Art styles are the definitive framing device of a game, setting the tone and pace of the narrative.
For generations, game designers have aimed for the closest thing to reality as possible. As technologies have advanced the depth in texture and realism in gaming is almost an exact science. It’s hard to look at polygonal action heroes of the mid 00’s and think that was once the peak of graphical capabilities.
Games like Forza and the Uncharted series have seemingly mastered the art of reality. The Call of Duty series has made full use of motion capture technology to apply recognizable, expression-laden faces to their games. Pushing beyond those boundaries seems rather irrelevant, with most gamers happy with a compromising reflection.
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Beyond that, an exciting trend is emerging of subversive art styles that push against reality. Colorful landmarks and textures that betray the norm are creating a more awe-inspiring illusion of reality. After all, we live in reality 24/7, many gamers turn to their consoles for some brief moments of reprise. Through some of these magnificent creations, game design is becoming recognized as a new modern art form.
Aristotle theorized art as the human pursuit of perfection in a constant form of change. Deemed by modern society, game design could then grow to hold a place in modern art culture, defining future trends. But to understand our future, we must first look at where we have been.
Pioneers of Unique Art Styles in Gaming
There were a lot of interesting art styles from the early days of gaming but a lot were born from graphical limitations. Due to a grey area debate we’d rather not open up, we are going to skip a lot of the early generations. Instead, we’ll focus on some innovative art styles from a time when a pseudo-reality was deemed achievable.
Starting with the late 90’s with a cult classic Grim Fandango. The first 3D adventure from LucasArts, the studio of Star Wars creator George Lucas. Inspired by the Mexican holiday ‘Dia De Los Muertos’ in a film noir setting. The art style was widely acclaimed by critics and stands out as one of the first significant examples.
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No stranger to forging the trends of modern gaming, Nintendo’s Mario team weren’t to be outdone. Having established a lot of the boundaries of 3D gaming in Mario 64, they decided to move away from it for Paper Mario. Paper Mario featured 3D worlds populated by 2D characters, creating an eye-catching contrast. The art style continued to evolve over four sequels leading up to the most recent release last year.
Over the following years, unique art styles in gaming became a common feature with many developers looking to make their games stand out. In 2010 Playdead released their macabre platforming masterpiece Limbo. The 2016 follow up, Inside was pretty easy on the eyes too. Kirby treated us a darling art style with the Rainbow Paintbrush, set in a claymation world.
No Man’s Sky pushed the horizons further creating an entire synthetic universe with cartoonish overtones. Huge planets, diverse life forms and breathtaking skylines captured within a stylised art form.
— Dr Andrew Armstrong (@BackofficeShow) November 9, 2017
Just as graphical capabilities have added texture to reality, art styles have evolved with similar applications. Breath of the Wild was stylised right down to the tiniest blades of grass at Link’s feet. Night in the Woods successfully drove closer to the root of art styles within gaming, with harsh colours. Making use of modern features to create synthetic light, the game features a more simplistic but beautiful art style.
The Future of Art
There are a lot of games still striving for the greatest representation of reality. But we expect many more games to follow suit of games like Night in the Woods. We foresee developers pushing the envelope of level design in a similar way to Picasso and Dali did with modern art. With there being few layers of reality to explore, developers can either produce clones or strive to stand out.
Fun fact – Matt Groening made the Simpsons yellow so they would be instantly recognizable when channel surfing. Well, the same principle applies here really, especially if a studio doesn’t have a huge budget. Making a game stand out could become more significant than ever, else it risks fading into obscurity.
Critics and journalists are always willing to take the time to praise innovative art styles. It’s a whole new weapon in a highly competitive market.
In keeping with the Groening theme, Futurama once satirised that future art would be ‘tattooed on fat guys’. A far reach perhaps, but in an ever-evolving medium, it’s not impossible to think video games will someday be recognised as art. Creating even more incentive as gaming evolves to play an integral part in the future of pop culture.