Of all the many challenges on the road to games development, one of the prickliest is the question of how a game should look. While the old adage tells us not to judge a book by its cover, we always do – on steam alone, the store page is filled with games vying for the attention of the consumer, and the inclination to select a game because its look matches our expectations (especially with titles unheard of prior to release), is pretty natural.
Despite the significance of a game’s look on the marketing front, getting a game up to speed graphically is not an easy task. Typically, the process involves sourcing a graphical style at the very end of games development as part of the ‘polish’ phase, or the art style emerges at the beginning of the project – which leaves an open question about whether the developers have considered the importance of gameplay at all. I am sure that to the readers of this article you can think of examples that fill this definition: games that looked terrible but were fun to play, and gorgeous games with little to no gameplay to keep you involved.
The aim of this article is to highlight several art styles which are used in video games, and to highlight their respective pros and cons. One of the first issues here is that there is no clear and consistent taxonomy for visual design in games, due to several key elements. A major concern is that game’s chief perspective tends to inform the gameplay model – games in first person tend to be shooters or horror games, third person leans towards adventure games, where a bird’s eye / overview perspective is typical of the strategy genre. There are more nuances to this beyond what is described here, but already it is clear that a game’s perspective has a function of contextualising the gameplay and the player’s repertoire of moves before graphical style is even considered. In addition to this, budgetary constraints will often dictate the outcome of art style. Due to all the other costs involved, graphical style requires additional help from skilled artists whose work often comes at a premium cost. Unless the developer is artistically inclined or has a good working relationship with a graphics artist, the game’s visual style is often the first thing to suffer. Ironically, AAA developers similarly grapple with this issue.
As the current generation of console platforms compete for the same market, it is necessary to demonstrate the console’s capacity for graphical processing. More often than not, this tends to skew the aesthetic towards realistic graphics that emphasise how closely the game approximates reality (the Call of Duty and Forza series are good examples here), as opposed to opting for a stylised approach. For AAA developers, this is an easy call – it is important to deliver graphics which have broad appeal, as the production costs of high-end game titles require a high volume of sales to recoup on budget cost.
Cel-Shading: Killer 7 (2005)
Source: Glitch Cat
There are many games that make excellent use of cel-shading, but my prime example here is Killer 7. Cel-shading is a process which uses an intentionally unrealistic form of graphics rendering, commonly used in games to make them look ‘cartoonish’. Killer 7 utilises a graphical style with large blocks of colour, simplified gradients and exaggerated shadows. The resultant effect is a high-contrast lighting scheme with minimal diffusion. In this particular shot, the character’s figure is looming over their environment, emphasised by the long shadow cast over the floor. The bathroom appears eerie through the skewed placement of the in-game camera (Killer 7 uses fixed camera angles) and reduced colour palette, with the red strip on the walls being particularly eye-catching. The accumulation of these techniques cause the environment to appear uncanny, the room detailed enough to be recognisable, but abstracted in light and colour to give the image an uncomfortably static appearance.
The style of Killer 7 is a conscious choice to emphasise the game’s thematic strands. The game’s story is fragmentary at best, as the seven playable assassins are implied to be formed from the psyche of a character suffering from multiple personality disorder. This story element, rather than mere window-dressing to the gameplay, informs the graphical style of the game in it’s disaffected, abstract locales which suggest a world on the very brink of a psychotic break. Cel-shading was a particularly popular style during the PS2/Gamecube/Xbox era, with Jet Set Radio and Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker as stand-out examples, but has not been revisited in some time. Perhaps it is time to look again?
2D Cutout: Darkest Dungeon (2016)
Source: Open Critic
Darkest Dungeon is one of the most hardcore RPGs released this year, and the game’s cruel difficulty is well-emphasised by its grimy aesthetic. Darkest Dungeon is a strong example of the 2-D cutout style, where the characters literally look as though they’ve been lifted out of a comic book and placed into a game. In Darkest Dungeon, the character designs utilise a lot of black to give the idea of looming dread, seen in the party’s dark, sunken eyes and the partially lit environment, which helps suggest that the eerie background might swallow them up. Animation is only partially used in Darkest Dungeon: when a character attacks, they are magnified in the game’s screen as they perform an attack, their weapon colliding with the enemy with a dynamic effect:
Source: Open Critic
A depth of field effect is used to highlight their action. In the example used here, the characters themselves are not animated, but the tentacles glow brightly to suggest their movement. This art style is highly advantageous for the developers of Darkest Dungeon, as they have been able to deliver a style which is uniquely their own, while saving on the cost of animation. The lack of animated movement is not detrimental because the characters, enemies and environment have a unified design. Everything in Darkest Dungeon is represented in a dreary, ominous light which echoes the game’s high difficulty. Since the game is all about pressing your heroes onward into blighted lands (at the cost of their health and sanity), it makes sense to present the game with a dismal, desaturated look, an outward manifestation of the player’s tense and melancholic activities in-game. An important lesson to take from Darkest Dungeon is that games can be made with a unique and memorable graphical style, even on a budget. As long as you can find a good artist…
Pixel Art: Kero Blaster (2014) and Corpse Party (2008)
Pixelated graphics isn’t just a style – it is the lifeblood of videogame history. From the moment that images could be produced digitally, pixel art has been with us. Unlike the two styles visited prior, pixel graphics have an extremely wide range of graphical styles and approaches, which would merit an article in and of themselves. I’ve selected two titles from recent memory to examine this, and will look at them in detail.
Kero Blaster is an ideal example of restraint in pixel art. The limitations of using 16-bit style graphics means that the graphics have to break down recognisable objects down into simplified, abstracted designs that capture the essence of what is being represented. What is most noticeable in this screenshot is that Kero’s character design is very simple and brightly coloured, but the surrounding environment has greater levels of detail. Kero’s physical shape is quite simple, but his blue colour (or green, in the game’s normal difficulty), allows him to stand out from the environment, which serves the practical purpose of easily identifying the player character. Meanwhile, there is a lot of nuance in this deceptively simple environment. A strong colour palette is used where the foreground elements have natural hues of greens, oranges and browns while the background is a consistently applied royal purple set against a towering, silhouetted rocky plain. Asides from the complementary colours which add depth to the environment, the foreground elements have more visible detail than the background, adding a sense of scale. The flowers, rather than being a consistent, plain shape, have stems, bristles and leaves which make them stand out, and have more realistic shading compared to either the protagonist or the backdrop. Meanwhile, the ground elements of grass and patches of mud clearly delineate hazards in the environment, and the lighter colours on the leaves help to suggest to the player that they will function as platforms.
The game’s graphical style prioritises passing useful information to player and gives a clear indication of how to progress (i.e. jump on the platform rather than sink into the mud), but this clarity of design has not prevented the game from having an appealing visual style. Kero’s neutral expression is broken up by the cute blotch of yellow on his cheek, and the purple collar (where his weapon is holstered) adds a touch of detail to give his sprite more personality. This is developed upon in later levels of the game, where Kero can get an (adorable) fur-lined jacket which will absorb a single enemy attack before disappearing, and momentarily gives him a stylish appearance which incentivises keeping the garment on for as long as possible. This level of considered aesthetic design provides reason for the player to be invested in the character’s appearance, despite having no direct reward for keeping the additional garment on. Overall, Kero Blaster is one of the better-looking ‘retro’ shooters because Pixel understands both when to provide graphical detail and when to abstract, which aids in giving the game a pleasing and consistent visual style. As for the game itself, I enjoyed Kero Blaster more than any other platformer in the past few years, and I would easily recommend it both as a primer in pixel art and solid game design.
This relationship between detail and abstraction is managed somewhat differently in Corpse Party. I will avoid discussing the merits of this game too much further (you can read my article on it elsewhere on this site), but Corpse Party’s use of horror is predicated on the relationship between its Super Deformed (SD, or chibi) characters with squat, childish proportions and the much more detailed environmental design:
In this particular image the relationship between detail and abstraction is clearly shown. The characters have stumbled upon a corpse which has seemingly been pulverised. Examining the scene in details tells the story – the spray of blood on the wall and the cracks on the wall indicates that the body was thrown at the wall with supernatural force, while the remains of the body are given unusual detail not found among the player characters. The pool of blood and entrails suggests that the body has splattered into pieces on impact, which emphasises how grisly and sudden the death must have been.
This level of detail helps express what happened visually as part of the classic principle to ‘show, not tell’ and allows the player to reach this conclusion themselves without the nature of the death being clearly explained to them. The other consequence of corpses having greater detail than the player characters suggests the sheer fragility of their bodies in the space of this haunted school. They do not belong in the environment because they look plain and childlike, and are no challenge to the oppressive, derelict world they find themselves in. This creates a tension where the player is confronted by the grim reality of what surrounds the students, as they will either escape in tact or be rendered corporeal in death, their guts given more detail and reality outside of their bodies than in. This grim clash between the cartoonish figures and harsh reality of death creates greater empathy with the players to ensure their survival, but this instance of the body being discovered early into the game’s run suggests how minimal their chances of survival truly are.
Crushing Mundanity: (Nearly) Every Android / iOS Game
You’ve seen it, but you haven’t been able to put a name to it. Android games have something of their own house style, typically using bright, bold graphics on a flat backdrop that invite in the topic of ‘casual’ games with mass market appeal. The look of the games are chunky, childish and inoffensive… and completely devoid of substance. The Android platform in particular has the gates left wide open for games to be created and uploaded, with hundreds of thousands of titles available to any smartphone user. The problem is that they’re so ugly. I’ll close in on what I’m talking about with a particular example, provided to us by Ninja Fishing:
Source: Android Headlines
Where to begin? The first issue is the use of vector graphics, which allow for clean, crisp 2D images, but where pixel art has learned to navigate the relationship between the real and the abstract, vector art is detailed enough to portray the chosen object realistically, but absent of any kind of style. Outside of the game’s bland premise of an overweight ninja that enjoys fishing, the character doesn’t hold any kind of appeal. The ninja garb conceals any kind of identifiable face beyond conjoined eyes and a round nose, and the pose (while ostensibly an action shot) lacks any sense of dynamism in motion, partially because the artist has chosen to freeze the character against a cold blue backdrop. In-game, the aquatic inhabitants have all been given large eyes and larger eyebrows in an attempt to imbue the game with some sort of personality, but lacks any kind of consistent reason to apply this design scheme. The UI elements take up an obnoxious amount of space with clumsy lettering, which makes the game unappealing to look at.
Part of the reason Android games adopt this style is due to the diversity of processors (and screen sizes) that can run games on the platform, but the end result is to overwhelmingly prefer vector-drawn graphics for clarity on high resolution screens no matter the size, but the style is suffocatingly bland. There is nothing good about the way Ninja Fishing looks, which in both its theme and content relegates it to the back room of Google Play’s game library.
I mean, all I’m saying is that vector graphics are an anathema to everything we’ve understood about art since we hung around in robes and spoke Greek. All I’m saying is that if you utilise this kind of drawn style you are sacrificing clarity, quality, depth, proportion, representation, composition, colour, and form for a lifeless end product. All I’m saying is that if you’ve taken on board this kind of style when you’re making a game you need to take a step back and really evaluate the motives that brought you to the industry. All I’m saying is that it is a pathway to mediocrity best avoided.
The reason this graphical style is such a problem is because it is absolutely everywhere, but I have yet to find a game to adopt the form which is aesthetically pleasing. The more pressing issue about the utilisation of vector graphics is that it doesn’t navigate the relationship between theme and form that is so crucial to a good game. The summation of graphical styles I have brought here is not conclusive of the extreme variation of styles (and perspectives) in videogames, but what makes a good game is not simply the appearance it adopts, but how the visual style itself expresses something inherent to the game’s narrative and gameplay structure. This is one component which has been consistent across the games I’ve looked at.
Killer 7 sits in the uncanny valley to create a sense of unease, Darkest Dungeon uses grim comic cut-outs to drive home the despairing nature of the player’s task, Kero Blaster’s graphics point the player where to go and what to avoid, while Corpse Party blends the real and the abstract to create a tension between the living and the dead. All these games have a function beyond graphical appearance, instead integrating both look and feel to better immerse the player in their chosen game.
From the outset of this article I have highlighted the lack of taxonomy in use to describe different visual styles used in videogames. As someone with a pedigree in film theory, the term ‘cinematography’ is often used to describe the look of a film, but the term itself is broken up into multiple concepts such as the use of colour, lighting schemes, framing and composition (among others). Videogames have a greater problem because they often do not have a ‘set’ camera angle to create an ideal shot, and therefore need to consistently and dynamically apply a considered visual style to maintain the player’s immersion. The added complication of throwing a player, a participant, into an art form is that the player’s inclusion alters how a game is played and how it is interpreted. As a result, the means of achieving a positive and engaging visual style is about understanding how to produce one that reiterates the gameplay and emphasises what the player will do, or is expected to do.
While I have highlighted games with particularly good visual design (barring Android games), do not despair. Not all games require the intervention of a team of artists, but a change in stance. The question is not ‘how should my game look?’ but ‘how does the style convey meaning’? There is still a long way to go before the process of making games is broken down into a consistent ruleset, but bear this question in mind and you may discover that your graphics will be the last piece in the puzzle that will tie together your game into a complete, desirable product.