Art direction in video games is an integral part of the development process. Nothing bugs me more than a game that claims to be visually “stylized” when it’s actually full of shit. Well okay, I can think of at least one other thing.
The dictionary defines “stylization” as GO FUCK YOURSELF. Seriously – stop throwing that word around unless you actually mean it. Art direction is an essential part of the experience – a great story and amazing mechanics can be completely ruined if the visuals are disjointed and, well, shit.
Before you say something stupid like “but gameplay trumps graphics” – this isn’t about graphics. This is about so much more.
Why the fuck do I need art direction?
Art direction involves building an overall aesthetic that is coherent with the game’s mechanics and story. It should be steeped in the universe, defined and developed based on the core of the game. Art direction ensures all pieces, visually, work well together. This extends from in-game components such as character designs, environment art, props and animations, to the user interface overlaid (usually shittily) on top of the game, to the marketing material. Most importantly, art direction ensures the game feels right.
You know how one checks for testicular cancer? It involves rolling balls around in one’s hands, and if something doesn’t feel right, the whole world comes crashing down as the realization strikes. A lack of art direction can cause that. Not testicular cancer – but the “something doesnt feel right, the whole world comes crashing down” bit. The world, here, being the game world. Not life. I mean, cancer is definitely something to be more concerned about than art direction. Though art direction is pretty fucking important.
Anyway – so that’s why the fuck you need art direction. Your game isn’t “stylized” unless it was intentional. It can be the result of a lack of technical ability or know-how, but that shouldn’t be the only reason.
Set the mood. Scented Candles and Dim Lighting.
Good art direction has the power to set the mood just right. An art style can make the difference between a horror game and a comedy. Here’s a thousand word comparison between Super Mario Galaxy and Dead Space.
All visual elements of a game must come together to create a coherent mood. Failing this, the game breaks. Not technically, but emotionally. Playing video games is as much about entertainment as it is about engagement. We play because we like being immersed in these worlds. Whether we’re saving the world or drowning Sims in a pool, we’re doing it because it’s an experience. And you don’t need state of the art technology to create a mood!
I don’t give a fuck about your PBR foliage, or that you’re building on UE4 for state-of-the-art fuck-you graphics cards. That’s all fantastic, but if you’re using these tools incorrectly, you may as well not be using them. Silent Hill (yes, on the PlayStation way back when) was a scary fucking game. I’d clocked a whopping 16 minutes on Amnesia: The Dark Descent before I nope’d the fuck out of there and uninstalled the game.
Both of these games relied on setting the mood with gameplay mechanics, a storyline, audio, and (DING DING DING) a coherent art style.
So when it comes time to decide the art style and direction for your game, make sure you think about the mood you’re going for, and build to it.
The inability to do something isn’t an excuse.
My favourite go-to when talking about this is the “pixel-art” excuse. I love pixel art. 8-bit and 16-bit art is mind-blowing when done well. To make entire worlds in this highly restrictive art style and palette? Amazing. But when devs (and many “journalists” are to blame too) call a game “pixel-art” even though it very clearly isn’t 100% pixel art, it grinds my gears.
I’ve seen examples of games in which the environments are rich and vibrant, the scenes absolutely gorgeous and “realistic”, but the characters are “stylized” – disproportionate bodies, toon-shaded, with perma-closed-mouths… Fuck. You.
Unless there is a perfectly valid in-game reason for a disconnect (like pixelated Snake in MGS), it shouldn’t be happening. And if it’s happening because your character artist couldn’t do realism, or your environment artist couldn’t do stylized, congratulations, you’ve failed as a project lead, and as an art and creative director.
Mixing and matching art-styles isn’t okay. Again, unless intentional, and done by design, this is just the kind of mayhem that makes games look like they weren’t thought through. If everything in your game is hand-drawn, minus the characters, give me a good reason, or go fuck yourself. If everything looks like a pop-up book with little papercraft characters and props, but your UI looks like it was made by “Generic UI Generator 2016,” go fuck yourself.
So find the strengths and weaknesses of your team, and build accordingly. Alternatively, find a new team.
It’s all about the package.
No, that’s not a sexual innuendo.
The whole package matters when you’re trying to impress people, especially with the over-saturation of games being released these days. As I mentioned earlier, this is about the game assets, the UI, the marketing – everything should be built to a single vision.
A great example of this, in my opinion, is Firewatch. The game is out in a few days, and it looks absolutely phenomenal. I’m definitely picking it up, and part of the reason I’m sold on it is the look and feel the game has going for it. It’s got a distinct style, and from everything I’ve seen thus far, it sticks to it for the whole nine yards. The website, the box-art, the merchandise… that’s what I call thinking things through. THAT, is what I call “stylized”.
Also, size totally matters.
Pick a direction, and go!
Seriously – don’t half-ass it. Don’t test the waters, scared to commit. This isn’t a wedding where you can just ditch your other half at the altar. This is some serious shit – when you’ve picked an art style, you need to go for it, all out!
Remember when Borderlands completely changed how it was going to look? Do you see any hint of the old art style in the finished product? Barring any easter eggs, I don’t fucking think you do. Do you know why? Because the developers had balls of steel, decided to do something different, and it was glorious. And it worked with the tone of the game perfectly – I can’t imagine how the same plot and characters would have fit in a more “realistic” and “gritty” set of visuals!
That’s the crux of making a stylized game. It needs to have a style, and that style needs to have purpose.