One art style I find particularly appealing is any style that uses hand drawn, frame by frame animations. These are often used in 2D games such as those in the fighting and platforming genres although they have also found use in some 3D games (Isometric games in particular). One game in particular that captures this perfectly in my mind is “Skullgirls”.
Skullgirls uses a hand drawn art style that focus on extremely expressive animations and unique character and environment design. Every character and area had an interesting twist and was animated with a high level of detail despite the small 0.1 – 0.75 second windows the majority of the animations take place in due to the way fighting games have to operate. Taking a look at the sprite sheets or running the game in slow motion lets you truly appreciate the minutia that has gone into the Art direction of the game and whilst these animations are exceptionally fast, it is usually possible to see them for what they are and the extra detail that went into their creation is justified. Skullgirls was trying to create a world with a good sense of levity and a small amount of seriousness mixed in and its hand drawn, cartoon inspired art style fit this perfectly.
Another good example of this style is “Dont starve”, which is a survival game with a heavily “Tim burton” style of grim cartoon-like visuals. Despite its overly expressive and cartoon like art style (Two elements that usually distance the viewer from immersion and therefore any real sense of danger that horror rely on), the game manages to create real moments of tension and borderline fear thanks to a strong use of lighting, sound design and small but effective animations (Shadows of hands grabbing at the edge of the darkness and small glowing eyes occasionally appearing for a few moments). Its expressive visual style helps offset the otherwise oppressive nature of the world, giving the player a break in-between tense and horror rich moments.
The two examples I have given are both trying to achieve something quite different and through the use of hand drawn styles have both managed them very effectively. The benefits to the style (Expressive animations, Unique character and world design if done correctly) can work well for many games and if created with expertise can adapt to any tone or theme required.
Analysing tone and theme in relation to art styles might be a good idea
The majority of cues in video gaming come from either audio or visual elements in the environment. Many games simply use UI prompts to direct player movement and behaviour which is straightforward and ensures clarity of requirements for the player to progress. Other games use less UI and instead rely on more subtle cues using the games art style as a tool for player direction. This carries risks but if done correctly and effectively can more naturally guide a player and improve the user experience vastly.
As previously mentioned, a prime example of this in action is “Journey” for the PS3/PS4. Through the use of subtle visual cues such as lighting emphasis placement, colour shifts and the use of empty space (With a daisy chain of objects in the visible distance leading in the correct direction), the player never feels lost despite no UI and vast open spaces more often than not. The game also uses a less subtle method of player direction within the art style in the form of a large environmental object with a lighting focus (The mountain in the distance).
Other games have also managed this kind of direction well. “Shadow of the colossus” provides a large open world and tasks the player with tracking down and slaying several giant beings. The hero has a sword that when raised points a large beam of light toward the location of the next colossus in line. This provides the player clear direction but also fits the game as part of the art style, with no UI prompts that feel exterior to the game’s world. When fighting the Colossuses, the player has to climb each one and find glowing icons that are weak spots to attack. These areas are not immediately obvious when climbing (Although they are visible from the ground in most cases) but once again the player can point their sword in the air and it will lead them towards the weak spots. The game uses very minimal UI elements which vastly strengthens the games visual appeal.
If designed correctly, Art style can be a powerful design tool that can guide a player naturally through an experience and also give them a chance to feel as if their advancement is natural and free flowing, regardless of the amount of railroading on the designers part.
One thing I have come to understand during my research, is that there is no real categorization system for Art directions in video gaming. Strictly speaking, this seems to be a good thing as it is not really what games are sold on and being able to pigeon-hole art in such a way would suggests either saturation or lack of variety. I have found, after asking a number of my friends that the default way people seem to refer to games is with either some of the blanket terms I have used previously (2D, 3D, Realistic, Cel shaded, Pixel ECT) or by comparing them to other, visually similar games.
Whilst I do not think it is possible to properly describe art styles in 1-3 chunks in a way that game genres are described, I believe small sentences would suffice in this area. To test this theory out, I picked a number of my favourite art styles in video games off of the top of my head and attempted to describe them without referring to other, similar games.
A grim underwater metropolis with heavy Art Deco stylings
Deus ex : Human Revolution
Futuristic Cyberpunk with sleek modern stylings and a strong yellow focus colour
Vibrant, Colourfull and cartoonish Art design with a mix of qwirky characters and a trendy, hip hop style.
The wolf among us
Cell shaded noir with heavy comic book stylings.
Black and white with a heavy emphasis on tonal shifts and blood as emphasis
Guilty Gear XRD
Cell shaded anime stylings with traditional animation techniques for dynamic animations
Shadow of the colossus
Epic fantasy art with a grandiose sense of scale
Heavy gothic influences with complex religious architecture (Grand cathedrals and the like)
Describing a game using a sentence is clearly possible, but as far as offering a quick impression of a games visual style, simply showing a picture would be far easier. Showing gameplay style is far harder with pictures than visual style, so genre descriptors work well for gameplay but images are a far better method. In truth, upon finishing this, I have realised this is a problem that comes from semantics rather than any real issues or discoveries, which is unfortunate.