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Redefining 'Cartoony' Game Art
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Redefining 'Cartoony' Game Art

April 17, 2006 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

Why are we so obsessed with making game art more and more realistic? Is it really the only path worth pursuing? Why?

I say it all stems from an inferiority complex from our childhood! It originates from games' originating in technologies with very limited capabilities of visualization. For the first several decades, computer and video games had to settle for a cartoony and very unrealistic look, no matter what desires of the artists behind them.

I remember the first major breakthrough in realistic games visuals, which came back in 1986.

Rambo: First Blood 2 published by Ocean, had the most incredible looking loading screen. Even the mainstream was amazed. You'd never seen anything like it! Why, the look practically rivaled that of the original movie poster! You could actually make out the actor's face, muscle striations and what make of weapon he was holding. All of which was accomplished with some 10 different colors used over 320 x 200 pixels.

Left Rambo: First Blood 2 cover art; Right: Rambo: First Blood 2 title screen.

But if you remembered the original reference and concept, it was quite laughable. And once inside the game, the ”realism” was quickly ruined:


Limited to very few possible colors, the artists had to make do with garish combinations of green, purple, pink, black, and white. The best of the artists of that day strove to conjure up more believable colors by using color theory; placing a color next to another color that would draw out particular qualities from the original, and thus make it seem different from when placed next to a third color. Apparently the only way to tone down the fluorescent green into something somewhat believable in a nature setting was to put it next to the magenta or purple.

That kind of upbringing, with enforced limitations is bound to create a complex of sorts. We, as games artists, generally strive to reach as high a degree of realism as possible, before even contemplating any other artistic styles. Likewise, generally speaking, the game consumer will associate a realistic art style with cutting edge quality, and the stylized (for example cartoony) look with a product, which is either out of date or aimed at minors.

Please tell me, what is cartoony game art really?

I am going to demonstrate to you why the often-used term "cartoony" (in connection with game art) is very limiting, and why we need a more precise framework of terms to describe what we see, play, and make.

To use the term "cartoony" for these graphics is very limiting. This is a huge category where anything non-realistic is lumped into. It consists of several very distinct subcategories, which often have nothing in common, apart from not being realistic in nature.

What is the difference?

Without light there would be no color, no visual forms, no nothing. How light reacts with our world, and how we choose to describe that is the core of it all.

Light describes an object's shape, texture, color and other surface properties such as reflectiveness and translucency.

The difference is in how we use light to describe our world.

Essentially cartoony games graphics is all about what methods we use to describe light's interactions with the game world and its (the light's) properties.

So how do we go about that then? We need some tools...


Enter Scott McCloud's Picture Plane from the excellent book Understanding Comics – recommended by Will Wright himself. According to Scott McCloud ANY visuals can be contained in this triangle.

Here is a triangular space held between 3 vertices: Reality, abstraction and iconic.

So let's try it on for size with a select few games from the cartoony range:

1. Psychonauts 10.Katamari Damacy 19. Half Life 2: Lost Coast
2. XIII 11.Kameo 20.Evil Genius
3. Killer7 12.Gregory Horror Show 21.Unity
4. The Sims 13. Grabbed by the Ghoulies 22. Mojib Ribbon
5. Megaman X7 14. Rez 23. Auto Modellista
6. Worms 3D 15. Tetris 24. Beyond Good and Evil
7. Sudeki 16. Geometry Wars 2 25. Okami
8. Spellforce – The Order of Dawn 17. Gotcha Force 26. Animal Crossing
9. Maximo vs. The Army of Zin 18. Zork 17. Vib Ribbon

The three vertices are represented with Half Life 2: Lost Coast for near photorealism, Jeff Minter's Unity for almost complete abstraction, and Zork for the ultimate in iconic simplification, which is the written language according to Scott McCloud. However good the picture plane is at giving us a quick and rough estimate of an aesthetic style relative to other styles, it is of limited use when you want to look at what exactly makes a style look the way it does.

Although the cartoony, or non-photorealistic styles take up the majority of the matrix, they still comprise of several distinct categories, which have nothing to do with each other. Furthermore Scott McCloud's Picture Plane does little to explain the role of light and its properties in the game world. So we need to find something else...

In his excellent book Digital Texturing & Painting, Owen Demers tries to lock down artistic output into 6 categories of varying sizes:

  • Realistic – imitates the real world as a photograph does
  • Hyper-Real – deeper than reality; expresses the world like a microscope does
  • Stylized – a consistent personal interpretative journey
  • Simplified – only communicates the most important elements
  • Graphic – a stark, bold style void of shadows and details
  • Fantastic – diverging from reality and boldly going to any otherworldly place the imagination can take you

Some of the categories like "Stylized" are incredibly roomy, whereas "Hyper-Real" is incredibly narrow. Both hyper-real and graphic are graduations of other categories, respectively realistic and simplified. We this is closer to the practicing artist's point of view, I still want to break down the individual components of a certain look or style, so we can recreate exactly the style we want, easier and more precisely.


Still not satisfied, I went through buckets of visuals, dissecting and describing them as I went along. Patterns and trends emerged, and it seems to me that all the images, from Tetris and Rez to Auto Modellista and Gregory Horror Show, share the same basic visual make up.


  • Increased contrast
  • Increased saturation
  • Fewer and distortedly large details
  • Decreased levels of dirt, detritus and patina

In addition to that, they may or may not have a series of added characteristics.


  • Fewer colors in graduations and ranges
  • Abstract patterns or shapes used to illustrate normal objects
  • Objects or color fields are traced with dark lines
  • Shapes and internal proportions are violently distorted

Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

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