
Curtis: You're not going to see landscapes painted on vertical format, like, ever.
I like the weird brick frame on this picture from the Dorado map. I imagine the frame was built into the wall and then they searched everywhere to find a painting that would fit.
Curtis: This one has a nod toward Diego Rivera. It has obvious gestures toward early 1900s 'celebration of the machine' kind of stuff, but there's a clash of styles between the industrial part and the houses.
I told Curtis this was very thematic for Overwatch, but they work for an art gallery and not an Overwatch fan site, so they haven't played it.
Curtis: I used to get this magazine, Midwest Painting or something, and it was full of these paintings of duck-hunting and these types of landscapes. Also, more bizarre frames!
I don't get why the painting on the right is just a painting of a sign. Like the Roadrunner's going to show up at any moment. Who would hang this at their house, especially next to the other one? What does it say about a person? That they like...places? All kinds of places? You go to a lot of places in Overwatch, so in a strange way it all makes sense.
Dishonored 2 has so many good paintings that I couldn't pick all my favourites. There are collectible paintings to find, as well as tons of strange art just scattered all over the place. I settled for two I found the weirdest.
Screenshot from YouTube The first thing I noticed about this painting was the placement, which is on this strange corner, like it couldn't fit anywhere else or like this is their designated art corner. The second thing I noticed was that it's a painting of someone looking at a painting. Someone decided looking at paintings was a good topic for a painting, so they painted it, and then someone else decided that was something they'd like to look at every day.
Curtis: Dishonored paintings ring of someone who's a really good concept artist who's looking at painting. The palette isn't Victorian, which you'd expect; there's a Whistler-esque quality to the woman. The painting she's looking at seems like an imitation Rembrandt. You also have these evened-out highlights, which is more of an illustration technique than a painting one. A lot of paintings in games don't have brush strokes, which I always notice.
Curtis: I love this one because it seems like it could be contemporary, like I would actually find it in a gallery somewhere in Chelsea or something. It looks like an American 80s painter who was looking at Hopper. It's so desaturated but the green on the couch is a really nice soft punch.
This is my favourite because it's a painting of a room. Why would you hang this in your room? Also I love the tiny paintings in the painting. I really hope the little paintings have paintings inside them too. It's just paintings all the way down.
This is in a safe house in Manhattan. It's another instance of the paintings all being on the same wall. Maybe they were having an art show when the apocalypse hit? Maybe someone was just about to make that big sale that would rocket them to art world stardom and then it was all snatched away. I bet there's an audio log about it somewhere.
Curtis: These skinny canvases! It's like in this post-apocalyptic future they sold out all the normal ratio canvases and now there's just skinny ones left.
I think this is in a police station, a place where I've never seen paintings at all, come to think of it. They're sort of part of a series but they don't quite fit together. They're also hung slightly crooked over the couch. These police do not know how to hang art.
Curtis: If you search Amazon for "painting" this is what you'll find.
I think the one on the left is a hot dog. It shows up in a couple other places in game too. I like that these are outside in some weird bar. I don't think I've ever seen art hung outside in a New York City bar, but maybe it's a Manhattan thing.
Curtis: I love that these look more like paintings than the others, or amateur paintings at least. They're kind of what you'd see at the high school Scholastic art awards. But then on the left you have this graffiti that was obviously made with a mouse in a paint program, not even on the spray can setting. The graffiti reveals the truth about the other paintings: they're digital scribbles. So many of these games model the rest of the world to look like it's made out of the substance it's supposed to represent. But then they say "paintings are just flat pictures" and ignore the materials they're made of. It makes me feel like those science nerds yelling at science mistakes on TV.
This screenshot is framed a little funny because I was trying to take a picture of the art while also staying disguised so I could assassinate this woman. They can't all be winners. Both the paintings are hung weirdly close to each other, which video games do a lot. I don't know if people hang art in their homes like this.
Curtis: I believe they actually looked at real art when they made these. These paintings look more like paint. I'd believe these could be photos of real paintings.
This is from the Bangkok level, which is full of bright colours and great details. There are variations of this painting scattered all over, which feels pretty realistic for a hotel. Case in point: once, when I was travelling, I texted Curtis a photo of every identical painting of fruit I found in my hotel. There were a lot.
Curtis: That looks like brush strokes; it has the texture of having materials applied to a flat plane. Some of it streaks and blends; other parts build off the canvas. It has a complex colour palette, unlike most of the paintings in the other games. It looks just like a painting hanging in a rich person's house.
This is from the embassy in Marrakesh. These paintings kind of look like part of a series, like the colours are kind of the same, but they also don't really have anything to do with each other. There's also a nice-ish couch and then these two uncomfortable plastic chairs instead of another couch. I don't know what people do to be punished by sitting over here.
Curtis: There would probably be better paintings in an embassy. I believe that these are paintings that somebody would buy, but I wouldn't.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
This is from an art gallery in Prague. These are mostly weird black smears with a gold-ish undertone, so they fit nicely with the colour palette of Deus Ex. The painting on the left shows up again in Director Jim Miller's apartment. I'm glad he supports local businesses.
Curtis: This is where we get some attempts at new contemporary art in a video game. But I'm not sure why the paintings are staining the wall. Is this a post-apocalyptic wall? What did the wall ever do to those paintings?
I love this deer. Is it cardboard? Is it from IKEA? It's called "Suspension," which is more about the things hanging than the deer. If the art's about things hanging, why are they hanging off a deer? What does it all mean?
Curtis: It looks like something you'd buy in miniature at the gift shop in the Discovery Museum.
The fist looks really different, and also really heavy. It's called "Poing G," which is maybe the artist's friend or something. Maybe they got in a fight?
Curtis: The fist looks so heavy, like someone had to anchor it in with some serious hardware. It also looks really expensive. It looks like something that arsehole art people like me would snarkily call "conceptual art."
This is the painting from the gallery, hanging in Jim Miller's apartment. Upon closer inspection, it makes no sense. Are those women, like, disciples of the lamp? I like that Miller hung it so obviously on display, with the big light, but is that a halogen bulb? Is that really the best lighting for a painting?
Curtis: It's a huge, obstructive light, and it's obviously causing a glare. The painting has a washy paint style that feels very contemporary. I really like that the figures are hugging the right side of the canvas instead of being fully centered. I could imagine running into this in my daily art life.
This is in the club in Prague's red light district. It's strange that it's antlers again, which makes me feel like deer are supposed to be some kind of theme in Deus Ex. I don't know what they're supposed to symbolise, though.
Curtis: Maybe one of their 3D modelers just really likes deer heads. I love the video game-iness of them glowing white but casting no light on the wall. I want to know how to do that. Nobody would bother to make something like this now, but maybe in the future. If you owned a strip club and could buy one of these really cheap, why not get one?
This is the painting that got me started on my obsession with video game paintings. It's hanging in a Nazi office in 2014's Wolfenstein: The New Order. Someone working on the game made this. Someone in the world of The New Order bought this and hung it on their wall. I'll never get tired of it. Here's to more wacky paintings in 2017.
It's a goat. Standing on a flat-bed truck. It's a painting of a goat standing on a truck.