Painting with pixels: How stylized art can transform a game narrative

Painting with pixels: How stylized art can transform a game narrative

Learning from Picassos iconic art style

Photorealism in games can be really fun. It''s very beneficial to rely on characters and backgrounds that match your imagination in a game environment, and it''s extremely beneficial to see how graphics continue to improve year after year. But here''s the thing I sometimes feel like we can obsess a bit too much about how real or not a certain game art style is, by deciding between every environment and every little detail.

Back to the PS1 era, when people believed the first Metal Gear game was as realistic-looking as they would, I think. Players chuckled about the immersion because of how lifelike it was. However, anecdotes like that really speak to how much our minds fill in the gaps when it comes to storytelling, something we do not pay much attention for these days.

Picassos philosophy

A thread on Twitter the other day provides an excellent example of how different styles of art can be effective in different situations. The initial tweet is a meme about photorealistic versus stylized art, but it is actually referring to a famous quote from Pablo Picasso. Picasso was famous for transforming everyone from an early age, and capable of painting at an all-time high, but as soon as he was younger, he developed one of the most popular art styles in history.

Is it Destructoid a video game website? Why are we talking about art history?

I think this point may be used on video games as well. Like how many people in visual arts see photorealism as the height of their ability as an artist, we tend to think the same of games. Realistic art can and has been used to tremendous effect in games, but sometimes, having a really distinct art style can lead the game story and themes into the stratosphere.

Making ugly beautiful

NORCO, a narrative point-and-click that I''ve ever seen, is quite impressive, although it often traverses the line of ugly/beautiful most of the time. The environment is dingy and run down, and the whole thing simply gives you this sense of dread, like you want to get far, far, away from this place.

The game''s harsh, ugly art style is so effective, because it exact mirrors what''s going on in the narrative. These moments of beauty are contrasted with a slew of horrifying pictures, which again ties beautifully into the games plot''s beauty. When developers utilize every component of the game to identify a single artistic vision, then that''s how we get some of the best games ever created.

Making cartoony serious

Firewatch''s art style is pretty striking, but it''s also quite cartoony. The game is rich with bright, saturated colors, which enhance the landscapes and sunsets particularly. So much of the game is about nature and our enjoyment of it, so that aspect of the art ties in nicely.

There is also the possibility that the game has a dramatic tonal shift, and that suddenly the cartoonishness of the art feels othering and uncanny. What was once pleasant and added a sense of ease at the start has transformed into something that makes the darker subject of the latter part of the game somehow feel wreaking havoc. Although Firewatch art was not gotten as much attention as its writing or voice acting, I believe it is a fundamental component in how we understood it.

The list of games with stunning but equally effective art styles is endless. I might go on and on, but I think you''re right.

Other art style considerations

Alongside what a good, unique art style can make learning a game much simpler, and sometimes easier. However, the more photorealistic we make our games, the longer it takes to master them, the more files become, and the more vulnerable our games are to crashes and bugs. I know that not everyone agrees.

Some of the bold choices that make bold decisions when it comes to their art are indie games, but large teams have to put the game on hold and develop perfectly lifelike artwork sometimes. The limitations on indie studios have not held them back, but instead propelled them forward into making some of the most stylish titles out there. My bias is progressing, but I never understood the desire to turn games into a new Hollywood blockbuster when we can create pieces of art, no matter what medium.

Im not saying that we can never have a photorealistic game again, or that people don''t understand stylized art in games enough. I want to express how important art can be in sending home a games message, whatever that might be, and I cannot guarantee that the merits of Picasso are met. However, I find Picasso a lot more enjoyable to look at.

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