If you love games, you’ve probably crossed paths with Dead End Thrills, a niche website dedicated to capturing single frames of video games in beautiful, overwhelming quality. When I first found the site, I was stunned as to how the artist had taken small, hyper-specific moments from games I’d played and arranged them so stunningly. As someone who has has spent way too much money on books that collected art from games, it was like Christmas morning to stumble across DET.
Not only were there small, detailed shots that highlight the minutiae within game worlds that most players will never stop to notice, but also there were also whole galleries of awe-inspiring work that had been culled from the kinds of games I’d passed over because they’d been critically panned. I thought DET’s importance was perhaps best exemplified here, because it found a way to present budget titles as capital-A Art. The detail work also shows an appreciation for creators in this field whose work would never be seen otherwise, and that appreciation shouldn’t go unrewarded.
I tracked down site curator Duncan Harris and got to ask him about where DET comes from and how he makes video games look like they belong in the Louvre.
Give me a bit of background about you and the site. Where did you come from? Where did it come from?
I worked for a game magazine, Edge, for several years after 2005, and taking screenshots was part of the job of reviewing games. Magazines nowadays tend to accept publisher screenshots, but that wasn’t acceptable back then, mostly for practical reasons. It was, therefore, a sizable part of our job to present these games in a way that illustrated our text while giving readers something pretty to look at.
This was also a time when software and hardware started closing the gap between real time and traditional artwork, which gave you another, unspoken goal for the screenshots. I remember the review code for one particular game, Rebellion’s Rogue Trooper, being effectively a QA build, which is where I first encountered this idea of a free camera, timescale control, etc. We were also perhaps the first print magazine to switch to 16:9 when it was tentatively introduced on Xbox, so you can see the pieces coming into place.
When I went freelance in about 2008 — which is when I effectively started Dead End Thrills — I was already pretty much playing games exclusively to take pictures. I found that more rewarding, challenging, and unpredictable than the gameplay itself. It was also very obvious that there was more art in many games than players cared to look at during gameplay, so there was value to it. It surprised me that no one else took it seriously, so I figured I’d better get on with it.
Did you have a photography background or did you find your footing in this medium?
I had — and have — no photography background at all. I’m not very good at it, to be honest. That alone should tell you how different a discipline it is, and how separate the experience it requires. In that sense, it’s really only half about things analogous to photography, and the other half is engineering. I did software engineering at university and come from that Britsoft background of exploring rather than using technology, so making code do things it’s not strictly meant to is an addiction. I have this disastrous curiosity, which means I spend far too long trying to do things just to see if they can be done, usually at the expense of earning money.
You take a moving, complicated art form and turn it into a single still frame that represents something completely different. Is there any disconnect in that?
One way to see it is that I’m trying to capture what the game secretly, or sometimes quite obviously, wants to be. A lot of games seem to wish they were something else, and it’s usually one of the established art forms that inspire people in the industry, or its consumers. So, you make Skyrim look like Frazetta’s Conan, perhaps, or a driving game look like a supercar brochure. Most games betray these aspirations through their concept art or marketing, so that in itself can be a target.
Other shots can be more photographic or painterly in simply noticing strong forms and compositions as you’re flitting about the game. You might capture a single frame of drama that epitomizes a particular scene, or conversely one that seems at odds with the game, almost making it more human or unexpected.
Also, games are still not very good at consistency when it comes to things like particle effects, lighting, and texture fidelity. Most of those hiccups tend to vanish when you’re playing them, but can totally stick out when you’re scrutinizing a still or playing on PC. That adds another dimension to taking any screenshot, really.
I notice you (and any contributors) list at that bottom of each photo what lighting/capturing software you use to capture these things. Can you give me a primer into this world and how it works?
It’s a personal blog, so it’s just me doing the images. If there were more people involved, then there wouldn’t be so many gaping holes in the site half the time. The “tools” represent various things picked up over the years, and they’re always being added to. A lot of the time, I’ll hack the game code itself to control as many of its visual components as possible, be it post-processing effects, camera values, or even the positions of characters on-screen. Every game is different, so it’s never less than interesting.
Do you have rules about what counts as a “real” screen-capture versus something that was enhanced?
Just don’t use Photoshop, I suppose. It’s a very blurry area now because there are lots of customizable shader injectors and the like, which enable Photoshop-type tweaking in real-time, effectively in-game. You can’t be too dogmatic about it, but my personal rule is that everything is captured as it appeared in real-time and then published. I often have to anti-alias the image afterwards for performance reasons, but when you’re downsampling from these massive resolutions it makes no difference — it’s more for when I decide to do something in print.
It’s in people’s nature to want to discredit things, sadly, so you can’t really afford to make the odd tweak here and there. Even if it did make a tangible improvement, which it very seldom does, you only have to “fake it” once to invalidate everything on the site. I’ve picked a rule that’s easy to understand and prove, and I’m sticking to it.
People sometimes say, “Oof, that character’s a bit low poly,” or that there’s a problem with the shadow rendering in a shot, etc. I think it’s good to not filter all that stuff out when publishing shots, as the site is a celebration of games where the technology often isn’t perfect, so it feels right to admit that.
It seems like a lot of what you do involves “fixing” games to make them run at the maximum video quality. What kind of dedication does it take to make this happen?
The chief thing is to be as much an engineer as an artist, and to find joy in both those things. It’s why, when the occasional “real” photographer tries to march in and work their magic, the results aren’t magical at all. Historically, they’ve simply not the skill set or know-how to work with video games, just as I don’t have the first clue what to do with a camera.
The other thing is that you have to be proper crazy. Obsession is my favorite thing in the world. I love feeling it, knowing what it can do, and seeing it in others. You have to go mad to do interesting things in this day and age. You have to hear sensible people telling you what you absolutely should not be doing right now, and do it nonetheless — because in your mixed-up head it has to be done. It’s a dangerous and stupid way to go about things, but if you point it in the right direction then it can take you to exciting places, and you’ll land on your feet.
Is it exciting to have carved out a position as the go-to guy for this line of work?
The thing people don’t realize about the professional work is that it’s completely different to the hobby. For one thing, much of your stuff’s rejected for reasons beyond anyone’s control. Features and expectations phase in and out while a game’s being developed, and not everything progresses at once, so to make a game appear complete is often harder than even publishers realize. You don’t have the luxuries of time or second cracks at things, so you’re generally unhappy with everything you do. But so long as everything’s understood — because someone’s gotta do it — then the satisfaction is in working enough minor miracles, and saving people enough money that they’ll want to hire you again.
You’ve got a quote on your site from Alex Garland, the writer of 28 Days Later and a bunch of other stuff that is universally beloved. How did you cross paths with him?
I met Alex some years ago as part of some magazine thing, and we spoke for a good hour or two about movies, games, and the like. We kept in touch, though I really need to fire him a message to congratulate him for his recent Ex Machina awards. Thoroughly deserved; he had a torrid time making Dredd, to the point where that was effectively his directorial debut. He has a wonderfully forthright approach to things, an open mind, and is a rigorous collaborator on games. He’s great. I think he likes the site because it filters out a lot of self-sabotage that stops games connecting with people loyal to other media, who quite understandably look down on it at times. Most game characters lose any kind of respect the moment they open their mouths, which on my site they don’t have to.
I wish I could list the number of games I’ve bought because you featured them in some manner on Dead End Thrills. What’s the game that provides an unending wellspring of content for you?
The de facto answer here is Skyrim because of how moddable it is, and how suited its world and lore are to the deranged tastes of its players. You can do just about anything with it. Rocksteady’s Arkham games are ones I always want to do more with, as the sheer volume of quality artwork there is overwhelming. A nice surprise last year was Resident Evil: Revelations 2, which saw the series get its mojo back somewhat, albeit with an unlikely episodic structure. Life Is Strange was excellent — but then Dontnod’s last game was grossly misjudged by critics, so that was less of a surprise. Mad Max was a surprise, but not in a good way. There were technical issues at high resolutions that stopped me doing anything with that game, really, despite spending almost 100 hours hacking it. It had a really unsatisfying approach to worldbuilding, too.
Are there any games that offer a really good in-game camera? In GTA V I tried to take a selfie once and my character got hit by a car and died, which I thought was an appropriate punishment for selfie culture.
Photo Modes are increasingly common, and certainly not the worst way of getting your community to do your marketing for you. Many are based on shared APIs, so you see the same features turning up across Sony’s games, and again across Warner Bros. games. The problem with those is that they’re essentially toys, in the sense that developers would use different, less limited tools for their own marketing. I definitely use them, but always end up hacking them to remove limitations on camera, post effects, and when in-game you can use them.
There have been interesting exceptions, though. Project CARS, a crowd-developed racing sim, gave people access to some really sophisticated tools right up until the game was published. Some games have Theater Modes and replay modes which actually inherit several debug tools from the game engine, so are more capable. Gran Turismo gets special mention for pumping out screenshots at higher-than-native resolution on PS4, which shows consideration for the time investment involved.
When Sony announced a PS4 SHARE button right on the controller, what were your knee-jerk reactions?
I knew it would be a simple capture/upload tool, and suspected it would be limited to lossy formats, which degraded quality to save network bandwidth. That’s pretty much how it is, though they have allowed saving as PNG now. Nevertheless, it’s still 1080p, which I don’t think offers quality worth any serious screenshotting. It’s still a brilliant feature, though, in its primary role of capturing memorable gameplay moments and sharing them online. It’s just not one that should be used as a surrogate for dedicated “Photo” capture, which ideally would offer some kind of 4K downsampling. That can be very tricky to implement, though, especially on console.
What’s the next big visual breakthrough and how does that affect what you do?
4K on TV comes across as a load of manufacturer horseshit to me. Unless you’re some freak cinephile who sits far too close to a screen that’s far too big, the perceptual difference in quality is going to be borderline non-existent. More importantly, pushing resolutions ever higher puts enormous strain on modern hardware and developers, and will ultimately retard the growth of games as a visual medium. All for the sake of selling new TVs to people who don’t need them. Let the medium mature enough to tell great stories and broaden its visual horizons, not spend its time firefighting the problems of pushing too many pixels.
None of this is going to affect what I do. PC owners have had full freedom of things like resolution for some time now. If games can solve the aforementioned issues of rendering at those resolutions, that’s all I can really ask for. And besides, I don’t want them to make it too easy — where’s the fun in that?