how stylized art can heighten a game’s narrative

Learning from Picasso’s iconic art style

Photorealism in games can be really fun. Having characters and environments that look just like real life can help immerse you in a game’s world, and it can be exciting to see how graphics continue to improve year after year. But here’s the thing — I sometimes feel like we can obsess a bit too much over how real or not real a certain game’s art style is, picking apart every environment and every little detail on the character models.

I think back to the PS1 era, when people thought that the first Metal Gear game was as realistic-looking as they come. Players gushed about the immersion because of how lifelike it was. We laugh about it now, but anecdotes like that really speak to how much our minds fill in the gaps when it comes to storytelling, something I don’t think we give ourselves enough credit for these days.

Picasso’s philosophy

A thread I saw on Twitter the other day does an excellent job of starting a conversation about how different styles of art can be effective in different scenarios. The initial tweet is a meme about photorealistic versus stylized art, but it’s actually referencing a famous quote from the classical painter Pablo Picasso. You know, the guy famous for making everyone look like a bunch of colorful shapes. Picasso was prodigious from an early age, and could paint at a level that was basically photorealistic when he was still a young child. Of course, as he got older, he developed one of the most iconic art styles in history — one that many argue portrays human emotion better than photorealism ever could. As the quote goes: “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

Wait, isn’t Destructoid a video game website? Why are we talking about art history?

Well, I think that this point can also be applied to video games, too. Just like how in visual arts, many mark photorealism as the height of one’s skill as an artist, we tend to think the same of games. Realistic art can and has been used to great effect in games, but sometimes, having a really distinct art style can boost the game’s story and themes into the stratosphere.

Making ugly beautiful

A great example of this is NORCO, a narrative point-and-click that is so far my game of the year. While NORCO has some of the most beautiful pixel art I’ve ever seen, it also straddles the line of ugly/beautiful most of the time, while also leaning into the grotesque. Some of the characters look terrible (intentionally so), the environments are dingy and run down, and the whole thing just kind of gives you this sense of dread, like you want to get far, far, away from this place. And it’s amazing.

NORCO

Using a harsh, ugly art style works so well for this game, because it exactly mirrors what’s going on in the narrative. Those moments of beauty are contrasted against a landscape of bleak, sometimes horrifying pictures, which again ties beautifully into the moments of hope buried deep in the game’s plot. NORCO‘s art style is as much part of its storytelling as its characters or dialogue, and when developers use every part of a game to point toward a single artistic vision, well, that’s how we get some of the best games ever made.

Making cartoony serious

Another game that comes to mind is Firewatch — its art style is really beautiful, but also kind of cartoony. The game is full of bright, saturated colors, which show off the landscapes and sunsets really nicely. So much of the game is about nature and our enjoyment of it, so that aspect of the art ties into the story nicely.

Then there’s the fact that the game has a dramatic tonal shift, and suddenly the cartoonish nature of the art feels othering and uncanny. What was once pleasant and added a sense of ease at the start has turned into something that makes the darker subject matter of the latter part of the game somehow feel even more menacing. While Firewatch‘s art didn’t get nearly as much attention as its writing or voice acting, I do think it’s a key component in how we experienced its narrative.

The list of games with gorgeous but also effective art styles is endless. I could go on and on, but I think you get my point here.

Firewatch

Other art style considerations

On top of what a good, unique art style can add to a game’s experience, there’s also the fact that it makes both development and playing a game much simpler, and sometimes better. The more photorealistic we make our games, the longer it takes to perfect them (any slight deviation from real life suddenly veers us into the uncanny valley), the bigger the files get, and the more susceptible our games are to crashes and bugs. I’m a huge proponent of simpler being better sometimes, but I know not everyone shares that sentiment.

There’s a reason why most of the games that make bold choices when it comes to their art are indie games — it takes huge teams with tons of resources to make a game look photorealistic, and even the most monolithic of AAA studios can struggle with perfectly lifelike art sometimes. The limitations placed on indie studios have not held them back, but have instead propelled them forward into making some of the most stylish titles out there. My bias is showing again, but I never understood the push to turn games into the new Hollywood blockbuster when we can make pieces of art that look unlike anything anyone has ever seen before, regardless of medium.

I’m not saying that we can never have a photorealistic game again, or even that people don’t appreciate stylized art in games enough, because they certainly do. I just want to emphasize how important art can be in hammering home a game’s message, whatever that might look like, and I don’t want that to ever be discounted. Raphael and Picasso both have their merits, but I find Picasso a whole lot more fun to look at.


Story Beat is a weekly column discussing anything and everything to do with storytelling in video games.

Painting with pixels: how stylized art can heighten a game’s narrative

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