Having played a critical role in the production of 1982’s Blade Runner, illustrator Syd Mead was asked what title he’d like to appear as in the film’s end credits. “Visual Futurist” was his reply. Now there’s a job role you’d enjoy explaining to people at parties. Mead was a modern-day farseer, using his skills as an industrial designer and concept artist to build the worlds of tomorrow. What’s more, his visualisations have had an immeasurable impact on video games and the many artists working within the industry.
It’s often said that games draw from an awfully narrow set of cultural and artistic touchstones. Never mind seven basic plots, there are only really two: sad man fights robots and space marines shoot aliens. Blade Runner, Aliens, Blade Runner again. Syd Mead, who died just a few weeks ago on the cusp of the new year, aged 86, is the artist behind the dominating aesthetic of an entire industry. His energy, spirit, DNA, spread out across games like ashes thrown to the wind.
In the 80s, Mead helped develop his fair share of theme parks and laser tag arenas, even a few casinos (pleasure hubs with as many flashing lights as any cyberpunk alley). It was always going to be natural for Mead to make the jump to games. He worked on a fair few: Cyber Speedway for the Sega Saturn was one of his earliest, making use of his famed vehicle-design skills. But he also returned to work on the lightcycles in Tron 2.0, designed the spaceships in Wing Commander 5, and even worked with Westwood Studios’ on their Blade Runner game. Much of this work was early concepting, sketching out hover cars and so on. Other times it was consultation. Most recently, Mead consulted on Aliens: Colonial Marines, fleshing out what he’d started all those years ago on the James Cameron film. In some respects, we’re unfortunate. An artist so talented, and willing to work in our space, who never found his ‘big’ game. But I don’t think it matters – there are so many indebted to him, shot through with his style, infected with his imagery.