Since gaming’s humble beginnings, we’ve seen innumerable innovations in game development that have pushed genres forward, created new genres, re-defined conventions, and impacted the industry as a whole. These changes took place in every single facet of the game, from sound design to gameplay variations. And yet, I can’t help but feel like there’s one area that hasn’t been played with very much until recently: art style.
There’s a lot to be said for what life a creative art style can lend to a game. And while we all appreciate being wowed by the look of photorealistic games such as Call of Duty or Crysis,I can’t help but feel like it’s the unique art styles of games that not only make them interesting, but help add to the distinct personality and attitude of them. And in some rare cases, it’s an art style that gives a chance to an otherwise generic game. So what do I mean by saying this? Let’s take a look at some games whose art styles made all the difference in their lives:
Borderlands isn’t the only game to use the cel-shaded, comic-book look. But whenever the game is mentioned, it’s hard to not picture the harsh, thick black lines, the blocky shading, and the use of dramatic line and contour displayed by its art style.
Believe it or not, the whole look of Borderlands was something of an afterthought. Before the game was released, it had a very generic look to it that made it look and feel like just another run-of-the-mill shooter. The decision to change the art style not only changed the look and feel of the game, it also hit on the sweet spot of accenting the game’s goofy and over-the-top personality. Think about it; Borderlands is a game all about shooting things with a “bazillion” guns and picking up loot. It’s not a gritty, story-driven experience. Rather, it’s all about going crazy and getting completely trigger happy. It’s the unique, cartoonish art style that helped flesh out the world and gave its personality an entirely new dimension, making it a standout title in a very crowded genre.
Limbo is a game that gets praise for a myriad of reasons; sound design, level design, gameplay, story…the list goes on and on. And of course, the praise is well deserved. After all, it is a fantastic game.
But one of the game’s most important and unique parts is ultimately its art style. Using only the neutral shades of black, white, and gray, we get a real sense of the forlorn feel of the world. Those shades go hand in hand with the game’s use of ambience and sound design, creating an overall cold feel of desolation. Which is a success, because this is exactly what the game wants you to feel. And while this could have been easily captured with just the sound and level layout, Limbo’s art style helped to tie everything together in a neat little bow…a neat, child-killing, spider-plagued little bow.
LEGEND OF ZELDA: THE WIND WAKER
This game was met with its fair share of controversy after Nintendo revealed it for the GameCube for the first time. Instead of looking to follow other action adventure games and take on a more realistic look, Wind Waker instead shifted back to the series’ roots, adopting a much more cartoonish feel with cel-shaded graphics. The bold art style change was accused of being “primitive” and “wrong” for the series.
But ultimately, it wasn’t primitive. In fact, the visuals of the game were marvelous and pushed the power of the GameCube in new ways. There was a lot of depth and life in the world thanks largely to the game’s visual design, and the cartoonish look gave it a distinct feel that helps Wind Waker stand out still today as one of Link’s more innovative and interesting adventures.
While it was met with lukewarm critical reception, there’s no denying that Klei Entertainment was on to something with the design of Shank. Looking like an old Cartoon Network show, the game borrowed some pretty heavy cartoon elements to build on its brawler title. The result was a great presentation complete with fluid animation and an interesting personality unique from any other game on the downloadable space.
And while it might not have been the best game Klei ever created, Shank did pave the way for their latest release Mark of the Ninja, a game that impresses both in game design and with the same striking art style that it borrowed from the Shank series.
It should be obvious that this isn’t a complete list of every game that has ever impressed us with a unique art style. Rather, this is a list of games meant to illustrate the importance of a unique art style and what it adds to the overall personality of a game. Especially prevalent in the Indie and downloadable space, art styles have become an interesting way to attribute a new “feel” and attitude to a game. So when you turn on a game, consider what its visuals are like, and what it means to you. How does it enhance the game? How does it make the game feel? Your answer might surprise you.