Some games attempt to create art styles that take influences from movements in art history. If they fit with the theme/timeline the game is set in, it can create a very appealing art style. These are usually identifiable by a heavy colour focus, stylised textures/models that showcase brush strokes or paint like effects. Another way of handling this is to take a popularised art movement and create a game that clearly invokes this. One key example of this comes to mind and it was the PS2 game “Okami”.
Okami uses a style of Japanese painting called “Sumi-e” as inspiration for its heavily stylised visuals and mechanics. Every object in the game has an outline that varys in thickness depending on distance to camera and its curvature in a way that simulates brush strokes. This, combined with its traditional colours and imagery, creates a style that immediately feels its heritage and pleases the eye. In motion, the brush stroke visuals also add an element of dynamism to all of the animations.
There are other examples of this such as “The bridge” designing both its mechanics and visual style around the works of M.C Escher and “Cuphead” Drawing its inspiration from the early days of commercial animation. By choosing a pre-existing art style, if chosen where appropriate, can both strengthen your games visuals and help elements of the design.
From what I have observed, Videogames either choose their theme due to the genre/license they are creating for or as the basis for the rest of the game (Genre/Visuals ECT). Regardless of which, art styles are often created to fit the theme are usually created in styles that support them. This sounds like an obvious statement to me but I have recently noticed a few different games that have chosen art styles that feel diametrically opposed to their themes and yet, due to the skill of their implementation, work incredibly well. I wanted to quickly cover why I thought this was and illustrate how art styles effect and are effect by theme and tone.
One thing I have noticed that the majority of themes fit most art styles with very few exceptions. A few of the exceptions I have found include :
Character adventures (Banjo Kazoie, Conkers, Yooka Laylee ECT)
I find that any style attempting to sell itself on a cartoonish feel (or at least on the strength of visually distinct and animated characters) do not particularly work well with highly detailed realistic art styles. Whilst its possible to have levity in more realistic styles, I find the expressiveness needed to properly portray the cartoon like natures of the characters vasty removes from the realistic style. A good compromised between detail and cartoon like style has been reached in the past with games such as “Rachet and clank”, but with too much of a focus on reality, I would find the styles at ends.
This one particularly goes without saying, but horror does relatively poorly with overly vibrant, emotive styles unless they are carefully designed. The feeling of fear that fans of these games enjoy needs a few key elements such as lighting, sound and mechanics to all be in support of this and vibrant, cartoon-like settings usually work to put the player at ease. This expectation however can be played on to great effect if that is the intention. By subverting the players expectations, the horror and feeling of dread can either have greater effect by surprising the player or slowly creep in on the art style, leading the player to feel ill at ease and slowly put them on edge.
One thing I have noticed is that the majority of art styles can also set any tone for the gameplay that is required of them. I noticed this in particular when looking at “The binding of Isaac”. The game uses a cartoon-like art style with expressive characters and a vibrant colour pallet (That admittedly darkens as the game continues). Despite this, the game uses gore and depressing visuals to great effect, creating a very harsh and negative environment despite aforementioned art style. Looking at Binding of Isaac without any gore on the screen and one would easily be forgiven for expecting a far lighter hearted game than is delivered and the betrayal of expectations adds weight to the eventual underplayed narrative that makes the whole experience upsetting and emotional (In a way that provides satisfaction from a story well told).
Art styles can seriously effect a games identity, but with careful implementation, do not have to be limited by genre/narrative choices.