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The Aesthetics of Game Art and Game Design

January 30, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

What can we learn from the techniques of the Old Masters to help us create more varied and emotionally meaningful gaming experiences? And how must we go about adapting these classical art techniques when we add video gaming's unique element of interactivity?

To explore these questions, this article examines the psychology of shapes and dynamic composition, which are the focus of a series of talks I recently completed around North America (kindly supported by Gbanga, Swissnex, and the Swiss Arts Council, Pro Helvetia). I firmly believe that dynamic composition should be the topmost consideration for developers wishing to shape the emotional experience of their video games. Dynamic composition brings together several topics from my book -- Drawing Basics and Video Game Art: Classic to Cutting Edge Art Techniques for Winning Video Game Design -- and is chiefly composed of four elements:

  • Character shape
  • Character animations
  • Environment shapes
  • Pathways

Video games rely on the very same design principles -- perspective, form, value, etc. -- which classical artists employed to create the illusion that the television (or canvas) is a window into an imagined world. These design techniques also serve a second purpose equally applicable to game design, which is their aesthetic value, and application in visual narratives.

A better understanding of traditional art techniques, and video game aesthetics, will lead to richer gaming experiences, and may require a rethinking of established studio structures and the collaborative roles of game designers and artists. Because, as we'll see, making bridges between classical art and video games has implications for game designers too.

We'll explore how these elements work together aesthetically, and finish by applying the techniques learned to game design. But before diving into dynamic composition we'll take a quick look at the basic elements of composition (lines, shapes, and volumes); their psychological affects; and their application in classical painting and composition.

The Psychology of Lines, Shapes, and Volumes

The art world has changed drastically over the past hundred years with the coming of Modern Art. Prior to the 20th Century, artists would follow a tradition of craft and design practice, which had been steadily evolving for over 2000 years for the purpose of communicating pictorial stories. What Modern Art did was to clean the creative slate by deliberately breaking with tradition and classical art techniques. This had the invigorating effect of freeing artists to explore individual styles and new forms of self-expression.

We now find ourselves in a culture that appreciates that you and I will respond to art in different ways based on our unique life experiences -- experiences that inform the way in which we individually interpret and give meaning to the world around us. The inherent ambiguity concerning interpretation is largely responsible for what makes the creative process and art appreciation so mysterious and personal. However the aesthetics of art weren't always studied from this perspective alone. Classical paintings had a definite purpose -- particularly in the context of religious paintings -- and were therefore crafted using design techniques that have a timeless psychological basis, and are therefore easier to define.

As video game designers it's important that we appreciate both modern and classical standpoints on aesthetics, although classical techniques are of more practical benefit to us as artists and designers. We can begin by examining the root of visual design, in the form lines, shapes, and volumes.

Because reality is so visually complex, professional artists conceptually reduce objects to simple lines, shapes, and volumes, to simplify the task of rendering reality. This abstraction is something that is familiar to 3D digital artists working in such programs as Maya or 3ds Max, where each object -- whether it's a figure, an environment, or a prop -- will start its life as a primitive shape. Aside from the practical benefit of simplification, these shapes have been consistently associated with the following aesthetic concepts throughout art history:

  • Circle: innocence, youth, energy, femininity
  • Square: maturity, stability, balance, stubbornness
  • Triangle: aggression, masculinity, force

Why we associate these shapes with their corresponding aesthetic concepts has to do with our real-life experiences, and the sense of touch. As kids, much of how we understand the world around us is first learned through touch. By feeling our way around and comparing textures, we quickly develop a mental shorthand for visually assessing the general characteristics of objects based on experience.

Picture the above three wooden objects -- the sphere, cube, and star -- placed on a table. Now imagine shaking that table. The round sphere would begin rolling around -- demonstrating its dynamic properties -- while the cube would stay in place. Now imagine somebody throwing the sphere and star towards you for you to catch. You'd instinctively hesitate to catch the star, even if you knew it wouldn't harm you, based on your learned response to sharp objects, in contrast to soft and round shapes.

Note that a curved line can be represented as a circular shape, or spherical volume; a straight upright or horizontal line, as a square, or cube; and an angular line as a triangle, or pyramid. [For convenience, I will refer to each group by its shape].

Click for larger version.

As artists, we take advantage of our audience's real-life experiences and the sense of touch, and incorporate these concepts (often intuitively) into our artwork. See for yourself in the above illustration how, irrespective of the design discipline, the circle, square, and triangle, have been respectively integrated (from left to right) into logos, architecture design, decorative pavements, and vehicle designs.

The dynamic curves of Disney's logo, which references the circle, are echoed in the curved pattern of a beachside promenade -- encouraging us to visually and physically experience the objects in a dynamic way.

The upright lines of the square give us a sense of stability in the form of pillars fronting the National Gallery in London; and echoed in the straight lines of the Range Rover, designed to elicit feelings of safety, and sophistication.

While the edgy triangle is embedded in the logo of thrash metal band, Anthrax; as well as Frederic C. Hamilton building in Denver, USA; and the aggressively sporty lines of the Lamborghini.

Try to imagine how each object would look if you were to switch shape concepts so that, for instance, the Disney logo was based on the angularity of the Anthrax logo -- a shape concept completely inappropriate for the brand.

These psychological associations with primary shapes allow us to orientate them along a shape spectrum of emotions, against which characters and objects can be measured.

The shape spectrum of emotions should NOT be used as a design formula -- but as a conceptual tool to assess artwork and identify problem areas.

The psychological basis of these shapes means that they are a timeless feature of art, allowing us to find relationships between seemingly disparate artworks, and better understand the aesthetics of video games. Let's take a look at how these basic shapes have been used in classical art to influence the viewer's emotions.

Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

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Game Designer


Amir Ebrahimi
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@Solarski - I appreciate the thoughtful dive into the aesthetics of games that you have shared; drawing from other forms. Having a software engineering background, this was insightful for me!

t b
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Thanks for the great article, nice use of classical works. I was particularly inspired by morf - I am curious if you experimented with the avatar being made of triangles or squares (or a dissonant combination) and how that might affect the player behavior.

Jeanne Burch
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Fantastic article. I plan on forwarding the URL for this to several of my colleagues!

Michael Silverman
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This article was really interesting!

Arturo Nereu
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Amazing article, thanks for sharing!

About MORF, it is a very nice experiment, I only think that all the jumping and movement could also be modified depending on the level you are at ... or does this happens? I didn´t notice the change.


Chris Solarski
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Thanks for all the nice feedback!

In answer to your questions:

tb: Nope, I only experimented with the strongest shape contrasts—the circle and triangle.

Arturo Nereu: The only shape change that happens is between level 1 and 2, where the environment shifts from circles to triangles.

In answer to both your questions, I'll be exploring other shapes and dynamic changes in my up-coming video game projects—particularly an iPhone/Android game that will be released sometime this year. No specific date set.

Thanks again!

Colin Poh
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I super like this. Thanks.

Alex Casper Cline
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Thanks, really useful. Hope to check out your book soon!

Rob Allegretti
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Really good information, and an interesting read. Thanks!

William Collins
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An article of this type on the use of color would be great! Some of these concepts almost seem innate, yet I would've never been able to describe why had you not wrote about it. Very good preview of your book, which I've just added to my wishlist on Amazon.

Nick Harris
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Given that you have explored the aesthetics of three of the PlayStation's face buttons, what about X?

Garret Cashman
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Thanks for the very interesting article Chris.

Ignatus Zuk
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Such a basic concept, yet many of us never notice it.
Thank you for this article, it opened my eyes :)

B Marshall
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Wow thanks so much for posting this. Really helped me organize my thoughts conceptually and dynamically.
I think my workflow will be much better now.

Josh Foreman
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I enjoyed this. thanks.

Curtiss Murphy
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Fantastic. The take away was simple - circle, square, triangle. Now I know. Thanks you.

Jim Chen
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Great Article, learned a lot!

Jim Chen
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Great Article, learned a lot!

Quentin Thomas
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Wow! This article blew my mind. I must know more. Thank you Chris.

Lucas Torquato
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One great reading! It doesn't matter if you are programming or modeling, the teaching in this article are well suited for all professionals in the game industry