Departing Realism – Art in Video Games

For many years we have strived for realism in our computer generated art work. Just look at the progression of one of video game’s most enduring characters, Lara Croft, who has seen consistent titles released since 1996 in the days of visible polygons and hard edges on supposedly curved surfaces, through the rubber-doll days of Chronicles and Underworld, and into the modern reboot that can border on photo-realism in stills.

And yet, it seems like the closer we get to emulating reality, the more we seem to want to step away from it. Increasingly we see more stylisation in our artwork, cartoonish features, abstract colour palettes, or a simple distortion of reality to create a theme. I want to look into some of these artistic choices…

Cartoons – Bendy and Cuphead

It lowers the barrier to entry for smaller companies who have yet to make their major impact on the scene, but an elegant and visually spectacular art style like early 20th century cartoons can really make a huge visual splash!

With Cuphead, Studio MDHR embraced the goofy physical warping and exaggerated movements of early Disney and Fleischer cartoons to create a high-action game that can get away with a great deal of ridiculous and over the top animation to make their game visually exciting. Joey Drew Studios did something similar with Bendy and the Ink Machine, but in their case used the more sinister sides of the same studios, the mercurial and monochrome characters to add a surrealism to the horror, and the sepia wash over the setting lending a melancholy to the atmosphere.

These are examples of a chosen art style being used to great effect, and they’re far from alone. Don’t Starve, The Binding of Isaac, Hollow Knight, or dialling back a few decades to the Neverhood. There are even artists who specialise in pixel art, exploring the capabilities within the limits of their chosen medium. But this particular approach to game art is old-hat, just had to give a nod to some great modern examples.

Distorted Reality – Dishonored and Little Nightmares

On the opposite end of the spectrum, those games that take an… almost realistic approach, but very deliberately distorting it ever so slightly, but to different ends.

In Little Nightmares the aim is clear. The distended world, so much taller that it should be, with great, blank walls with endless staircases, designed to make you small. The creatures you flee from are people caricatured to monstrous proportions with long grasping arms, wide hungering mouths, or limp and dangling flesh, and even the protagonists are especially slender and noticeably hide their faces. It is – as the title suggests – a nightmarish world. But being obvious doesn’t make it any less effective. The realism is there to make the distortions more uncomfortable to behold, and to deepen the sense of menace.

Dishonored instead embraces art styles, drawing from baroque lighting, impressionist colour palettes, and not a little neoclassicism. Viktor Antonov was the art director for Half Life 2, and the enormity of the Victorian-like dystopia, and the work of Sergey Kolesov and art director Sebastien Mitton, further advanced by the clay sculpts by Lucie Minne, have all created an individuality to Dishonored and to Dunwall. People communicate at a distance their role in life, the broad shouldered, square jawed salt-of-the-earth types, up to the slender, patrician-featured elite. The exaggerations are slight, and feel natural within the confines of the world they inhabit, but they create a very thorough picture of an entrenched class system, and a city falling from grace.

All this to say that while a lot of the “Triple A” studios may still be breaking their backs trying to make their games as close to reality as they can, the technology they pioneer is being used to create what can be more accurately described as art. The explosion of the industry has forced innovation that has resulted in visual spectacles that – at times – exceed their gameplay. It makes for some truly incredible visuals that may very well define an era of games.

12 thoughts on “Departing Realism – Art in Video Games”

    1. Lucas Pope, the designer of Return of the Obra Dinn, really worked hard in making the visuals unique and not eye-straining. He revealed in his devblog the complexity of what seems to be a simple game for us. It’s amazing.

      Speaking of Return of the Obra Dinn, have you tried the Myst series as well? The first game is a classic. If you consider this, I also recommend you to play its sequel “Riven The Sequel to Myst”.

      Great post by the way GeekOut SW.

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  1. LC is a great example of the art of progression in both design and approach to her character. Whilst somewhat easy to pick faults had fun last year doing a contrasting piece in London with Assassins Creed Syndicate. Definetly agree some of the output is a triumphant example of gaming as an artistic medium.

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      1. Yup. Live in London so spent the last 6 month’s doing a series of competitive pieces between some of the more famous sites in the city and how they were presented in the game and in real life. Was interesting seeing how the digital versions of buildings contrasted to their real counterparts. Some didn’t, some incredibly so.

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        That was one of them. Went slightly in-depth with the analysis and photography but was interesting getting the shots. Had read or picked up how the development teams did a lot of scouting of real world locations, some of these building you can see from the angles and perspectives how good a job they did in capturing the city.


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