As the Video Game Industry has expanded in genre and content, developers are looking at other methods of communicating to the player. One such method is via the visual style of the game. With careful planning, the aesthetic can communicate and dictate how the player should be feeling during certain portions of the game, making it a useful accompaniment to gameplay, and able to pick up where the story and writing can’t.
In general, there are a few different types of visual styles: Cel-Shaded, Photorealism, and Abstract, each of them lending various emotions and responses from the player.
In Cel-shading, the graphics use colours in blocks, often giving off a rather minimalist style. Sometimes the art assets have borders outlined or use contrasting colours so the eye can easily differentiate between objects. Often, cel-shading is used when the developer wants the player to feel part of a story, often ridiculous or exaggerated. The style takes into account that what is happening in game is outrageous head-on, meaning the player can get straight on to the gameplay.
A good example of Cel-shading is Team Fortress 2 (TF2). Team Fortress 2 was released by Valve in 2008. The original Team Fortress started as a mod, and has a very gritty, realistic modern warfare-type aesthetic. However, when the second game was released, the art style was vastly different. Having gone through multiple art styles, Valve settled on a minimalistic, cool-coloured, cel-shaded style. The origins of the style came from early 20th century commercial illustration, such as propaganda or advertisements, particularly in the styles of artists as J.C. Leyendecker and Norman Rockwell. There is an overall use of soft shades and simple shadows. There are generally no gradients to express the presence of light, but are instead used to draw the player’s attention to enemies and their centre of mass, so the player is able to register what character is there, and what weapon they have equipped. Shades of yellows, reds and blues are used instead of greys to represent light.
With cartoon-y models and textures that give off a humorous and rather relaxed mood, otherwise in-explicable gaps in the narrative and level design are easily bypassed, with the player instead drawn towards the gameplay. The art style is very utilitarian by design, answering question asked by the gameplay easily: How do I tell what a health or ammo pack looks like? How can I tell if the Medic is healing me? Can I get through that door? The art style addresses these directly, allowing new players to jump in near-instantly. Is that player is alive? The sprayed cartoon blood and rolling body parts would suggest not.
Team Fortress’s light-hearted aesthetic allows for crazy character design and even crazier items, replacing the need for a rich backstory with the players own wacky narrative. In a scenario based game, a black, one-eyed, Scotsman wearing a sombrero, and wielding a claymore is vastly more interesting and even more memorable, than a run-of-the-mill military grunt.
The character design in Team Fortress 2 has had character recognisability in mind from the very beginning. In a presentation at GDC by Jason Mitchell, it was noted that one of the reasons for the multiple redesigns of the game during production was the fact that the characters were near indistinguishable from each other. During the final redesign, characters were developed silhouette first. This meant that there was a consistent personality for each character throughout development, and each character eventually became its own archetype. For example the level-headed, solitary Sniper who battles with whether he has a job or a “mental sickness”, or the cool, French Spy, outwitting people with his classy charisma and emotionless killing finesse. Due to the style and humour of the game, each archetype is taken to the maximum. Each character has a short, official video released in the style of a documentary to really drill the personalities in to the fan base. This has a very positive effect, as along with the in-game voice acting and taunts and other promotional posters released, the player is able to fill in the gaps of the game’s narrative, contributing to creating a very satisfying game to play.
The player is easily able to register who is and isn’t an enemy, and also whose part of the map they’re in, due to the very differing aesthetic styles between the two sides. The “Blu” team is very orthogonal, industrial looking, with mechanical looking materials, all with coloured with cool hues. The “Red” team however is coloured very warmly, with natural materials such as wood, using more angular shapes. The two differing styles allows the player to register fast where they are. In maps that require the teams to capture neutral areas, the non-team areas that are the focal point of the gameplay in these scenarios, such as King of the Hill or Control Point, are in neutral colours, such as greys and yellows. The map gets progressively more in the style of the teams the closer the area is to the base.
Cel-Shading is only used if the developer wants to suspend relief. If they want to really immerse the player in the world, they would most likely be better off using Photorealism.
Photorealism is constructed using realistic objects that the player is already familiar with. The art style uses colours and meshes that the player will already be able to identify, even down to models of vehicles or weapons. Photorealism is the most difficult style to get right. Creating realistic assets is a lengthy process, requiring not only time and labour, but also technological power to process, meaning this style is only usually reserved for big budget AAA titles. Due to the high level of detail in the game world, the player’s console or computer will need to be of a higher standard to run the game.
There is also another major caveat in using this art style: the art has to near-perfect for the style to work. Due to the association of the game world to the real world, if one aspect doesn’t look like it “should” then the game world instantly starts to lose its believability. Since the photorealistic style relies on the player believing on some level that the game could be real, as soon as that comes in to doubt, the experience is lost. For example, if a model doesn’t quite have the right shape, or if a texture isn’t correctly mapped to its model; these are the kind of details that make the player doubt the game. Faults are much more noticeable.
A good example of photorealism, is Just Cause 2. It was developed in 2010, by Avalanche Studios. The game is set on a fictitious tropical island, with several cities and large inhabited areas, massive mountain ranges, and sprawling rainforests. The game is largely meant to be played at a fast paced, either by car, plane, parachute, or grappling hook, allowing for the game to contain repeated assets, and slightly lower res textures. With moments such as launching a boat into the air, only to grapple onto a passing helicopter, the player is much more focussed on the gameplay. The art style however, means the player feels almost as though they are actually there, and with (relatively) realistic physics, the game feels viable. It makes the player feel like a superhero.
As the game has a day/night cycle, the colours in the world change throughout the game. A stunning mountaintop vista in the morning could be even more glorious at dusk, the setting sun happy to send reflections across the ocean and across treetops. Details such as this, like leaves rustling in the breeze, or a moped leaning as it goes around a sweeping bend really add to the player’s experience. When it comes to photorealism, it’s the little things that make or break the art style.
A problem with this style however is when it comes to enemies. From a realism perspective enemies shooting at you are likely to look like regular people. This is a problem when it comes to games. As photorealism lends its self to emulating the real world, it can get in the way of fun and satisfying gameplay. When in Just Cause 2, it doesn’t help that enemies look like normal people. The player could spends seconds shooting at passers-by, only to realise they’re shooting the wrong people, by which time their attacker has damaged them heavily, or their target has escaped. Just Cause gets round this by giving the enemies a vibrant colour clothing, like gang colours. This provides a believable solution without hurting gameplay.
Photorealism is extremely limited in its use case. The only games it could fit in are simulation games or realism-simulating action games. This limits the gameplay that can be explored in these titles. For gameplay that doesn’t emulate the real world, a developer might choose the Abstract art style.
Abstract is a style used when the developer intends for the game to be experience-based. By that, I mean if the developer wants to make a relaxing experience for the user, they can directly choose to have more soothing visuals. If a developer wants a more upbeat game, they could choose to have highly contrasting neon colours to add punch and impact to the gameplay. An interesting bisection between the two of these, is Dyad.
Dyad was released in 2012 by “][“ (Right Square Bracket Left Square Bracket). The gameplay revolves around the player propelling themselves down a tunnel, grabbing on to orbs to move themselves forward. The formula gets more and more complex, including running into enemies, or gaining speed boosts. The game experience is extremely soothing to start with. A dreamy soundtrack with alien sound effects instantly set the tone, and the art style lends itself to that perfectly. The player starts off slow, but eventually as they master the controls and manoeuvre themselves faster and faster, the soundtrack gets faster passed, trails illuminate the objects in front, and the colours become more vibrant. In general with abstract, especially with Dyad, the art style compliments the experience, instead of creating it. Instead, these games tend to be more gameplay-led. Dyad is a game that would not work in any other art form. The actions in-game are so far removed from the real world, the art style has to match it to be a cohesive experience. Overall, the game is extremely psychedelic. Not only does the rhythmic gameplay feel cathartic, but the backgrounds seem to emulate Rorschach tests, or at least someone’s LSD trip. The overall experience feels extremely satisfying, almost emotional.
Three visual styles for a variety of different games. Each for a different purpose.