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  • Artistic Concepts in Games

    - Bret Wardle

  •  Characters like these three stand out because of their simple yet distinct look -- not in spite of it. Many of the designers from this era used a technique in which they focus on two or three key traits to keep the characters clean and identifiable. Mario's overalls and Link's shield are two examples of these kinds of instantly identifiable features.

    As was the case in the 1970s, artists in the NES days were figuring out ways to manipulate the limitations of this console. One standout case in my opinion was the Megaman series, and in particular Megaman II. The characters in Megaman II have a very distinct look, cartoonish with a thick black outline. This style allowed for minimal color use, but created characters that appeared much less pixilated than others of the time.

    These games also used the aforementioned technique of world painting to its fullest. Enemies had their own world with completely different surroundings, henchmen, and themes. The use of these techniques creates an association to these characters for all players. Almost everyone who has played these games can still name their favorite enemy, or the board they remember giving them the most trouble.

    These trends continued through the 16-bit generation of consoles. As processor power increased, designers were able to use more and more artistic techniques to convey their ideas. They were also able to refine the ideas they had already capitalized on prior to the generation.

    Using distinct outlines to block a character became a very prominent feature of this generation and can be seen in the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog and Earthworm Jim, who both have distinct outlines and silhouettes.



    Modern Day Implementation
    Processing power bounds us no more. Over the next couple of generations, game console and personal computer power increased exponentially. Processors became blisteringly fast by comparison. And the amount of RAM increased more than 500,000 times that of the 8-bit generation. Games were now diving into full soundtracks, with dynamic changes between music. They were telling stories with rich cinematics. The artistic side of games was really starting to show, and a few games capitalized on these artistic concepts.

    In 1993, Myst was released for the Apple Macintosh. Myst brought a visual side to story-driven games that had not been seen before. The artistic technique used was to focus on single screen images. The player did not have complete free motion in the world, which allowed the designers to set up their composition exactly the way they intended it to be viewed. Some argue that because there was no free motion, the game lacked what it needed to be fun, but you would be hard-pressed to find many people who found the visual side of Myst to blame.

    Another series that has stood the test of time is Final Fantasy. The winning recipe for this franchise lies in the amazing character design of Tetsuya Nomura. As with the games of the earlier generations, the look of the characters in Final Fantasy is simple, yet highly recognizable. In Final Fantasy VII in particular, players can recognize the lead protagonist, Cloud, by simply viewing his hair, or even more so, his famous sword. Because the artists focused on only two or three key traits, the player can quickly recognize the characters. More important to the storyline, these recognizable features closely match the underlying personality of the characters themselves.

    Our minds are very good at working with our eyes to interpret what we see, which worked perfectly in the early ages. Games like Sudeki, which had a distinctive, almost impressionistic art style, broke the mold and went away from that in some respects. Using foliage in shades that the mind is not accustomed to seeing, or designing weaponry, clothing, and vehicles in abstract form, forces the mind to rethink what it knows when it processes these visual cues. The rebuilding process can truly make players feel like they are viewing another world, and in turn, are being taught the story of that world.

    Although realism is becoming more and more predominant in games, there are many titles that purposely strive for an unrealistic look. In the case of Jet Grind Radio Future, the designers use cell shading to create a look that's appealing, yet hardly representative of the physical world. Another game that warps reality in this way is Psychonauts, which uses distorted depictions of the human form to create empathy or angst toward certain characters. The use of colors and shapes are used to create contrast between the subjects when needed.

    Game artists should strive to create amazing looks that match the incredible interaction that's possible in games. But it's also the job of the artist to learn the psychology behind interaction, just as it is the designers' jobs to learn and implement the concepts behind visual perception. Knowing just a few basic things about how the eye perceives and interprets visual stimuli can lead to a new level of game design.


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