The history of video game graphics is relatively short spanning just 57 years (Brown, 2015). In the eyes of film or photography, games are still in their infancy. However, video games have dramatically developed in this short amount of time both graphically and as a form of entertainment.
They have developed from simple mechanics displayed with moving light…
…to photorealistic 3D characters and worlds.
Because of the medium itself, video game art is constrained by graphical capacity and hardware limitations. Due to this, game art tends to change and adapt with technological advancements. However, some styles maintain popularity over time.
To see how video game art has adapted and changed over time, and how this influences current practices, we must go back to the beginning.
IN THE BEGINNING…
In the early days of video games, the graphics were extremely limited. During the early 1970’s, games were limited to simple shapes and a polar palette of black and white (Brown, 2015; C.L., 2011).
The ‘art’ was merely a representation of the vague narrative given to the game’s mechanics. In this sense, game art of this era was about maximum communication with minimum graphics.
The limitations of black and white prevented detailed game art at this time. It wasn’t till the late 70’s that development of arcade hardware allowed for colour (Brown, 2015; C.L., 2011).
This allowed for multi-coloured sprites, providing artists with a larger range of tools and allowing for more detailed games. By the 1980’s, coloured pixel graphics were considered the norm (Brown, 2015). Although vector graphics were used for some games, the ability of pixels to render complex scenes with detailed, filled shapes secured their dominance (Brown, 2015).
During the 80’s, the majority of video games were using 2D coloured sprites to depict characters and enemies (Brown, 2015). As the hardware developed beyond 8-bit, so too did the complexity of the graphics. However, game art was still about working with or around the limitations of the hardware to convey enough information to the player (Brown, 2015). Due to this, characters were created with simple, bold designs and limited movement (Cobbett,2009). Characters often had only a few sets of animation with little to no follow through or anticipation.
Over the course of the 80’s, more colours became available to artists and sprites became more detailed and complex (C.L., 2011). As hardware capabilities increased, games were able to have more detailed environments and backgrounds (Brown, 2015). This allowed artists to develop complete worlds with distinct aesthetics.
Towards the end of the 80’s and, through the early 90’s, some developers began the awkward transition into 3D graphics. In these early days, 3D graphics were limited to wireframe rendering (Corbett, 2009). Much like the early days of game, artists were forced to reduce complexity and favour communication through simple forms.
Graphic capability eventually improved beyond wireframe, allowing 3D models to have flat shading, but it was considered ugly compared to the detailed 2D graphics at the time.
Similarly, during the 90’s, 2D games were experimenting with multimedia technology like digitised sprites and full motion video (Corbett, 2009). Digitised sprites were considered a new wave by some and became popular thanks to games like Mortal Kombat (Brown, 2015). However, full motion video, due to compression and resolution limitations, was quickly dropped.
Despite its general ugliness, 3D was quickly becoming popular but the hardware was not up to scratch (Brown, 2015). To compensate, many games incorporated 2D sprites in a 3D world.
This paved the way for the next era of game art.
From the mid to late 90’s, hardware developed enough to allow fully 3D games to be developed. This provided another change and challenge for artists: the characters, animations and environments must look good from all angles and in extremely low poly (Brown, 2015).
Another consideration that artists and animators had to make, was the reaction and speed of the animations (Brown, 2015). As fast-paced first person shooters rose in popularity, consumers were expecting believable yet fast actions. Artists had to compensate believability and anticipation for reactivity of animations.
As 3D games became dominant, two distinct streams emerged: realistic and stylised (Brown, 2015).
REALISM VS. STYLISED
Regardless of aesthetic, realism is often toted as the best (Brown, 2015). This is not always true. In fact, when looking back at older games, those with ‘realistic’ graphics (at the time) feel outdated and often fall into the uncanny valley.
In reaction to this, a lot of games were created with stylised graphics. This was often done through use of cell shading and stylised or ‘cartoony’ characters.
Currently, we can produce extreme realism in terms of visuals, lighting and physics.
While video game art is still bound by graphical and hardware limitations, it is no longer forced to have maximum communication for minimum visuals (Corbett, 2009).
CURRENT PRACTICES: REALISM
So how does this long, detailed and well researched history influence the current practices for creating realistic video game art?
Well, as mentioned before, video games do not have the same limitations that they once had. For realistic games, we face a new issue. Games need to feel realistic: players will expect everything from reload animations, dynamic grass simulation and varied action, hit and death animations. Additionally, they will want reactivity and speed, which sometimes opposes the realism.
Assassin’s Creed games are renowned for detailed and varied parkour movement.
While this is achievable it might be well out of scope, forcing the artists and developers to find ways to cheat or work around this. This has changed the way the art and animation is created within the industry.
One method that artists use to create diverse environments quickly and efficiently, is through modular development of assets:
And even facial motion capture for subtle expressions.
While polygon count is still an issue, it is no longer the major limiting factor. Models too detailed to be featured in the game can be baked out at a normal map and projected onto a lower poly model (Ward, 2013).
CURRENT PRACTICES: STYLISED
Many current games are preferring to employ a stylised aesthetic. This might be due to a multitude of factors:
- To avoid the bleeding edge and eventual aging of realism
- To be able to run on portable devices such as mobile
- To stay within a smaller, indie budget
- To have a particular art style
- Because it suits the game better
The current popularity in indie or ‘retro-like’ games has seen a rise in 2D stylised graphics.
Current technology allows these sorts of games to run a lighting fast speeds. Thus giving them a competitive edge on their realistic peers.
Additionally, lessons from the history of games allow these to be created with a high degree of fidelity and a modern understanding of game design (Brown, 2015).
Similarly, some games break the mould and experiment with new forms of stylisation.
This is an exciting era of video games. The indie development scene currently gains as much attention as AAA titles and there is a balance between realistic and stylised games.
I don’t know where video game art with venture to next but I am happy to be along for the journey.
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Ward, A. (2013). Game Character Creation Series. Retrieved 2nd October, 2015, from