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  • Artistic Concepts in Games

    - Bret Wardle

  •  Players have come to expect a realistic look in some genres of games, like sports titles, racing games, and training simulators. But are we sure that realism is what we want? Would our stories be better told through a perspective unlike the human eye?

    There's no end-all answer to this question; each project must be treated individually. But unless the question is asked, an injustice is dealt to our product and in turn our player.

    Implementation in Today's Design
    In this new age of computational power, designers should not be allowed to forgo simple artistic considerations. Although game developers know (all too well) that something always causes their games to be rushed out the door before they're ever really ready, these simple artistic considerations are generally timeline independent.

    Decisions about art style should be made well ahead of any drastic timeline cuts. To meet release deadlines, developers often yank features, characters, or levels to cut back scope (since they are the most time-consuming). This means that artistic considerations will generally remain in tact. Working out the artistic aspects early can be crucial to releasing a great product.

    An example I have heard on multiple occasions is that a designer spends large amounts of time creating and balancing a special weapon only to have it pulled. This wasted time -- so early in a project, too -- would have been better spent discussing the artistic appeal of the lead character. With the exception of a few drastic cases, the lead character is in no danger of being cut from the project. The player's relationship to this character is imperative, and a few simple artistic design considerations can make or break that relationship. These same considerations can be applied not only to characters, but also to vehicles, levels, and even worlds. By considering the science of visual perception early you can create emotion immediately.

    Color is probably one of the simplest places to start. Creating quick reads for the player with the use of color is a very easy way to communicate who is friend and who is foe. And the classic red-versus-blue routine is not the only way to use color to your advantage. Color psychology is an enormous topic that every designer should have at least a basic understanding of. Warm colors invoke a sense of urgency, cool colors radiate calm -- that's just the tip of the iceberg. Colors can portray whether a character, level, or prop is human or alien. It can also subtly guide a player along a path, much like a trail of subconscious breadcrumbs.

     Lines create characters -- literally and figuratively. Any major character in a game should be recognizable by a few key lines alone. Two perfect examples are the faceplate of Halo's Master Chief and Metroid's Samus Aran, which have very similar styles (shown). Yet, most core gamers can distinguish between the two by the shape of the faceplate alone. If the player can recognize the character by silhouette, then you have done your job.

    Comic books for years have used shapes and curves to show both a character's alliance and demeanor. Generally speaking, sharp lines show a character as stern and a force to be reckoned with, the antagonist. Curved or more whimsical lines can show rebellion and can be used to make a hero seem more relatable. Game designers can play with this to trick the player, which in effect can generate a more genuine emotion as well; for example, a designer might create a curvy and relatable NPC that the player feels empathy for, only to later reveal him as an enemy. The sense of betrayal would be very genuine there.

    Artists use brightness and contrast to draw the viewer's attention. Guiding the eye to certain aspects of a composition is just as important in games as two-dimensional art, if not more. Leading your players to plot points and drawing their attention to key areas can be achieved easily through strategic lighting. However, dynamic lighting is one of only a few artistic considerations that heavily involve the programming team. For this reason, artists have to be cautious that the programmers don't overdo it. Luckily, classic baked-in lighting techniques can still create these contrasts. As with color, use of light and dark is a key for driving emotion.

    Another distinct concept that's directly relevant to lighting and lines is proximity. Proximity is the mind's tendency to group things based on their relative position to each other, the key idea being that the brain sees a large group of objects as one whole. Like lines and lighting, this concept can be used to manipulate players and alter their emotional responses by drawing their attention to or away from something. For instance, a lone enemy placed away from the rest of the horde.

    The Expressive Movement
    Game artists, like all other artists, are trying to invoke a feeling in the player viewer; we simply have the medium of interaction to aid us. It's this new level of complexity that makes games one of the most challenging art forms to master.

    I encourage both artists and designers to continue to consider how the artistic concepts of interactive media can be used to better video games. We need to focus on the quality of the work we can do for the industry and realize that the argument over where scribbles end and art begins is futile. Using these artistic concepts alone can create that immediate attachment games should be striving for. Combine this with the artistic movements of music and storytelling, and you have yourself a fully encompassing game experience.


    Bret Wardle is currently a game designer with an independent developer in the Salt Lake City area. He's also a graduate and current student at ITT Technical Institutes Murray, Utah campus.


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