What makes a game look good? A little gaming archaeology reveals a shifting flow of visual trends, often dictated by technological limitations. The game reviews I grew up on saw quality as a question of detail: if you could see individual snowflakes in a blizzard, or distinguish each of your character’s eyelashes fluttering mid-battle, then the game looked gorgeous. This matters because many players choose what to buy based on looks alone. Visuals are the aesthetic frontline of the industry.
The earliest graphics were a study in abstraction. Programmers created two-dimensional worlds using pixels, coloured squares arranged like mosaics. Space Invaders were composed of 46 pixels in a single colour. Super Mario was 143 pixels in three colours. This art style is still used for indie games such as Celeste since it’s easy to animate and casts a powerful spell of nostalgia over gamers.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, games cycled through a variety of visual trends. Before true 3D there were “isometric graphics”, which simulated depth by using an elevated viewpoint in strategy series such as Age of Empires and Civilisation. These still look good today, unlike early attempts at 3D characters, which were so blocky and textureless that they were sometimes placed against hand-drawn backgrounds to distract from their ugliness. Even then, some designers found inventive workarounds: giving characters cartoonish outlines in a pretty technique known as “cel shading” or using limitations as a game mechanic in the horror classic Silent Hill, where an omnipresent fog ramps up the tension as well as diminishing hardware demands.
Graphics soon became a race for photorealism. Elaborate lighting engines and motion capture techniques were developed to create believable shadows and movement. Yet the more realistic graphics became, the more gamers expected. Perhaps the water looks real enough to dive into in Assassin’s Creed, but characters still have waxy skin and lifeless eyes. Each year, the incremental improvements in graphics were smaller. As it becomes rarer for games to stand out for their graphical verisimilitude, the aesthetic style of their guiding artists becomes more important than ever.
Before a single line of code is written, concept art defines a game’s visual identity. This can be a major factor in success: Minecraft turns a reduced landscape of low-resolution building blocks into a distinctive aesthetic. Indie games are often the most visually adventurous: Cuphead is a gorgeous throwback to the 1930s cartoons of Max Fleischer, each landscape hand-painted with watercolours, while platform games such as Inside and Gris use tastefully restrained colour palettes to tell their enigmatic tales.
Art can also go beyond visual dressing to become a central game mechanic. The Unfinished Swan puts the player in an incomplete painting that can only be navigated by throwing ink to reveal their surroundings. In the striking Ōkami, based on Shinto mythology, you play as sun goddess Amaterasu in the form of a white wolf. Using a celestial paintbrush to draw, fight and perform miracles, you explore a landscape rendered as sumi-e ink wash, like a sumptuous Japanese scroll brought to life.
Certain games owe their visual identities to specific artists. M.C. Escher is the inspiration for Echochrome and Monument Valley, puzzle games where you navigate impossible objects and optical illusions. In Back to Bed you must keep a sleepwalking man safe in his surreal dreamscape by manoeuvring green apples straight out of Magritte. The unique look of 11-11: Memories Retold, created by Aardman Animations of Wallace and Gromit fame, is inspired by Monet and Turner. In this first world war tale, graphics are rendered as brushstrokes which flicker as if the world is constantly being painted around you.
Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico, who imbued abandoned cities with so much longing, was the enduring inspiration for gaming’s most profoundly artistic studio. Team Ico produced two masterpieces in the 2000s, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, now remastered in HD, which both evoke the sublime solitude of de Chirico’s work. By employing unpeopled landscapes and stately, desolate architecture to tell their elliptical stories, Team Ico evoked concepts rarely found in gaming today, such as melancholy, contemplation and grace. They channelled not just the visual aesthetic, but the heart of an artist.
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