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

April 17, 2006 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 2


A New Set of Categories

So my findings seem all to fit into one of three categories. I have suggested names for them according to their relationship with realism, which is sort of our ground zero in art.

  • Enhanced Realism
  • Simplified Realism
  • Distorted Realism
  • Different combinations of the above...

Enhanced Realism

Let's start with enhanced realism. For this category I found the following to be true:

  • Proportions and details kept realistic
  • Increased contrast between light and shadow
  • Increased color saturation


Here is a prime example of enhanced realism. The proportions of the anatomy, and between the anatomy and the level of details here are well in line with what you would associate with realism. But color wise the work is not realistic. The contrast and the saturation have been enhanced significantly, giving the image its crisp and lively style. That level of saturation in the green skin could never be found in a red-blooded animal, since the light of the underlying blood vessels would cancel out the color of the almost complimentary green color of the skin.

Furthermore, the contrast has been increased as well. In our world where light continuously bounces off reflective surfaces you would never see shadows quite so dark. But apart from those two areas, the texture and proportions are well within what you can expect from realism in terms of proportions and level of detail.


Here is another example of enhanced realism in a much more modest setting, technologically speaking. But still within the limits of the polygon counts and texture resolutions, the proportions are not far from what you will find in nature, and the only major differences between this and realism is again saturated colours and increased contrast – the classic artistic tools of the enhanced realism style.

Simplified Realism

Simplified realism, on the other hand, takes a different approach. Instead of merely furthering the trajectory of realism beyond its bounds, it scales it back. The essence of simplified realism is:

  • Increased contrast
  • Increased saturation
  • Fewer and distortedly large details
  • Color ranges, patterns and shapes simplified to clichés


Here is an image from Animal Crossing that illustrates simplified realism fairly well. While it is not the only technique used here, it is dominant. Notice how patterns and colors have been simplified into easily recognizable clichés. Color ranges and gradients are simplified down to very few colors or even one flat shade. The leaves on the trees are shaped approximately like a normal leaf would be in real life, but there are much fewer of them, and their outline is much more simple compared to a real leaf. The grass and the water have been simplified into simple patterns, which together with their placement and color tell us what materials are portrayed here.


Another example, Mojib Ribbon, can seem completely abstract, but at its heart, is essentially another example of simplified realism, albeit at a very extreme level. It uses the artistic tools of simplifying real objects down to their last recognizable denominator, which often is just a simple outline, as well as using color fields with very few tones. And of course. the range between the lows and highs of values gives the images an overall high contrast.

Distorted Realism

Whereas enhanced realism builds on top of realism, and simplified realism scales realism back a few notches, distorted realism takes a different approach.

  • Shapes and internal proportions are violently distorted
  • Increased contrast
  • Increased saturation

Psychonauts is a good example of distorted realism. The shape, colors and the textures of the objects are like nothing you would find on similar objects in the real world. This gives the art style a near abstract feel, as well as imbuing the image with a magical and whimsical quality.


The shapes of the character and the environments are elongated beyond anatomical and physical practicality. Essentially they take root in real shapes; The characters don't have 3 elbow joints per arm but the shapes are stretched, shortened, twisted and curled out of proportion.


Although not strictly computer-generated imagery, this scene from Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas illustrates well another take on distorted realism. The houses have walls, roofs and windows as any normal house would have, but the shapes are out of all proportion. Also notice how details which would be relatively the same size or thickness in real life can exist side by side with one being paper thin and the other incredibly thick and full.


  • We've managed to break the category ”cartoony” into smaller, more precise and more manageable chunks
  • We have paired up these styles with very concrete artistic effects
  • We are (hopefully) better equipped to precisely produce our own ”cartoony” art, or consistently mimic a certain style, than with Scott McCloud's and Owen Demers' matrices



Article Start Previous Page 2 of 2

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