Design pitch for a memorable character: a yellow circle, with a triangular wedge removed to indicate a mouth, that roams around a maze eating white dots and being chased by ghosts. Or a blue, bipedal hedgehog who wears red trainers and runs at supersonic speeds through deserts, space stations and underwater temples. Or how about a fat, mustachioed Italian plumber who wears blue dungarees and chases mushrooms?
They may not sound like designs that would last decades, but Pac-Man, Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario are some of the most recognisable video game icons of today, known to gamers and non-gamers alike. These are visual images that are, in their own way, on a par with Warhol’s Marilyn, the Coca-Cola logo or the Nike swoosh. The design of games may even reach more people than any of these – there are hundreds of millions of people worldwide who, between them, spend billions of hours gaming each year.
This desire to take refuge in alternative virtual worlds has led to an outburst of new design thinking. Some of the most familiar images hail from a period in the 1980s when games were almost exclusively designed in 2D, and where realism wasn’t the idea, because realism, graphically speaking, was impossible to achieve.
Then came the birth of the 3D era in the mid-1990s. Suddenly designers had a whole new dimension to explore and present on screen, and in games such as Tomb Raider and Resident Evil the new goal became graphical realism. Dreamlike concepts were replaced with attempts to refine and replicate the real world – even if you were shooting zombies, the undead and their environment had to look genuine. And these games were impressive to look at, certainly. They were feats of engineering and programming, undoubtedly. But although there was the potential for new ways to explore the interactive visual arena, imagination was sacrificed in the name of increasingly complex in-game 3D physics and the chance to make games look more like movies.
This hasn’t been the case for all “art design” in games, however. In recent years, designers – particularly indie designers – have been harking back to the more daring 2D age. This year saw the release on Xbox of Fez, a puzzle game in which the art design is as much an homage to the 8-bit platform era of the late 1980s as it is a parody of the changes in games brought about by 3D. It looks like the kind of otherworldly 2D design that existed 25 years ago – big, chunky sprites that make up free-floating platforming environments.
The twist comes in the ability to rotate the 2D plane around a 3D axis. With the squeeze of a button, the flat 2D front of a building rotates so that you’re standing against the side of the edifice. Another squeeze and it rotates round to the back, and so on. It’s a neat visual trick, and a wonderful play on the differences between the two visual types. But the design goes deeper than being a gimmick: Fez is, at its heart, a puzzle game, and elements of the art design, such as the familiar shapes of Tetris-type blocks littered throughout, are incorporated into solving the puzzles and finishing the game. They help to tell the story and expand the gaming experience while managing to look both familiar and distinct.
Another indie game that has used art in a 2D design to enhance the game environment is Braid (2008). Its world is beautiful to look at – lush brushstrokes make up the background, while the foreground consists of intricate, interactive details. But according to Braid’s designer Jonathan Blow, he had already developed most of the gameplay mechanics before the art design was brought in. “You could divide development into two halves,” Blow says. “The basic gameplay development half and the visual half. The visuals came later, in that the game was completely playable before that.”
Blow worked with web comic artist David Hellman to arrive at a design that would best convey the ideas of the game. The aim was to use atmosphere and mood to tell a story of pursuit and discovery at any cost with almost no dialogue. “I talked to [Hellman] about what this world is about thematically; here’s what we want it to feel like emotionally and here’s the progression,” says Blow. “There are progressions that aren’t explicitly stated, but there are things that happen between the moods of the levels and what they look like as you go from the first level to the last.”
There were advantages and challenges to developing Braid in this way, according to Blow, who had “basically no art experience” coming into the game. For instance, when he was designing the core time, puzzle and platform mechanics, he didn’t have to worry about “this thing that happens with a lot of games where the art obscures the puzzles or makes them more confusing. When your world is made out of blocks, it’s clear that a gap can’t be jumped. But once you start putting grass on there and little graphics that go out farther than where you can stand, and then you put some stuff in the background, then it can easily become confusing and less crisp.” In the end, the art design went through many iterations before Blow was happy with both Braid’s look and gameplay.
There was never any question for Blow of doing Braid in 3D – it just wouldn’t work. “Impressionistic stuff is much harder to do in 3D,” says Blow. The same is true of Limbo (2010), a game whose entire look is based on black-and-white shadows and silhouettes that would have been impossible to render in 3D.
That’s not to say that the world of mainstream 3D games has been entirely dead to the idea of innovative art design. There are the sci-fi worlds and technology of the Halo series (2001-present); the Ayn Rand-inspired, art deco dystopia of Bioshock (2007); and the period detail of the Assassin’s Creed games (2007-present), which have put players in 12th-century Jerusalem, Renaissance Italy and, most recently, the American war of independence. But they all rely on realism as their starting point.
Dishonored, which came out this year, exemplifies this, with its creation of an alt-Victorian, steampunk look. It is set in the fictional city of Dunwall, which was based on architectural details from London and Edinburgh – recognisably so in some cases. Art director Sebastien Mitton and visual design director Viktor Antonov approached the city design “as architectural historians initially. They talked about which cultures had what building materials, how long the structures lasted, who invaded, what new architectural styles rose up, and how the people living there use the space,” according to co-creative directors Raphael Colantonio and Harvey Smith. At the same time as these realistic elements were brought in, Mitton worked on creating “non-photorealistic proportions for characters, the lighting, palette and texturing style”, to create contrast and a unique visual aesthetic.
In the modern gaming era, there will always be a battle between interesting art design and the other considerations that go into making a game. But the bolder the art design, the more players will feel they have escaped reality and visited another place. For Blow, “There’s a message in the visuals, and the effort that’s been put into the graphics. It’s a subliminal thing, a message which says that somebody really cared about putting this experience together … it says you’re in good hands.”