Around E3 time, in this job, your head gets a bit frazzled. Announcement here, trailer there, he's said this and she thinks that, here's our hands-on thoughts... it's an overload of gaming. The following days are usually a bit of a comedown, and you look for something a little more calm to suit the mood. It was then I happened to see a photograph from Simon McCheung (instagram) that had a weird combination of purity and warmth. There was something strikingly familiar there, but I couldn't quite put my finger upon what it was. Then, you catch it.
"The 'Lulu & I' image drew some influences from Pokémon," says McCheung. "In particular the way Pikachu rides on Ash's head and shoulders displaying the strength of their bond. When I first played Pokémon Red/Blue I used to fantasise about having a pet that can bond with you like the first three starter Pokémon, so I took that very concept of the pet/trainer relationship and put it into a real contextual setting to challenge viewer's perception, about pets that can be more and beyond just pets."
Pokémon is surely familiar to all Kotaku readers, but the disarming and unusual manner in which McCheung expresses this core idea of the series gives the photograph's world an eerie new dimension. The colour palette gives an austere cast to a subject of real intimacy, with McCheung's skin and stubble flowing into the soft, dappled fur of Lulu, the direct stare of the cat in counterpoint to the human's offset gaze. The picture's overall warmth, for me, resides in the humour and symbolism of Lulu's position: the way her body follows the contours of McCheung's head, that little suggestion of her tail also being his ponytail.
And then the simple, classy touch of both naming Lulu and putting her first in the title. Even the way the ampersand balances and bonds the two subjects.
When artists or photographers try to do 'realistic' work with games as the subject, the techniques used are often very literal and the results, to my mind at least, can do their inspirations rather a disservice. The above photograph, on the other hand, has to be the most queer and beautiful tribute to the magic of Pokémon I've seen.
If you were told that Discovering Grace was the poster for the new Battlefield, it wouldn't be all that surprising. But then you notice the controller, the briefcase, the suggestion that what at first seemed to be an observer is, perhaps, watching his death play out in the skies, the pad drooping and forgotten in defeat.
This doesn't come from nowhere: McCheung is obviously a big player of games but, for many years, worked in the industry too. "I started as a UI artist with EA and Rare, working on titles such as Kinect Sports and the Harry Potter games," says McCheung. "It was at Rare I started taking photographs as a hobby, since the studio was surrounded by acres of countryside and that became my playground. Not long after [that, I] moved to Rocksteady Studios to head the UI for Batman: Arkham Knight and then Batman: Arkham VR."
Whilst McCheung's industry career was progressing nicely, so was the photography. He began to receive recognition from places like the Saatchi Gallery, and events like the Sony World Photography Awards. Eventually he decided to pursue photography as best he could, recently left Rocksteady, and is now a freelance photographer and visual director.
Where did it all start?
"I remember receiving a Star Wars concept art book as a teenager and I was captivated by the richness of narrative in every still image," recalls McCheung. "So much so that for a while I thought I would create my own stories as a concept artist [but] my drawing skills were never that great..."
"I got my first DSLR camera with the intention of making films, but instead I found myself practicing taking pictures everyday so I can learn about all the technical settings [...] still images became the gateway I was looking for in delivering my stories. It wasn't long before I began to experiment using Photoshop to give the images a more surreal style with an atmospheric feel [and it] all comes back to me striving to find ways of telling my stories that have similar qualities to concept art."
Take Reluctance. The colours remind me of Nier Automata but the balloon concept is pure Metal Gear. The landscape is bleak and foggy, the figure appears to be a woman but we can't be 100% because of the obscured face, we can't tell if the figure is conscious or otherwise, there's no sign of who tied these balloons to their feet, and everything revolves around the delightful suggestions that the weight is just starting to lift.
That kind of open-ended scene is what comes from McCheung's love of concept art, and the promise it can hold. When I was a boy I had a book about the Tim Burton Batman movie, because my mother had decided I was too young to watch it and my dad had picked this up as a consolation prize. It was a treasure trove of sketches, storyboards and behind-the-scenes photographs showing how the film was first visualised and then brought to gothic and fog-soaked life. When I eventually saw the film years later the experience was so much richer because I knew so much of that world intimately, and had long-ago filled the blanks with a child's imagination. That's the amazing thing about concept work in particular: it has to be brimming with possibilities, the suggestions of what's unseen and yet to come.
One of the most beautiful aspects of McCheung's work is how certain photographs set out to capture these moments of potential, often riffing on well-known figures to do so. The header image for this piece (which had to be cropped but is also reproduced below) instantly brings Alice in Wonderland to mind, a story full of surreal table-flips and brimming with questions about what's real and what's next.
This photograph also uses a more explicitly game-y visual technique in how the cracks have been illuminated, reminiscent of the effects in many games but here, gloomy and sinister as the surroundings are, most reminiscent of Dark Souls. "The overall styling and content of my images comes down from a mixed influence of films, games and even manga," says McCheung. "Some take on classical stories and then give it a very unusual direction, because I know this is something I would enjoy [...] like the image 'Breaking Wonderland', where Alice in Wonderland breaks through a very dark universe."
It's the 'moment' that's special here. Forever between two realms, and the question of where Alice is going left hanging for us to wonder on. Of course, if you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there.
Many more of McCheung's photographs can be seen on his site, which also contains his contact info for anyone interested in commissions or collaborating with him.
I loved these photographs because, for an hour or so, I gazed at and thought about each one, and they prompted unusual thoughts about games and other topics I was familiar with. Turned On is hilarious but, also, has this uncomfortable element of horror to it, maybe even a hint of body horror. Looking over them made me ponder anew how amazingly far games have come since I began playing, and brought about weird conjunctions between Pokémon and Battlefield and Silent Hill and what the heart of these experiences is, why they resonate through the years long after that cartridge or disc is gone.
The final question I had for McCheung, however, is boringly practical. How on Earth do you get a cat to sit on your head?
"To get my cat to sit still on my head, I had to let her climb all over me like a tree when she was very young, then reward her every time with a cat treat when she reached the top."
There's something outright funny about that, but it's also touching. It's no less than the expression of a bond, a physical manifestation of feeling. And so the photograph shows McCheung's face, but is equally a glimpse into his mind. It invites the viewer to think about their own relationships with animals, long-gone pets and the years spent with them, and to ask their own questions. But what do you see?
All images are copyright Simon McCheung and are reproduced with permission.