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The Aesthetics of Game Art and Game Design

January 30, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 5 of 6 Next


The pathways within an environment -- just like the pathways in a park, or pavements in a city -- can readily be reduced to systems of lines. The shape of a path has a strong physical and emotional influence, which is the reason why pathways in parks tend to have leisurely curving shapes, for instance.

Journey (2012), thatgamecompany

Journey's opening level has no explicit pathways whatsoever. We can fittingly apply the concept of an open canvas to this level, if you imagine the character as the tip of a pencil or paintbrush. What the designers have done is to give players the freedom to draw their way through the environment in any way they wish.

However, the lines that players are able to draw have been restricted to one style that fits the aesthetic experience -- with delicate gestures of the character, which we explored in the previous section on character animation.

The pathways in Journey become more explicit and constrained as the narrative drops to the darker, moodier mid-point of the game -- thus creating an abstract narrative of freedom versus confinement.

Halo 4 (2012), 343 Industries

We already looked at how Master Chief's movements and in-game camera distinguish themselves from the aggressive movements of Gears of War. Games in the Halo franchise further differ themselves from many other first person shooters because they often feature rounded and organic pathways. We know from previous examples that rounded lines have a gentler aesthetic quality -- aligning themselves with the composition lines in Vermeer's Diana and Her Companions.

Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP (2011), Capybara Games

Moving along the shape spectrum of emotions we come to the straight upright and horizontal lines found in Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP . Although conflict does feature in S:S&S EP, the game has a very tranquil aesthetic generated through a sensitive choice of environment shapes.

Imagine how dynamic the game would visually appear if all the trees in S:S&S EP were titled to one side, creating a chevron effect on account of the reflection in the water. As it stands, the game's sense of tranquility is, in part, created by the verticality of the background, and the horizontal and vertical pathways along which the character travels. For comparison, think back to vertical lines of Piero della Francesca's The Baptism of Christ, in the earlier section on classical composition.

Gears of War, Epic Games

If we make an environment's pathways angular, the visual and interactive experience instantly becomes more aggressive -- an aesthetic quality perfectly suited to the Gears of War franchise. Take a moment to consider how the pathways in the three-dimensional environment above reflect the angular composition lines in Massacre of the Innocents by Rubens.

We've now examined the four aspects of dynamic composition that relate to the on-screen visuals of a video game. Collectively, these conceptual tools give us more control over a game's aesthetic experience, and allow us to create complex narratives. Before applying these techniques to game design, we'll examine an aspect of video game aesthetics that is fairly unique to the medium as it relates to interactivity, which creates a form of artistic collaboration between a game's designers and the players.

Player Gestures

The elements of dynamic composition that we've explored up till now have been restricted to visual images on screen -- images that respond to the player's inputs. Therefore, to fully appreciate the aesthetics of video games we must also consider the performance role of the player, which is closely aligned to that of the artist.

Motion controllers are particularly useful at illustrating the player's artistic involvement in video games. Motion controllers include Microsoft's Kinect, Sony's PlayStation Move, and Nintendo's Wii, and any input that allows players to control on-screen elements using physical gestures.

Motion control mechanics that go beyond fitness and washing games are grossly underdeveloped, because their applied potential is massive. Never before has the role of the audience/player been so closely aligned to that of the artist/game designer. Consider the following analogy:

Every traditional painting was constructed by an artist using various combinations of lines and shapes. Each line placed on the canvas required a physical gesture from the artist, which changed depending on whether the line was soft and delicate, or aggressive. Viewers of the artwork would then passively respond to the artist's aesthetic choices and brushwork by exploring the artwork visually.

The same is true of video games -- only the lines and shapes in video games are represented as dynamic elements, such as the jump arc of a character. The player responds to these on-screen shapes in much the same manor as if they were looking at a painting. However, video games go one step further: upon creating a video game, the game's designers give creative control to the player through interaction, allowing players to experience the very same sensations that a traditional artist would feel when painting.

To experience these artistic gestures, compare the differing control sensations for two games that use Nintendo's Wii Remote: Mario Kart Wii and Tron: Evolution. Mario Kart Wii's vehicle handling is more forgiving than Tron's Light Cycles, which reference the abrupt turns seen in the original Disney movie. The video above features both games, although I recommend actually playing them to fully appreciate the effect.

The softer animations and tracks of Mario Kart Wii have the player tilting the controller using gentler physical gestures. The abrupt handling of Tron's Light Cycles means that players must use corresponding physical gestures to control the vehicles.

This linking of on-screen animations directly to the player's physical gestures is an interaction unique to video games. My favorite metaphor for this artistic collaboration -- and one that I'm applying to one of my current video game projects -- is that of the player as music conductor.

In this metaphor, the orchestra playing a scripted piece of music represents a video game experience created by a team of designers (the composers). The player (music conductor) activates the music, feeds it impulses, while responding to the music physically and emotionally.

Imagine yourself a music conductor waving a conductor's baton while listening to the three songs in the above video. What type of gestures would you make to conduct each piece of music? The gestures you create are closely related to the type of gestures that players can be prompted to perform when playing video games using motion controllers.

Music, just like visual images, can be conceptually reduced to circles, squares, and triangles. Each song and corresponding music conductor's gesture creates different aesthetic sensations in the player. This combining of aesthetic elements allows us to re-imagine video games, such as Super Mario Bros., and conceptualize the jump arcs of Mario as a melody that could be controlled with a motion controller.

Now that we have a good overview of video game aesthetics -- including character shape, character animations, environment shape, and pathways -- and the player's role in the dynamic artwork, we can go about applying our knowledge to aesthetic game design, and explore the possibilities of stronger collaborations between artists and game designers.

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Amir Ebrahimi
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@Solarski - I appreciate the thoughtful dive into the aesthetics of games that you have shared; drawing from other forms. Having a software engineering background, this was insightful for me!

t b
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Thanks for the great article, nice use of classical works. I was particularly inspired by morf - I am curious if you experimented with the avatar being made of triangles or squares (or a dissonant combination) and how that might affect the player behavior.

Jeanne Burch
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Fantastic article. I plan on forwarding the URL for this to several of my colleagues!

Michael Silverman
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This article was really interesting!

Arturo Nereu
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Amazing article, thanks for sharing!

About MORF, it is a very nice experiment, I only think that all the jumping and movement could also be modified depending on the level you are at ... or does this happens? I didn´t notice the change.


Chris Solarski
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Thanks for all the nice feedback!

In answer to your questions:

tb: Nope, I only experimented with the strongest shape contrasts—the circle and triangle.

Arturo Nereu: The only shape change that happens is between level 1 and 2, where the environment shifts from circles to triangles.

In answer to both your questions, I'll be exploring other shapes and dynamic changes in my up-coming video game projects—particularly an iPhone/Android game that will be released sometime this year. No specific date set.

Thanks again!

Colin Poh
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I super like this. Thanks.

Alex Casper Cline
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Thanks, really useful. Hope to check out your book soon!

Rob Allegretti
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Really good information, and an interesting read. Thanks!

William Collins
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An article of this type on the use of color would be great! Some of these concepts almost seem innate, yet I would've never been able to describe why had you not wrote about it. Very good preview of your book, which I've just added to my wishlist on Amazon.

Nick Harris
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Given that you have explored the aesthetics of three of the PlayStation's face buttons, what about X?

Garret Cashman
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Thanks for the very interesting article Chris.

Ignatus Zuk
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Such a basic concept, yet many of us never notice it.
Thank you for this article, it opened my eyes :)

B Marshall
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Wow thanks so much for posting this. Really helped me organize my thoughts conceptually and dynamically.
I think my workflow will be much better now.

Josh Foreman
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I enjoyed this. thanks.

Curtiss Murphy
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Fantastic. The take away was simple - circle, square, triangle. Now I know. Thanks you.

Jim Chen
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Great Article, learned a lot!

Jim Chen
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Great Article, learned a lot!

Quentin Thomas
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Wow! This article blew my mind. I must know more. Thank you Chris.

Lucas Torquato
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One great reading! It doesn't matter if you are programming or modeling, the teaching in this article are well suited for all professionals in the game industry