Calling bullshot: The increasingly twisted world of videogame promotional screenshots

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To the Oxford English Dictionary, a screenshot is, “An image of the display on a computer screen.” How quaint. To gamers, the definition is slightly broader. Our dictionary might read: “(noun) A marketing asset of often indiscernible origin conjured using game assets, poses, rendering and lighting, which may or may not be available to us as players. In extreme cases, an image that’s so far removed from the game itself that you should probably be looking up ‘CGI’, or just watching Aliens.”

Time was when preview materials for games involved sprite sheets that told you to the pixel what to expect. Marketing materials were things of ink and Maria Whittaker in a bikini, never to be confused with the events of a game such as Barbarian. Magazines in the early ’90s would have to use time base correctors and archaic video capture gadgetry to illustrate their reviews. For all the complexities involved, the lines were crystal clear. But not any more.

“There seems to be an increasing detachment between big game studios’ developers and their own marketing departments,” believes Dear Esther and Mirror’s Edge environment artist Rob Briscoe. “It seems like some marketing teams have little idea about what goes on behind the actual product they’re promoting – the tech, or what the spirit of that game is about.

“Instead, they seem to be obsessed with the notion that videogames should look like big-production action movies to appeal to their male teen demographic in the most obvious way possible. The result being ‘screenshots’ with lots of added J.J. Abrams lens flares, enhanced boobies, Photoshopped explosions and motion blur, [but] with nary a trace of actual gameplay in sight. FPS games especially seem to be one of the biggest culprits recently.”

“A screenshot, to me, should be exactly what it sounds like: a taste of actual in-game footage, a frame of what you’ll experience when you eventually play the game,” explains Briscoe. “I really despise all these heavily choreographed and composited ‘screenshots’, which seem to be all the rage right now. For me, it serves as a warning: if they can’t capture any real, compelling screenshots from their actual game, then in reality it’s likely to be a most un-compelling experience. That sucks for the developers, who may actually have created something really worthwhile but [the game] has been branded as something entirely different.”

As you’ve probably observed yourself, a vast spectrum of so-called ‘bullshotting’ options now exist for 3D games, and publishers aren’t afraid to use them. The moment realtime visuals and CG ‘key art’ became part of the same production pipeline, things started to snowball. Enough familiar game jargon now applies to the fabric of these exquisite, impossible dioramas that the lines aren’t clear at all.

Opinions differ over the ethics surrounding screenshots, and strong arguments exist for some degree of ‘finessing’. After all, says Funcom junior communications director Tor Egil Andersen, “virtually all games lose some of their quality and characteristics when looking at screenshots of them instead of experiencing them in-game. So tweaking brightness and contrast a bit to bring back those qualities is almost always the only thing I do. When it comes to treating the pictures, I’m quite careful not to go too far; we definitely want the pictures to reflect the in-game reality. It is, however, often a good idea to lighten up the specific areas we want to present.”

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