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Opinion: I Want Ugly

Opinion: I Want Ugly

April 27, 2011 | By Eddie Cameron

April 27, 2011 | By Eddie Cameron
More: Console/PC, Indie, Art

[Indie developer Eddie Cameron discusses the problems with modern game aesthetics, in this #altdevblogaday-reprinted opinion piece.]

One problem Iíve found with working with games all the time is that Iíve become jaded and even bored by many releases. My brain is so tired of seeing screenshots I donít even register them anymore.

Below is a picture from Skyrim of a lovely young lady in a shop, followed by a picture from Oblivion of a lovely young lady in a shop. Iím not complaining about the subjects being more than similar, Iím complaining because theyíre both pretty.

They all are. Everything glistens, everything reflects the fading ochre of sunset, and every tree model has thousands of leaves that rustle softly in the breeze. I just donít care anymore.

Essentially, we know how to make astonishing engines with beautiful lighting effects, but aesthetically we just keep falling back on some impossible quest for "reality."

This seems like a problem with AAA games only, no one else can really afford assets that even hint at realism. But, since these have all the publicity, most people see games as looking like bad animated films.

I groaned every time I saw an in-engine Halo ad; it just looks terrible out of context. It also gives the false impression that to make successful games you have to aim for photorealism. And so we get countless overambitious, unfinished mods and indie projects. Not exactly an encouragement to get involved in game-making.


More importantly, emulating the real world rather limits what you can express visually. Yes, you can bend the look of things with lighting, color, and the like, but it still cuts out a whole lot of aesthetic possibilities.

When you can choose any look you want you can represent things more abstractly, leading to a wider range of visual expression. Similar to the expressionist art movement and others of the time, if we overcome our self imposed rules of attempted photo-realism, we gain a powerful method of conveying emotions and meaning.

Games used to use abstract visuals out of necessity, and often todayís indie titles have to (or choose to) use them as well. But games like Sword & Sworcery EP, Darwinia and Braid make the most out of their non-realism, and exceed what could have been shown otherwise.

Sword & Sworcery EP not only uses minimalist pixel art in the characters and foes, but takes abstraction even further by having literal symbols for enemies, in the form of glowing triangles. Cleverly using a gamerís attachment to symbols, these triangles managed to say a whole lot about themselves without any dialogue.

It all sounds rather negative. I donít disapprove of advancing graphics in video games, quite the opposite. I just feel that the technology is wasted by not being used to its expressive potential.

[This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]

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