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The Aesthetics of Game Art and Game Design

January 30, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 6 Next

Character Animations

The subtle gesture of a hand or movement of a character's head are animations which are relatively indecipherable at low resolutions, or when the character is in motion. Animations that are visually more comprehensible include character jump arcs and general lines of movement. Because character movement on this broader scale can be conveniently visualized as lines, we can consider how shaping such animations may affect the video game aesthetically.

Journey, thatgamecompany

When a player presses the jump button in the opening levels of Journey, the character jumps gracefully across the screen (as illustrated above).

The implied line that this jump arc creates -- made explicit by the character's trailing scarf -- is aesthetically aligned to the circular composition in Vermeer's Diana and Her Companions.

Watch the video below -- featuring, Journey, Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery (2011), and Vanquish (2010) -- and picture a light trail behind the characters as each travels through its respective video game environment. Can you align the animations to the circle, square, or triangle?

You should find that the lines of movement communicate a variety of emotions ranging from delicate and dynamic (curved lines); slow and peaceful (straight uprights and horizontals); and aggressive (angular). In designing a character's movements it's vital to choose lines that complement the emotions you would like players to experience.

As with character shapes in the previous section, we also tend to design character animations with one style of movement used consistently throughout the game. Video games being such a dynamic medium, there's no reason why we can't design experiences that take advantage of the whole range of possible animations to communicate more complex narratives.

A game's camera movement relates closely to character animation -- especially in first person games where it becomes the primary tool for communicating the in-game characters state of mind. In a first person game, we must imagine that the camera represents the perspective of a living-breathing person, capable of feeling and expressing a whole range of emotions.

The video above illustrates two contrasting camera animations: the gentler camera of Halo: Combat Evolved by Bungie, and the aggressive camera of Epic's Gears of War 3. Halo gives the player a feeling of smooth elegance (more so in the earlier games), elevating Master Chief above the edgier, and aggressive movements of the enemy. While Gears of War has an edgy and aggressive aesthetic throughout -- implying that Delta Squad and the Locust Horde are on the same moral level as each other.

These examples highlight the importance of camera animations in the context of dynamic composition. Now that we have character shapes and animations covered, it's time to consider the character in relation to its environment.

Character Shape Versus Environment Shape

A character's surroundings are a key part of dynamic composition because the environment normally takes up much of the visual frame. (Please note that environment here also includes secondary characters and enemies.) We can respond emotionally to characters based on their shape and animation alone, however it's only once we see characters in an environment that a narrative emerges.

The illustrations above represent a character (purple) in an environment (green). A circular character in a circular environment (top-left) exhibits a sense of harmony because the character's shape is echoed in its surroundings. The echo gives us a sense of home -- suggesting that here is where the character belongs. We also get a sense of harmony if both the character and environment are square, or triangular (lower-right), although the change of primary shape gives us a different aesthetic sensation.

We get a sense of dissonance when character and environment shapes contrast each other. A circular character appears threatened when placed in an edgy environment (top-right); while a triangular character appears the threat in a soft and rounded environment (lower-left).

Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003), directed by Peter Jackson, New Line Cinema

These concepts of harmony and dissonance can be seen in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, where we have the good-natured Hobbits on one side of the shape spectrum of emotions. Everything about them references the innocent, youthful circle: from the curl of their hair; their rounded shoulders and shirt buttons; to the round Hobbit holes; and even the curves of the landscape. At the other end of the shape spectrum we find Sauron, who is aligned to the aggressive triangle: from his sharp fingertips; to the triangular volcano on the landscape.

This contrast of primary shapes allows us to reduce the story of Lord of the Rings to an abstract visual narrative using basic shapes, which sees the round Frodo and Samwise leave their round home to journey to a threatening, angular landscape, before returning to the safety of home.

Super Mario Galaxy (2007), Nintendo

As with the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, the Super Mario Galaxy series of games can also be reduced to an abstract visual narrative. We have the spherical Mario in his spherical world filled with triangular enemies. It's the player's role to help Mario clear the galaxy of triangles to restore a harmony between Mario and his home environment.

Journey (2012), thatgamecompany

Journey is a great example of character-environment harmony using triangular forms, which are echoed in the playable character's shape and throughout the landscape. Interestingly, the non-aggressive nature of the game's experience could have been rendered using sugary, rounded forms, but the game's design is all the better for going against conventions by creating a contrast between the character's edgy form, and its delicate movements and jump arcs.


Morf is a simple browser-based game that I developed to explore the emotional links between character and environment shapes. You, the player, must guide a round character through two environments -- one round, and the latter, sharp. The surprise awaiting players is that, technically, both environments are identical -- it's only the superficial surface graphics that change. You can play the game by visiting my page.

I had the opportunity of testing Morf on both experienced gamers and non-gamers. Experienced players were naturally well-versed in the language of video games, and were therefore primarily concerned with testing the game’s rule system: Can I jump higher if I run and jump? Can the character die if I touch a spiked object? 

Non-gamers, on the other hand, were acutely aware of the game’s visual design. They would bump their way through the round level without concern, but upon reaching the edgy leve (pictured above)l, they would spend an inordinate amount of time carefully avoiding sharp objects. When their character would accidentally land on a spike, they’d exclaim words like "ouch!" -- words that we use when we hurt ourselves in reality. We should be very proud that video games can evoke such responses, since they're unique among artistic disciplines, and illustrate the player's strong empathy for their on-screen character.

This heightened emotional response from non-gamers suggests that there exists an even greater potential for artistic video games. Non-gamers -- representing a huge, and disregarded audience -- have a significantly lower concern for the rules of a game (and an even smaller technical understanding), and are therefore more ready to suspend their disbelief and simply experience. This should be a strong call to action for developers to explore games that are not targeted at hardcore gamers.

We've looked at how character shapes, character animations, and environment shapes can be shaped to influence the aesthetic experience of a video game. Our analysis uses the emotionally charged primary shapes -- the circle, square, and triangle -- as a conceptual tool to make sense of a wide variety of artistic styles and interactions. In the next section we will explore how pathways within a video game environment can also influence the emotional experience within the context of dynamic composition.

Article Start Previous Page 4 of 6 Next

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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