Good Art Director! Have a Creme Egg!

Most visually creative people know this, a lot of consumers probably subconsciously understand this, but for most manager-types it is still a mystery: good art direction will always triumph over raw processing power. Good art direction is what made Mario Galaxy achieve a lot more on less horsepower than most games do on more powerful consoles. A strong visual design is key to most successful, visually speaking, games, and yet it is still in its infancy in our industry. All too often a style guide is a series of grunge textures and some RGB values for different shades of brown and gray and, if there was a pre-production period, a series of photos of real-life locations. But of course there are some games out there that get it right, in my humble opinion, and Japanmanship, I, hereby award the art directors responsible for the following visual feasts with a Creme Egg*!

Mirror's Edge
DICE's latest offering, only available as a gameplay trailer right now, slapped me in the face hard with its stark, simple yet nicely designed visuals. The heroine, a game designer's version of an ideal Asian girlfriend, runs around a clean, white city with nice blue shadows and aims at brightly coloured visual cues to perform her free-running tricks. The effect is beautiful. Any artist who hasn't secretly enjoyed a MentalRay rendering of an untextured scene with the "physical sky" option turned on is no real artist at heart. Blue shadows on a white environment just simply looks nice, and the bright reds and oranges really stand out. DICE must be congratulated for such a bold visual style in a genre that would seemingly have demanded, from the publisher's side, a gritty, real "urban" sprawl, with dirt and graffiti and rusty iron fences. Similarly, EA, so often and unfairly painted as the industry's S.P.E.C.T.R.E. super villain, should be patted on the back by going along with this vision. The game will have a lot to prove in the gameplay department, but I for one am interested simply for it daring to look different.

Diablo 3
Richer than Midas, Blizzard can afford good artists and art directors and the recent footage of the highly anticipated (by me included) Diablo 3 shows, yet again, that they are masters of a simple yet arresting visual style that doesn't rely on a billion polygons. The footage shows a very strong sense of colour and form, yet if you zoom in on the screenshots you'll find there isn't much there. The overall effect is a pleasant, coherent and readable environment that is very pleasing to the eye.
Of course, a vocal minority of idiots decided the art direction is pap, citing anything coloured more brightly than gray is simply unacceptable. I have the utmost confidence that Blizzard will ignore these dolts, as they should, and stick with this wonderful, fantastical and vibrant style that will help make Diablo 3 even more bleedin’ addictive than the time-sink predecessors I have wasted so much of my life on.

Castle Crashers
Real cartoon-style games often look, well, rubbish. They end up a hotchpotch of clunky 3D characters with exaggerated proportions that contrast badly with the webcomic-quality cutscenes; it’s all a bit sad. And then there is Castle Crashers.
I suppose this game shouldn’t be included on the list, as the art was created by a single person, so directing doesn’t come into it, strictly speaking. But the overall visual style of this game, apparently polished beyond Alien Hominid standards, is awesome. There is more life in those creatures than most normalmapped, high-poly characters we see and ignore so often in your average triple-A blockbuster.

Dyson
And on the complete opposite side of the spectrum I enjoy this little strategy game’s subdued simplicity. It shows that simple visuals can be beautiful, but more importantly, that they are functional. This is something we often forget, where visuals are overcomplicated and obstruct the actual experience of the game. Not so Dyson, which conjures up an entire universe, or asteroid belt at least, with the simplest of graphics. As artists with immense processing power at our behest, we often forget that less is, more often than not, more, much much more. This title proves that beyond any doubt.

I, for one, am growing weary of the supposed photo-realism or the high-contrast shadowing that make so many video games not only unplayable but, if we’re honest, ugly as sin. Good art direction isn’t easy, that is a fact, and it’s not always what the customer seems to want, sadly, but whenever there is real talent laying down a style, backed up by skilled artists to bring that vision to reality the effect is an amazing visual feast. It’s worth investing time and effort into. The titles mentioned above are just a few of the games I, as an artist, am excited about. So far only the last one is available to play, but I am highly anticipating the other titles and have already penciled them in on my “immediate impulse purchase” list.

* Creme Eggs not included!

15 comments:

  1. great post..this seems to be something that allot of these 50-60% games seem to lack.
    they invest development time, they praise their water effects or their one USP (aka drug use in haze) but they look alike, often animate bad and will be forgotten 3 months after they came out.

    i wonder if its because their producers are afraid to do something bold?
    is it because they don't want to take risks?
    TF2 showed that i can be done, art style and game play molted into something great.

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  2. Don't forget the entire Clover catalog. All their games looked unique and all where a blast to play.

    Mirror's Edge looks great. With a name like that I want to see some reflection of the characters in those shiny buildings though. This is a technical issue not an art direction one, I know. It's just that in the trailer she glides down than she faces some mirror windows with reflections of the surrounding building but no reflection of the player. You're right if you think this is just nitpicking, it is really. But it gave me the feeling that she wasn't really in that world. Does that makes sense?

    That Diablo 3 petition is laughable.

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  3. Mirrors Edge just blew me away (with a strong minty gust!) after seeing the trailer. It's sad that games are becoming so monochromatic.

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  4. Where cartoon graphics are concerned the new Wario game looks to hit that nail firmly on the head...then perhaps shake it with a wii-mote

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-EHzxCeg6fo

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  5. Remo, a new gameplay movie actually shows the player hanging on a helicopter, reflecting in the windows. Looks awesome.

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  6. Tadashi: I saw that chopper part too. Seems I opened my mouth too early. it won't happen again.

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  7. Hi,
    I posted an article about art direction vs technology aswell on my blog. Please have a look, http://gamedesignrants.blogspot.com/

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