Campo Santo’s Jane Ng, Phosfiend Systems’ Richard Flanagan and Necrophone Games’ Luis Hernandez reveal why original art assets and a defining aesthetic style can count for more than polycounts and texture fidelity
If ‘a picture speaks a thousand words’ and ‘every frame is a painting’, a five-hour game running at 60 frames per second is worth 13 million words.
This may sound ridiculous, but it highlights the importance of perfecting your game’s aesthetic design; every object, texture and pixel should speak to the player.
That doesn’t just mean pushing tech to its limits. Rendering every pore on a character’s face is all very well, but distinctive and original visuals can often overcome any budgetary or technological limitations. For every digital Denis Peterson, there’s a virtual Picasso.
“On a practical level, a stylised look that emphasises the shapes and colours of the visuals let us build the world with only two or three people on the art side,” Campo Santo’s Jane Ng says of Firewatch’s crisp lines and vivid colours.
“We focused our efforts on the individual objects and locales that have a lot of narrative value. The forest serves as a backdrop and, as long as it provides the proper emotional backbone, it is actually better to not have a ton of visual noise.”
Another title to have made full use of sparing optics is Fract OSC. Daubed in gaudy neon, the rhythm puzzle game is reminiscent of the portrayal of virtual space in 1980s movies.
“Fract OSC’s visual style was inspired by early computer graphics and the quirks and beauty therein,” explains designer Richard Flanagan. “The original 1982 Tron was definitely an influence, along with early experiments in 3D graphics and computer interface design.
“It is virtually devoid of textures, both aesthetically and from a technical standpoint. While good texturing is a real talent and art form, it is quite simply something we didn’t need to spend time or money on. This aesthetic restriction helped inform a number of rules that would become our visual language and how information is communicated to the player.”
"As long as it provides an emotional backbone, it is actually better to not have a ton of visual noise."
Jane Ng, Campo Santo
Not every decision solely depends on the availability of resource. Necrophone Games’ Luis Hernandez says that Jazzpunk’s simplistic style – which resembles a combination of scrappy animation akin to South Park and the instruction manual wit of fellow comedy title Portal – arose from a desire to deliver the title’s many jokes cleanly.
“I was fascinated with idea of distilling the game world down to a set of abstract, yet immediately recognisable, iconic forms,” he recalls.
“I drew a lot of influence from the Isotype designer Gerd Arntz; everyone would be familiar with these pictographs from various road traffic and hazard signs, or the fairly universal Men and Women restroom symbols. I was studying this simplified, international visual language as a means of not having to manually create a photorealistic game world. By sticking with these forms of the style, I was able to maintain a fairly conservative polygon count, which freed up resources for a denser and more interactive game world.
“One of the biggest challenges I was constantly confronted with during development dealt with trying to walk a very fine line between creating an original style, while also trying to retain iconic elements of the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. Should I try to design something in a visually original and stylistically distinct way, or do I rely on the pre-established model of what those objects should look like?
"I ended up going with a bit of both; in one level I might reference a 1950s Eames chair directly, if it serves the idea of what a mid-century apartment should look like, or I might attempt a wholly original and bizarre chair design, if the locale allowed me some personal freedom.
“Ultimately, everything needed to be readable by a diverse audience, so for anything that was mission critical, I’d usually stick with the ideal platonic model of an object. If something was a bit more ancillary to player progression, this gave me much greater leeway in how I could exercise my stylisation experiments.”
Never before have developers had such a wealth of choice when it comes to making their ideas a reality. From CryEngine and Unreal to Unity and GameMaker, the barrier to knockout visuals is now a question of how, rather than what, artists use.
“Our tools are fairly unremarkable,” Hernandez says of Jazzpunk’s origins. “Just about all of the 2D work is hand-painted in Photoshop or Gimp. I had wanted to use Softimage for 3D modeling, but it was being phased out by Autodesk, so we ended up using Blender. Almost everything else was done in Unity.”
“Firewatch is built with the Unity Engine,” Ng echoes. “We built some proprietary Unity extensions to author our colour fog and procedural skies. We also used off-the-shelf Unity extensions such as Amplify Color and Marmoset Skyshop. Most of the 3D modeling work is done with Maya, and 2D work is done with Photoshop. We also used Zbrush for some sculpting work and Quixel’s NDO for normal map generation.”
Ng collaborated with illustrator Olly Moss, regarded for his use of bold hues and minimalist silhouettes. While Moss is a well-known name in the world of graphic design – he previously designed the boxart for PS3 exclusive Resistance 3 – Firewatch is the first game he has directly worked on.
“The trees were really difficult to nail down,” Ng says of the interplay between herself and Moss. “Olly had a very clear idea how we wanted the trees to look, and it took a long time and many revisions for the technical side to line up with the vision. Foliage in general is always a challenge because of their many layers of transparencies and the specific way you expect light to react to plants. In Firewatch there is the added challenge of having to make a large forest with some pretty far vistas, and that has to feel real but look stylised. We overcame the challenge by handmaking our own trees and shaders, not using any middleware, specifically for our needs over the span of a year.”
Moss’ involvement in Firewatch is just one example of other artistic mediums colliding with the world of games. The impact of movie, comics and literature is allowing developers to explore completely new avenues in the medium of interactive entertainment, with tools also bleeding across different media forms.
“Prior to games, my art-related experience came from graphic and motion design,” Flanagan reveals. “Tools like Illustrator, Cinema4D and AfterEffects employ some radically different approaches than conventional development solutions. These different methodologies can cause hiccups, but bringing different tools to the table can help make something truly unique.”
Yet, games don’t just have to be designed using the most bleeding-edge tools. Hernandez’s lo-fi development methods saw him move away from the keyboard and take a more hands-on approach – literally.
“I remember at one point, being frustrated with trying to plot out many of the 2D compositions with traditional vector software, ending up printing out lots of stencils for various geometric shapes onto paper stock and cutting them out with an X-Acto knife,” he recalls.
“Then I had tons of these cut-out shapes and could quickly arrange and re-arrange by hand on a giant board. This allowed me to work more intuitively with my hands, and I was able to map out more complex compositions that I could have in software.”
New mediums inside the realm of games are having just as transformative an effect on visual design as those outside. Most notably, virtual reality looks set to completely refresh developers’ understanding of how to approach the appearance of in-game assets.
“We’ve all become desensitised to many of the jarring inconsistencies that are present, in even the most realistic and cutting-edge games,” Hernandez criticises. “VR has a bad habit of snatching up these problems that we thought we’d solved as an industry and amplifying them. The idea that we can replicate a photorealistic work in VR is still quite far away.
“I’d wager the short-term success of VR will come from experiences that trade on its ability to create strange, surreal or stylised worlds, rather than attempts at photorealism.”
Flanagan agrees that VR will catalyse developers to squeeze the most out of their artistic ability.
“I suspect we’ll start to see less photorealistic games,” he predicts. “I see this adoption of stylised visuals as being the result of a few different factors: a deliberate design choice as designers become more confident in their creativity, a sizable technical consideration as achieving photoreal in VR is more computationally expensive, and a widening of the uncanny valley as VR evolves”
Like Flanagan, Ng sees the higher hardware needed to power headsets such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive as an agent for change when it comes to design sensibilities.
“A lot of techniques taken for granted in traditional game art behave very differently in VR space,” she observes. “For example, normal maps aren’t very believable close up in VR, and one’s approach to lighting has to totally change because lights and shadows are very expensive.”
"Bringing different tools to the table can help make something truly unique."
Richard Flanagan, Phosfiend Systems
It’s very easy to encourage devs to polish up their visuals but, as with all artistic efforts, much harder in practice. So, where exactly should you start?
“Use style to your production advantage,” Ng advises. “Prioritise and invest your production efforts in assets that will give you the most payoff in terms of player experience.”
She adds that veering off the well-trodden paths of game design can become much easier with the guidance of a completely new voice.
“Working with Olly has been great because a lot of us long-time specialised game artists can get stuck in what video games can look like,” she says of her own experience. “On one end you have people who are very focused on pushing what the newest shaders can do to make a game more ‘realistic’, and on the other you have people who are, for example, really enamored with how games used to look. On top of that, one also gets comfortable with certain ways of technical implementation – which funnels a game into a certain look as well.”
Hernandez suggests that more developers should consider the very appearance of their creation as just as necessary to innovate in as factors such as gameplay and narrative.
“It’s hard for me to decouple the idea of a game having a unique aesthetic, without the game itself having been conceived as a distinct, interactive experience,” he states. “I wouldn’t suggest throwing resources at a distinct visual style unless you intend to marry this with a fresh take on a genre or something equally outlandish and new. Otherwise, we’re back to throwing a fresh coat of paint onto the same old house.”
Flanagan reiterates that emphasising impactful style over technological substance ultimately results in art that pushes the industry forward.
“We could use a break from polygons, meshes and vertices,” he advises. “Parametric tools and engines would not only shake up the way we make our games look, but how we approach making them in general. I would just love to see some radically different approaches to content design, creation and implementation make their way into the tools and culture.”
Luis Hernandez, co-founder of Necrophone Games, reveals the musical origins behind Jazzpunk
“I distinctly remember the first night where I began sketching out the concept art for Jazzpunk.
"I was listening to some ‘hot’ latin jazz, and felt frustrated that I’d never seen a game that looked as colourful as this music sounded. So I grabbed a handful of the loudest markers I had on hand and started sketching to the music. It’s often quite hard for me to separate Jazzpunk’s visual language from its aural one.
“I would describe Jazzpunk’s style as Mid-Century cyberpunk; its visual language is a synthesis of styles from various places and artists. I’d always been incredibly impressed by the environmental density achieved in games like Jet Set Radio and Katamari Damacy. They depended on a very clever polygon economy and judicious use of texture real-estate, and managed to replicate the real feel of a sprawling Japanese metropolis.
“Urban density is a key component of a cyberpunk world, so I spent a lot of time researching how they pulled that off within their respective hardware and memory limitations.
“PaRappa the Rapper was another subtle influence, I liked the meshing of 2D sprites in 3D space, and the synesthesia created by its colourful world, and surreal musical style.”