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The Aesthetics of Game Art and Game Design
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The Aesthetics of Game Art and Game Design

January 30, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 6 of 6

The Aesthetics of Game Design

This section explores game design from a gameplay perspective, in the sense of games as systems of rules. Gameplay also has aesthetic qualities if we conceptualize games as shapes. Key to this conceptual view is the understanding that games are vehicles for activating stories. Even traditional games like chess give players a purpose to act upon, and construct their personal narrative within the play area. Today's video games are capable of activating stories with infinitely more complex narrative structures, on account of the medium's dynamic and interactive properties.

We've seen through the above example of dynamic composition that classical art, and video game art is linked by a common visual grammar. We must only consider how interactivity affects traditional design principles to reveal these links. Video games are clearly not a revolution in art history, but an evolution.

The above illustration features three games -- piñata, hide and seek, and baseball. The primary player in each game has been highlighted in purple. The rules of each game dictate the shape of the play area, and the arrangement of participants. As we know full well, shapes -- the circle, square, and triangle -- have strong psychological effects on us, the viewers, so it's important to examine how a game's shape may influence players emotionally.

Piñata plants a single person in the middle of a circle defined by friends, family, and acquaintances. The circle serves as a safe space of encouragement while the player blindly tries to hit the hanging piñata. The shape of hide and seek is very different because there is an absence of other players from the point of view of the seeker. Baseball has a very confrontational shape, from the point of view of the person batting, confronted by eight fielders facing her or his direction.

If we were to aesthetically enhance each game -- manipulating camera angles, framing, animations, color, etc. -- we could, for instance, make hide and seek visually exude loneliness, much like the solitary figures inhabiting Giorgio de Chirico paintings. We could then imagine combining all three of these games into one narrative, so that each game represents a narrative act. A player of our hypothetical three-act game could be made to experience joy in Act 1 (piñata), loneliness in Act 2 (hide and seek), and aggression in Act 3 (baseball).

From the perspective of gameplay, we could also design a new range of player animations -- within the confines of each game's existing rule-set. Take, for instance, the range of moves available to Mario in the original Super Mario Bros. game from Nintendo. Mario could achieve greater jump heights if he did a running jump.

Such design choices were once exclusively a question of gameplay, and not aesthetic choices, on account of gaming's technical limitations. But as we saw in an earlier video -- featuring Journey, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, and Vanquish -- game design and game art is now significantly more sophisticated, so that a character's available movements and actions can adhere to a game's rules, while also being aesthetically pleasing and varied.

For our three act video game -- inspired by piñata, hide and seek, and baseball -- we could therefore have the playable characters dynamically change their shapes and animations between narrative acts. The dynamic and playful movements of Mario in Super Mario Galaxy could inspire the animations in Act 1 (piñata). Feelings of loneliness in Act 2 (hide and seek) could be enhanced with animations referencing Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP. The final confrontation in Act 3 (baseball) could take its lead from Gears of War.

The results of this particular example would not necessarily make for an elegant artistic experience -- however this hypothetical game serves only as an example for the aesthetic possibilities of gameplay that fully take advantage of dynamic design. No longer must we stick to the formula of designing games that follow a constant set of rules, which is a concept rooted in traditional board game design. Armed with knowledge of dynamic composition and traditional art principles, we can begin designing games based on aesthetic qualities, while additionally incorporating dynamic gameplay, to create experiences with more emotional depth.

Breaking Conventions

Because every aspect of a video game -- the visuals, interactions, and game design -- have aesthetic qualities, we can begin making stronger bridges between the disciplines of game design and art if we're to rival the traditional arts in creating meaningful and varied artistic experiences.

To create great, emotion-driven games we must start each project by asking the question: what is the emotional experience? Our misguided tendency is often to lead a game's design by its genre or style.

If we do it right, we can begin creating in-game narratives using the strengths of the medium -- without over-reliance on cut-scenes, dialogue, special effects, and user-interfaces. Interestingly, such a shift will align video games closer to performance arts such as ballet, than film, where movement and music (and interaction) alone tell a story. For this to happen the whole development team must be versed in the concepts of dynamic composition. To summarize, dynamic composition is primarily concerned with:

  • Character shape
  • Character animations
  • Environment shape
  • Pathways

These unassumingly simple techniques give us a common language with which to communicate across the various disciplines of art, game design, and programming found collectively in video game development.

The triangle in opposition to the circle has been a common theme throughout this article because these two shapes represent a polarity on the shape spectrum of emotions -- much like black and white on the value scale. Each shape is visually and psychologically distinct from the other. Such contrast is an essential component of storytelling, sparking conflict and action within the narrative, and an emotional conflict within the audience. Which is why, throughout art history, the circle and triangle have been used abstractly to define two opposing forces.

Whichever shapes you choose for your game's characters, it's important to be aware of contrast as a narrative tool, and to be prepared to reverse the polarity of characters for dramatic effect. Contrast also makes it easier for your audience to orientate itself on the emotional stage of the narrative.

Keep in mind that dynamic composition and primary shape concepts should not be used formulaically. Using your intuition and going against convention is more desirable. For instance, a character that appears villainous in appearance, but turns out to be a hero, will surprise players, and make their experience emotionally richer and more engaging.

I'll leave you with a quote from Christopher Vogler, advising how readers of his fantastic book -- The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers -- should approach the hero's journey metaphor, which provides a similar conceptual function for narrative to that of dynamic composition for game art and game design:

"If you get lost, refer to the metaphor as you would check a map on a journey. But don't mistake the map for the journey. You don't drive with a map pasted to your windshield. You consult it before setting out or when you get disorientated. The joy of a journey is not reading or following a map, but exploring unknown places and wandering off the map now and then. It's only by getting creatively lost, beyond the boundaries of tradition, that new discoveries can be made."


Drawing Basics and Video Game Art: Classic to Cutting Edge Art Techniques for Winning Video Game Design is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Article Start Previous Page 6 of 6

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