Content May Be Graphic – Series Conspectus
A look at design-evolution across video games and film
An introduction to our look at the graphic design, presentation, artistic rendering, and evolution of the digital artforms of video games and film, with an additional focus on the visual continuity between various cross-media brands and products.
Since their inception, video games have been intrinsically tied to their graphic art. Being a collaborative art form, games have changed popular culture and the way we view art as a whole. While there is a plethora of modern games that one can point to for stunning visuals and amazing detail, this is not the be all end all in games. In fact, being overly focused on form without regard to function often makes game titles worse, not better.
Apart from being visually appealing, graphics need to interact in a coherent way. If a character has limbs, they need to move in an expected way. If there is a door that can be opened to enter another room then it should function like a normal door would. This may seem obvious, but many games can get even those things wrong when considering applying a texture or animation into a virtual environment. Layered onto this is the title’s interface — HUD, menus and so on — the functionality of which can make or break any game.
As we dig into this series, we’re going to be looking at all of those things across many genres of video games, as well as across many different eras of graphic technology, to observe how the decisions of the art design and game play interactions work, be they fantastically well or mediocre. We’ll also see how the first games influenced the next generation, and how that generation affected the next, and so on, in terms of art design and game mechanics that interact with them. Early titles not only set the examples for what could be achieved with the technologies of the day, but also the basic genres of games as we know them. Platformers, roleplaying games, first-person shooters, racing games, adventure games, puzzle games – each of these had its originator, the so-called first of its kind that set up the trends for every title after it to follow, innovate, or ignore. I put “first” in air quotes here because the games that actually came first are before the era of gaming that I’ll be diving into in these articles. Home consoles like the Atari 2600 or the Intellevision are before my time. While I have experienced them briefly, I don’t think they hold a weighty relevance to what we’ll be looking at. I may mention a few of these older titles in reference to newer ones, but there are so few of these games that are iconic that skipping over most of them doesn’t take too much away from our explorations here. With that out of the way, lets discuss what goes into these designs and point out a few examples, so you know what to expect.
The Hero: Sprites, Animations, and Detail
Naturally, one of the biggest art design challenges is the hero. The main character needs to be someone or something that is relatable, easily recognized, and responds to controls and commands in an expected way. Looking at the games of today, one might think this has always been easy to achieve. However, even in some modern game titles there are shortfalls in this category.
If you start playing a game that has 16-bit sprites, what level of detail do you expect in their movements? Think of your favorite Super Nintendo game. Were its frames very smooth? Were there any animation issues? Did the hero look cool and do cool things? Let’s say you start up the original Sonic the Hedgehog [ 1 ] for the first time in a long time, do the sprites still look good to you? Sonic’s animations are very smooth, to be sure, but are they conveying the right information? These are all thoughts that must go into a design for a character model or sprite. You want that sprite or model to stand the test of time, so that any player from any era could pick this game up and understand what they are doing. Even the lowly 8-bit models of Super Mario [ 2 ] or Mega Man [ 3 ] had to be carefully constructed. If you say, “We want Mario to jump,” okay, what does that look like in 8 bits? Well, we know the answer — it looks like a single sprite frame that bounces upwards, but also carries momentum from any previous movement before the jump occurred. Let’s say it’s Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past [ 4 ], and you’re overseeing animating Link’s sprites for his sword attacks. What do you want that to look like? You’ve got 16 whole bits now, so surely it should have more than one frame to it, right? Do you add a wind-up animation to make it a timing-oriented attack? Just how complicated is a sword swing anyhow? This is a deluge of questions, but these represent only a fraction of what a sprite or model animator might ask about what they are creating. Not only do they ask these questions, but they will go through several iterations of these animations and designs before anything is finalized. As gaming technology expanded, the standards for these designs and animations only got higher. Just look at the character models in a game like Skyrim [ 5 ]. Despite its 2011 debut, that game’s models still look gorgeous and function so smoothly it can still contend with any of the more recent triple-A titles.
When a game’s sprite or character models have problems, you notice them. Sometimes it’s a subtle thing, like a missing frame of animation that would tie the action together, but without it makes the action seem a bit… off. Some are more obvious, like a tearing glitch in a 3-D model that causes it to look disjointed, or a 16-bit sprite that suddenly starts to “fall” down the screen in an endless loop. Hopefully, you don’t end up playing a game with such major issues, but even minor ones like a missing frame can create a sense of wrongness in the gameplay. Unresponsive controls also factor in: if Super Mario’s controls weren’t as good as they were, that game would have very likely gone nowhere. In fact, the entire Mario franchise has been consistent with its excellent control schemes. It’s hard to imagine a gaming world where Mario didn’t run, jump, and shoot fireballs with such grace.
Game Interface and Visual Information
The next piece of the puzzle is the ways in which the game interface informs the player, how well that interface is understood, and its overall artistic design. This includes things like the Heads Up Display (HUD), menus, and potentially some special effects.
So, you pause your game, what happens? Usually, a screen comes up to let you know you’re paused, but not always. Sometimes, it’s just the word “PAUSED” in the center of the screen. Other times, nothing happens at all, apart from the game freezing in place. Maybe the Pause button also brings up the regular menu. Which of these is the best method? Hard to say, but there’s no real right or wrong answer here when it comes to a Pause Game interface — except the one where nothing happens, that’s just bad. If a game has a Pause function, it should inform the player that the game is, indeed, paused. What about those menus that the pause screen might have? Is it the main menu? Is it a sub-menu for your character? Or does the pause screen display something else, like your current score? Again, there’s no right answer here. How a designer creates the functionality of their menus is usually dependent on game content. In some games, it makes a lot of sense to have the pause button also bring up a menu of some kind, be it the main menu or the character inventory. In other games, you don’t need those menus, and just the function of pausing the game will do.
A HUD is an obvious part of many game interfaces, containing the most relevant information for the player/s to observe. How much health remains, how much mana, how many extra lives, amount of gold, high score, affliction status, and much more can be featured in the HUD. The usual design challenge is to simplify the relevant information into an easily understood format, while also not cluttering screen space. A developer of these game assets might ask: Does the player’s character have a Life Bar? What does that look like? If you are playing an action game with a “living” hero, it might look red, to represent blood or vitality. But what if your hero character is a sentient robot? You could instead have a life bar that looks like chunks of metallic armor, or high-tech shielding. The visualization of something like a life bar should represent something relevant to the game at hand. In a game like Diablo [ 6 ], the character’s hit points are represented in a glass orb held by a demon, which is filled red, presumably with blood, when a character is healthy, and depletes as they take damage. In a game like Street Fighter 2 [ 7 ], a health bar is just a simple, horizontal bar that starts full and decreases the more damage is taken. These are the kinds of visual approaches that will manifest in a HUD due to different genres or functions. Do they have swappable equipment or abilities, and should that also be displayed? Is this a game where we need a mini-map display? Some titles can overload the HUD with information, while others show as little as possible. In general, it’s best to have as open a screen as one can, because the interface art is usually only a small part of what is going on.
So that’s functionality, but what about style? Can your game fit a fancy menu logo on 8 bits? Could it do it with 16 or 32? Do you want the menu to be animated or static? What is this menu telling you at a glance? Is this menu necessary at all? These thoughts and more go into the stylization of various game menus. Players of more modern titles enjoy a plethora of stylized menu screens. Looking at something like Persona 5’s [ 8 ] cartoon serial styled interface is quite a stark contrast from the old days. The menus of a game like the NES Legend of Zelda were incredibly bare bones. They did their jobs, informing the player immediately as to what resources they had at their disposal, but they didn’t have any fancy frills [ 9 ]. This doesn’t make the menus of Legend of Zelda strictly worse than Persona 5, because both have the functionality they need to get the job done. But, if you have modern hardware, why not jazz things up a bit? Hard to think of a reason not to.
Environment: Maps, Levels, Stages
No game is complete without a world to explore. From the lowly side scroller to the fully three-dimensional sandbox, each game world needs to look and feel consistent. Each stage or map piece needs careful design and planning to make it worth playing through. It needs to feel rewarding to get through a level of a side scroller, or to find a secret treasure hidden in some corner of an open world map. It doesn’t hurt for these locations to look good, either.
There are many tools that can be used to create these game worlds, but regardless of which is chosen, a title is nothing without a map or stage. There are many games that feature no combat, little or no conflict, maybe even no real player avatar, but they do almost always have a stage. When designing any stage, you want to know what purpose that piece of the game world will serve. If we’re talking RPGs, locations like villages or towns usually act as a hub for the player to go to, gathering up quests, equipment, party members and so on.
A platformer or adventure game may also have a few hubs in this fashion for finding new missions or equipment upgrades. A well-designed hub area needs to have its key locations clearly marked — no one wants to wander around a town for hours trying to find one item vendor or quest giver; they want to get on with the game! It should also have a relatively simple layout, so a player doesn’t become lost. You’d be surprised at how many games can get something this simple wrong. Thankfully, most of them get it right. On the converse side, if your game stage or map contains a puzzle to be solved, then you don’t want the player to breeze through it. You need to have clues or pieces to this puzzle scattered throughout the map for the player to discover. Perhaps you add in a clever riddle or other word trick to lead the player in the right, or possible wrong, direction. Yes, even a red herring is valid to place in a puzzle map, though chances are you will be hated for it.
I mentioned consistency before, and it’s equally as important as functionality. If your first game stage is something like a cityscape, you wouldn’t want to have a screen abruptly transition into a jungle — it would make no sense. Every game world needs a clear mapping plan to avoid these kinds of pitfalls. Again, that might seem obvious, but consider older game technologies. If you only have 8 bits to work with, you probably won’t be able to create epic, sweeping landscapes with seamless transitions into one another. A lazy designer may be tempted to cheat and make that city give way to a jungle without an actual, clear transition. It takes a bit of imagination and creativity to transform that kind of vision and pack it into a tiny NES cartridge. Looking at a game like Final Fantasy [ 10 ], and how well it handled having a somewhat large game world is even more inspiring when you consider that.
There are many examples of game maps that are lackluster in the visual department, I’m sure anyone reading this can think of a least one travesty of pixels that they’d rather not tread through again, but having a bland looking map can be forgiven. Instead, think of a game you’ve played that had a stage you just hated — not because it was difficult, but because it seemed unfair. It’s likely that stage was poorly designed. There is a difference between hard and unfair, and many level designers skirt that line when trying to make something “difficult.” In any game I play, I don’t want to come to a map that frustrates me to no end, I’m playing a game to enjoy it, not to be angered by it (I’m looking at you, Water Temple).
So, what about how a stage looks, graphically speaking? Again, consistency is key. If your game has 16 bits, players know to expect a 2-dimensional or 2.5-dimensional look to your game maps. A 16-bit mountain doesn’t need to look like a picture-perfect recreation of Mount Everest; it just needs to get the idea across. However, if you are playing the latest and greatest in next-gen games, you are probably expecting a stunning amount of detail in the environments. Most modern gaming studios do quite well in this department, to the point that it has become an expected norm. We’d hardly call triple-A quality video games by that moniker without them having beautiful stage designs.
Enemies: The Average Goon and the End Boss
What’s a game without conflict? Well, as I mentioned, there are many games that don’t have direct violent conflict, and some with no conflict at all, but I digress. Many of the most popular video game titles include a whole bunch of bad guys to beat up, shoot, cut down, and otherwise destroy. From the visceral joy of cutting down a hundred foes in a grueling endurance round, to the relief of finally defeating that boss that you have been stuck on for days, a good foe is something many gamers crave. Naturally, a good villain needs good art design and also needs to be able to fight back. So, in those categories, what qualifies as a good foe, and furthermore, a good boss?
Think about some easily dispatched foes that you’ve faced in video games. Were any of them memorable? What among them sticks out to you? Maybe you’ve played a game like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time [ 11 ], and you’ve bashed your way through countless waves of Foot Clan ninjas. Did any of them smash you with a hammer? Blast you with a laser gun? Do you remember which color palettes of ninja corresponds to what weapon? This is the sort of thing I’ll be talking about when I look at regular game foes. Yes, there is an emphasis on graphics, but looking good is a subjective term. What bad guys look good in 8-, 16-, or 32-bit environments is going to vary, and of course the leap into 3-D is going to change a lot of things about how enemies function. Top-down or side-scrolling bad guys are only a threat on two or three axes of movement, whereas a fully 3-D environment gives even the most mundane mooks a lot more room to maneuver and possibly flank your hero. How well they move in their respective spaces is just as important as having a distinctive look to them. If you’re playing a game like Devil May Cry [ 12 ], even the regular foes are intended to be deadly horrors, forcing the player to think and act quickly as the various demons gang up on Dante. Contrast this with a game like Super Mario Brothers, where the regular baddies of Goombas and Koopa Troopas aren’t a big deal, except in large numbers. Mario can defeat most of these in one jump or fireball shot, and the average player only takes pause when it looks like they may take damage if they are too hasty.
It is much the same for boss fights. While not every game relies on having a “big bad” for the hero to ultimately defeat, boss battles are none the less a prevalent trope in gaming. In certain franchise titles, such as Mega Man [ 3 ], a boss fight at the end of a stage is the expected norm. That series would hardly be as fun and memorable as it is without the slew of Robot Master powers that Mega can obtain by defeating the stage bosses, turning the tide in his favor against the awesome powers that these robots use against him. Now, consider a game like Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell [ 13 ]. There isn’t a big bad boss for Sam Fisher to battle to the death, just a series of missions to take care of. It does, of course, have a central villain figure, but he’s just another man, albeit an ambitious one. He doesn’t come with special powers or weapons, just lots of resources at his disposal to try and stop Fisher before he unravels his entire plot. Games like Splinter Cell aren’t in need of a boss battle any more than a game like chess. The entirety of the game is designed to be a fun experience without them.
I hope this primer has given you a good idea of what to expect from these articles. While the format follows this basic formula, it does so on a game-by-game basis, to help avoid the need to jump around the pages too much. It is my sincere hope that you, the reader, find these articles informative as to the history and nature of art in gaming as a whole.
- “The spread of subject matter to cover can seem truly daunting. We’re going to take as strategic a slice as possible, with some brief side-quest focus on specific franchises, to give as granular a view as possible.” EmuMovies.com. (Assorted). 4 April 2022.
- “The evolution of graphics in gaming has significantly expanded user experience and player agency. We’re going to touch on that too, across a spread of different genres and styles.” EmuMovies.com. (Assorted). 4 April 2022.
A man of many talents, Clayton has worn several hats. His work focuses on visual mediums like film and gaming. A practiced martial artist and a graduate of Johnson and Wales University with a Bachelor’s in Graphic Design & New Media, he brings both tactile experience and academic credentials as measures of his considerable expertise. Clayton is both Manager of Steam-Funk’s core writing staff and part of the firm’s senior creative team, helping craft both The Living Multiverse and firm policy.
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- Steam Staff. “Devil May Cry HD Collection on Steam.” Welcome to Steam, Steam, store.steampowered.com/app/631510/Devil_May_Cry_HD_Collection. Accessed 23 December, 2019.
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