by Natalie Tyler, 1 November 2011
A.J. Hateley’s series of video game inspired book covers have taken the blogosphere by storm in recent months. Her passion for gaming, combined with a love of literature, has resulted in a series of works that have captured the imaginations of gamers, designers and artists alike. We sat down with A.J. to talk about the inspiration behind the series, how illustration can play an important part in supporting the written word and why the best video games can be compared to great works of literature.
Where did the idea for video game book covers come from?
In visual culture there exists a high/low culture binary. In the scholarly approach, video games are considered as forming part of ‘low’ culture, in opposition to fine art and high aesthetics. Anyone who has played an excellent game, a game that effectively marries narrative with artistic content, would attest to their need to be recognised as cultural texts that transcend that binary.
Braid is a good example of a game that engages itself with theorisation, in this case, Derridian post-structuralism. Video games are a new media with unlimited potential. My contribution to the debate is simply to compare high literary culture with ‘low’ video game culture. They ask the question – How would the work have been received critically if it were literature? Importantly, it also unsettles our definitions of literature.
Are you trying to re-contextualise the traditional pre conceived ideas about video games to a wider audience? Or are these designs more for those in the know?
I’d agree with the recontextualisation they represent. Some of the psychoanalytic reasoning behind the illustrations is more obvious than others. There’s a very direct reference to parts of the female anatomy in my illustrations of headcrabs – Complimenting, perhaps, how they ‘’couple’’ with the human head.
How often do you play video games? What’s your favourite?
I play games constantly and I’m in perpetual danger of failing my Masters degree because of them! I’m concerned I might spend too much time on Skyrim when it’s released. The Elder Scrolls series and the Fallout series probably consume most of my time. I couldn’t name a favourite game. I’m very variable. Half-Life 2 is an amazing piece of narrative, and the main character is an academic – I like that.
What sort of feedback have you had from the gaming community and gaming fans in particular?
I’ve had an incredible worldwide response to the project. I’m flattered and thrilled to have my work spreading around the world. It is a dream realised.
What projects do you have planned after your 30 Days of Video Games is completed?
I’m working intensely on preparing my next project on the grotesque and transgression, and in terms of the next video game project, it will consist of vintage luggage labels from video game destinations.
You’ve also created covers and illustrations for classic books including The Outsider, Animal Farm and Dorian Grey. Can you tell us how you approached these illustrations? How did the books inspire your work?
Traditionally illustrations have been considered as having a secondary communicative role within a text, supplementary or decorative embellishment. I subscribe to certain post-modern theoreticians that have proposed a productive, dynamic interrelationship with the printed word. Approaching an illustration, I ask first if it can be used to subvert, reinforce, or alter latent meaning within the book. How can the illustration take an active critical role?
In the case of The Outsider, how did you represent the character of Meursault?
Meursault is an oddly disconnected being; rather than disappearing below society, I propose that his inability to tolerate falsity and his disobedience of social conventions is dooming. He is never depicted in the text, only seen, in fact, when he raises a hammered plate to view his reflection – distorted, unfamiliar.
I try to disconnect Meursault from the world by emphasising the strangeness of others. The rooms and buildings of the illustrated landscape are depicted with violent, delineating strokes. Above everything else, a feeling of pressing claustrophobia. Within the text there is a recurrent theme of red. The red sand on Meursault’s mother’s grave, the red of Marie’s dress, and the burning red sun that incites him to kill. It was important to highlight the recurrence of red within the illustrations.
Meursault’s Rooms by A.J. Hateley
You have a great deal of traditional art in your portfolio as well as digital. Is there a medium or style are you most comfortable working with?
I would identify myself as an abstract expressionist, and this is certainly the aesthetic style I’m most drawn to. I like to examine the grotesque. I use oil paint prolifically, ink and brush, and digital methods in conjunction to produce images.
How do you see the future of illustration?
I recently heard about a job interview conducted by a very prestigious design firm where the applicants were given a sketchbook and asked to draw anything. Anything that came to mind. Surprisingly most of the applicants could not draw even basic shapes with simple shading. Being a good draftswoman isn’t fundamental to being an illustrator, but I think it is a useful skill to nurture. Particularly for concept artists being asked to iterate ideas.
I would love to see illustration elevated from arbitrary decoration to a rich, meaningful, critically informed response to a text or situation. I would like to see it recognised as critical practice, rather than practice. There is no reason why illustration cannot be a rigorous academic discipline.
Do you think a grounding in fine art illustration is necessary to be an illustrator?
Illustrations can be generated in an unlimited number of ways. Collage and digitally generated images are as legitimate as knitting or painted representations. What is of greater importance is the ideas that inform the illustrations – A consciousness of the ideological weight that underlies each image.
What advice would you give to enthusiastic illustrators, artists and designers?
Walk regularly. Illustration and art can be a sedentary career.
We’d like to thank A.J. for sharing the ideas, thoughts and processes behind her illustrations and for providing a different perspective on gaming culture. You can see more of her work here or keep an eye on her website and tumblr for the latest news and updates.