In using the term visuality I depend on the definitions brought forward by Gillian Rose and Paolo Favero. Here, visuality refers to the socio-cultural construction of how and what we see (Rose, 2016). I’m building on these descriptions as I am mainly interested in the image as a medium of communication, a semiotic device that attempts to transport meaning, and using rhetorics to transform intentions into affects. Coming from design rhetorics, I am interested in how designers and developers of games encoded meaning and rhetoric into the images, as well as the effects of these onto the players. Gillian Rose herself is building upon the work by Hal Foster, who defined visuality as the “how we see, how we are able, allowed, or made to see, and how we see this seeing and the unseeing therein”. This relates the term visuality to the slightly more complex scopic regime (Jay, 2008).

(Historical) Visuality in digital games

As in every other medium, the visuality in digital games has its own specifics. Being of high relevancy to this dissertation, I’ll try to outline two of them in the following: ergodicity and techno-historic limits.

Digital games are especially demanding of their consumers as the medium relies on a high level of participation. The difference between reading a book, watching a film or playing a digital game was especially well captured by Espen Aarseth’s application of ergodicity in his book Cybertext. Coming from literature studies, Aarseth speaks of a “nontrivial effort [that] is required to allow the reader to traverse the text” (Aarseth, 1997). This needed effort does not guarantee an exhaustive capture of the played game or a successful play-through. The player creates a path through the configuration of a textual machine, by participating in the game.

This ergodicity is an important aspect when considering the image visible on the screen. The image represents one possible state, defined by the elements that the designers of the game provided, configured by the player’s participation. At the same moment, the image on screen communicates choices for the player, who then can reconfigure it by acting within the game. The image holds its own future possibilities by being within a feedback loop between itself and the player. The above outlined process happens in parallel to the communicative features of the image, which can also speak of information relevant to the game’s state, such as highscores or player lives, as well as transporting narratives that are creating context and experience for the player.

The second aspect of heightened relevance is the relationship between the image and its technological structures, from which it springs forth. Being digital born, the image in digital games is depending on hardware and software in order to be seen. These can be considered the material aspect of visuality in digital games. Analog to Aarseth’s coining of cybertext, Stefan Möring applies the term cyberimage to denote the images dependance on its underlying technological structures as well as the player’s interaction with the machine (Gerling et al., 2022).

Todays digital games playing devices are powerful computers and myriad of softwares and frameworks aid in the development and design. Game development in the early days of game design looked quite different. The capabilities of computers were fairly limited and the technical realisation of the games had to be done in early programming languages, such as Basic or even Assembler dialects. This circumstances form the techno-historic limits of early digital game design and directly influenced formal and semiotic aspects of those games’ visuality (Hutchison, 2008). These limits as well as the intimate interplay between the technological foundation as a semiotic system in itself and the visible image will be considered in this dissertation through the application of critical code analysis (Marino, 2020).