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Texture Archaeology

Kévin Donnot, Élise Gay
& Anthony Masure

Translated from the French
by Aviva Cashmira Kakar

This article is inspired by a YouTube video entitled The Most Overused Game Graphic You Never Noticed | Texture Archaeology, uploaded by Kid Leaves Stoop in March 2021.11 See: As of December 9, 2022, this video had 2,499,774 views.

The Modular Logic of Digital Design

Textures are bitmap images patched onto 3-D surfaces that are used in video game or 3-D renderings. They are not created ex nihilo for each project, but are the result of a modular process in which a variety of basic elements (typeface, script, sound, 3-D skeletons, etc.)—or assets—are associated to form a new ensemble. According to media theorist Lev Manovich, bringing together these existing resources (which can be selected in a software menu, downloaded, etc.), and combining them with elements that have been custom designed, constitutes “computer-aided design”:

[This coexistence of composite sources] is typical of the new media production process, regardless of whether the object under construction is a video or film shot, […] a 2-D still image; a sound track; a 3-D virtual environment, or a computer game scene. In the course of production, some elements are created specifically for the project; others are selected from databases of stock material. Once all the elements are ready, they are composited together into a single object; that is, they are fitted together and adjusted in such a way that their separate identities become invisible. The fact that they come from diverse sources and were created by different people at different times is hidden. The result is a single seamless image, sound, space, or scene.22 Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), 136.

In the same way in which the specialized iconography of art history implies a specific knowledge linked to the identification of visual sources and their circulation, the study of digital productions would benefit by going back to explore its assets—this is not without complications due to their diverse origins. In addition, determining the source of the preexisting modules (those that are not custom-created) of a digital object is all the more difficult when it extends back in time. Nevertheless, the importance of this method of analysis is that it serves to deconstruct the double myth of either a totally original creation or a perfectly automated one, providing information about the visual and material culture of the digital environments that shape our daily lives.

Deconstructing the Video Games of the 1990s

Among the digital objects whose conditions of production require deeper study, those of the 1990s are of particular interest. During this period, the mainstream Web was still in its infancy and desktop publishing software (DTP) was flourishing. The advent of the design software of the 1980s and 1990s (such as Aldus PageMaker, 1985; Adobe Photoshop, 1990; NewTek LightWave 3D, 1991; and Adobe After Effects, 1993) would invade the domain of design professionals and give rise to a “fan culture”33 Mélanie Bourdaa, Les Fans, (Caen: C&F, 2021). and a host of amateur efforts that would be disseminated online. Otherwise put, it was the same sort of tools that would now be used to put together “professional” digital objects, or visual content intended for a personal website, such as those hosted on the GeoCities (1994&…