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One of my most vivid videogame-related childhood memories is this. In July of 1996, my brother, the middle one, had done our mam no favours by asking for a copy of Alien Trilogy for his birthday. Despite the game having launched four months earlier, which in modern terms would have made it a hundred years old by July, nowhere in our area had any copies in stock. By which I mean, none of the three local video rental shops had it in stock, because this was Ireland at a time when the commercial exchange of games was a novel quirk and not a viable business angle.
Packed into the car were we for a rare trip to The Tallaght Square, famous in our minds for reason number one of being the only remotely accessible shopping centre in the greater Dublin area at a time before Blanchardstown and Liffey Valley. Reason number two for its fame was that it was pyramidal, not square, and this for us, pre-internet, constituted a joke whose humour was always worth revisiting.
So it was immediately a bit of a journey just to find this game, and when we did recover a copy in The Square, it felt all the more of a treasure. I’m sure there were other errands on that trip but my memory tells me it was the only thing we came away with. My brothers and I passed the box around for the long drive home, poring over the manual and delighting in anticipation of what the box cover suggested, foreboding the Alien’s imminent pounce. Once at home we put it on and certainly thrilled in the experience, but now I suspect I didn’t enjoy it half as much I did its prelude.
Perhaps it’s because back then we had fewer games and an over-abundance of free time that we would so patiently gorge on a game’s extra material like aesthetes at an art museum. Now, as I have no lack of the former but absolute lack of the latter, I seldom consciously dwell on a game’s cover as intensely as I used to. While I still variably note my appreciation for or dislike of any given box art, I don’t study what I enjoy about it and savour the anticipation or place it in context, beyond exceptional circumstances. I miss that.
So, with my limited vocabulary, I’d like to take a spell to put that sort of mindfulness to a platoon of games stationed at hand beside me, them dust-coated sentries what have kept me company these past years of working and writing.
I’m talking about box artwork so I start with literal artwork of a box. Total co-incidence.
Professor Layton’s boxes are wonderful in how they incorporate some particular item or iconography from the game into their central image. Pandora’s Box has this chest, The Unwound Future a timepiece, Spectre’s Call the window through which they first witness the spectre, lending gravitas to that item or moment by this way. Pandora’s Box, especially, because of how the box returns to our DS screen in the game’s climactic puzzle.
But I’m distracted by the floating images of different types of puzzles contained within the game, as if this needs to be advertised through tiny, inscrutable screenshots. It reminds me of the sort of immovable DS shovelware that plague GameStop shelves. Why this is a brand aesthetic Nintendo or Level 5 might want to pursue is a mystery. Perhaps the mystery.
Rather I prefer the much simpler and more striking presentation shared by Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and Agatha Christie: The ABC Murders. The Poirot one, drawn I think by Michael Correy, is captivating in how it embeds traits of investigation in its design: like a quiet English community revealed as a whirlpool of grudges and conspiracy, the initial appearance of cleanliness gives way by torn canvas, blood splatterings and bullet holes.
I pick this out for the sight of a female game protagonist so staunchly placed on the front cover of a videogame at a time when many publishers consider it a death sentence. Notably neither the scandalous fact of her being a woman nor the humdrum cover here got in the way of people picking up Project Zero and immediately marking it as a classic. The title went on to produce however many sequels.
It is a dreadful cover, though. Miku looks badass and undaunted, and of that I approve, even if it’s not reflective of her character in the game. But the three-quarter pose is so generic, the ghostly faces so unprovocative, the Polaroid so obscured (I only just now understood it as a Polaroid), that the whole thing feels slapdash and uninspired.
This is much better composed with far more attractive use of line and symmetry appropriate to themes of twins and unity. You can’t really see it in this picture but in the middle-right below the titles is a faint image of a woman’s glowering face, matching Mio but disrupting the symmetry through impression and positioning. I got frightened and never finished the game so I don’t know what becomes of them, but every time I look at this cover it draws me back in.
If Project Zero’s cover is scandalous, Code Veronica is heretical. It’s a woman’s face! It’s entirely a woman’s face! There’s only a tiny hint towards whatever else the game may contain, and for that you have to look Claire in the eyes and match her gaze dead-on.
She’s not even defiant; it’s so perfectly natural for her to be staring down a zombie, to be in this position both in-world and on the box’s cover. I know there’s probably no intent to correspond the reflected zombie with the person looking at the artwork, given how the game never intones the old theme, “You are the monster”. In the context of videogame marketing and cover artwork, where women are practically forbidden lest they scare away potential (by default, male) customers, and how often in the past zombies have been connected with pop culture consumerism, it’s hard not to read it however slightly as critical of a bollocksed up mentality.
It’s beyond me why artists or marketers or publishers or whoever think this pose makes a game stand out among the throngs of identical covers. I’ve seen it so often there’s remarkably little to digest. It’s the floral wallpaper of action videogames.
There is something I like about this cover, though, and that is its colour scheme. The vibrant deep red saturating the world of New Vegas reminds me of clay and seems appropriate to what I hear about the extent to which the player can mould their in-game experience. I’ve had a copy of this for years and have never played it, so my impression of what the cover does in tandem with the experience it’s marketing is simply an amalgamation of rumour and imagination. Superficial of me, but I’m satisfied.
Another woman! Well I never. That makes five so far, which by the bias of my selection is enough to conclude there’s no gender disparity and it’s all made up. Even if the next twenty covers I talk about show nothing but men.
Anyway, a significant factor in my picking up Enslaved was the gorgeous colourful world it detailed, and I adore how that’s honoured in this artwork. Such wonderful use of geometry, as well, and the slave collar logo crowning the scene being played out here adds a nice thematic thrill.
Speaking of which, I rather enjoy how the terror they chose to place on the cover is the imposing robot which hounds Monkey and Trip throughout the first half-or-so of the game. This gives the enemy a certain amount of grandeur, placing it less as a bit antagonist and more as something typifying the world.
But it’s only for the first half-or-so; when you finally beat it in a climactic boss battle, there’s still half of the game to go. It’s not exactly a long game, so I think this affected how I considered the story of Monkey and Trip as a journey, with the later half being wholly unmarked territory. The defeat of the dog robot also punctuates a tonal shift in the story, whereabouts things begin to get a little less sprightly and a little more grim. In retrospect, it gilds the chase scene with flecks of nostalgia.
First thing I did when I got Bioshock Infinite was turn the cover inside out so the alternate, red and white Songbird one would be out-facing. While it may have tested well with bros, the quarter-turned man with gun aloft action pose does even less for me here as it does elsewhere: on other covers it’s merely boring, but Bioshock Infinite designed its artwork to be supremely derivative and tasteless. The red, white and blue colour scheme might have suited the plot’s attempts at themes of Americanism (and in case that was too subtle, a US flag drapes half the canvas), but is too remorselessly gaudy without at least the courtesy of being visually striking.
Irrational consoled its non-bro fans by letting them vote on a supplementary cover, and the one above is what they picked. Its simplicity in portraying the flying city of Colombia is involving in a way the game itself failed to achieve for me—for example, the absence of adornment in the lower left hand corner of the border grants the feeling of empty space beneath the floating island city, which is a marvellous touch. Songbird is allotted a prominent status, bolstering its mystique.
In a thousand ways Bioshock Infinite failed to live up to these promises. But still, this is some cover.
The figure, his pose, his sheathed sword, the ethereal wisps he emanates, occur to me as pensive and anticipatory. As if he exists suspended between moments of action midway between peace and purgatory. Dark Souls 2 has similarly quietening box art; Dark Souls not so much. But Demon’s Souls’ cover much more effectively conjures up the spirituality pervading the Souls games.
On the other hand, that logo looks as if it should be read out loud with the inflections of a Scooby Doo ghost.
What a missed opportunity. With the whole The Dirty Dozen thing it had going on they could have done something wonderful by depicting the Normandy crew in the heat of battle.
Instead we get Shepard kind of hunched over awkwardly in front of Non-Descript Alien City, accompanied for some reason by Thane and Miranda. Why Thane and Miranda? I gather it could have been anyone plonked beside him, just to fill the space. I like Thane but his presence here, his role, seems to be little more than to have had visibly just fired a gun. I suspect there’s something Star Wars-y afoot, insofar as various things have been thrown together in a diminished cast mosaic, but I can’t quite place it.
Plus, is it just me or is Shepards head deeply out of place? It looks too big and holds at a disjointed angle to his body. Or maybe it’s his body is too small. Maybe this Shepard is Chibi Shepard.
This is more like it. We have the SEES party members parallel with their respective Persona in a ‘clashing’ ensemble. It doesn’t quite relate to how the gang interacts with their Persona for the story, but succeeds at conjuring visions of large-scale conflict on the conjoining of two disparate worlds. Its composition of these three columns—indicating day, night, and the space in-between—situates the player in a good spot for the weird introspective spatio-temporal dynamics of the world. We’re primed for a game by what we see on its cover, and this is a gentle enough introduction that I’m liable to take the gameworld as-is without needing so many questions answered up-front.
Moving towards the more stylized covers, the artwork of the MGS series was always so idiosyncratic. The graphical limitations of yesteryear was impetus for designers to present their wares in a nuanced, considered fashion, as direct graphical depiction, while lauded in-game, was recognised as too ugly to shift stock. Metal Gear Solid’s 2 and 3 had action man with gun poses, but they were drawn so distinctly that they stand apart from the crowd.
I like Subsistence’s cover for how it replaces the gun-cocked dynamism for a more sorrowful image: a portrait of Naked Snake saluting, as in the scene at his mentor’s grave. His brow brings to me the pains and confusion of his displayed patriotism.
I want to point out the back of the box is almost entirely dedicated to the additional content in the Subsistence print. There’s just one line saying the copy you hold includes Snake Eater, suggesting it’s assumed anyone who picks up Subsistence is already familiar with the game they’re holding (making the front cover that much more resonant).
The very next line on the blurb says the box includes Metal Gear and MG2 Solid Snake wherein, in what has been historically rewritten as a tragedy, the player character ostensibly kills Naked Snake on several occasions. Poor doomed bastard.
I have a magpie eye for this graphic design, where the image is produced through shape and line and simple use of colour, rather than by packing Things onto the page until the space runs out. I love how the delicate lines roughen and sputter as the cheekbones arc, and the paper texture of the ivory alien skull. That the shattered bone of the upper jaw eats into a silhouette of the New York skyline is a marvellous touch, not so obvious as to be overstated.
It’s made only a little silly when you notice there’s two Statues of Liberty on show: one in the teeth, one in the logo. A problem of modularly produced marketing materials is how each item is made to stand alone, and so often don’t quite complement one other when joined into a whole. Infamous does this as well—how many Coles do you need in one picture?
What I like most about FFVII’s box is how the Holy material is staring you in the face the entire time, but the significance of that wee orb only becomes apparent as you near the game’s end. For us in the 90’s who prepared for a game by studying its cover, this is some bloody good foreshadowing. While some games today still use their box artwork to covertly seed in our minds the groundwork of their drama (the portrait of Sigma on the box of Virtue’s Last Reward is particularly noteworthy), I struggle to think of a recent comparative to FFVII’s pairing of its two MacGuffins, Meteor and Holy.
It was years before I recognised this as anything other than a parakeet.