The Beauty of Simplicity in Video Game Art Direction

the-witness2The current console generation is under-powered. It is a sad truth. Yes the PS4 is slightly more powerful than the Xbox One, and yes both are significantly stronger than the Wii U, but none of these systems are giving us the breath-taking graphical fidelity we thought we were going to receive. The jump from non-HD to HD was so obvious, and so glorious, that I don’t think any of us were ready for how muted the jump has been from the end of the last generation to our current systems. The demos we are shown at E3 are constantly being downgraded to run on the limited capabilities of these hardware kits, and we angrily protest about being lied to. Yet in all of this anger and fury, there are a few developers out there that are truly making this generation shine, and it is not through pushing polygons, but through artistic decisions that sacrifice detail for vibrancy, colour, and beautiful simplicity.

WitnessboatI have spent about 15-20 hours now racking my brain over the many puzzles of Jonathan Blow’s The Witness. A complex game of mazes and puzzles that would have even your average member of Mensa taking pause over some of its most difficult challenges. And yet between every puzzle is an entire world ready for exploration. Its various biomes of contrasting colours pushes the light out of your television like a radiant rainbow. Its silky smooth framerate makes traversal an absolute joy. Yet if we were to compare it against what most modern game-makers are trying to accomplish with their various triple-A releases, it is very detail-light. And you know what? I don’t mind. It falls short of all the textures and lense-flares and particle effects of a game like The Division, and yet it is to my mind one of the most beautiful games of this generation. To me, it is the natural evolution of an approach to 3D world building that began with the N64: vibrant cartoon-like aesthetics, made real in a 3D space. This approach was also taken by Ubisoft Reflections when they designed last year’s Grow Home, a whimsical delight of a game that once again focussed on the simplest of artistic designs: a primary colour-filled world starring a bright red cubic robot named Bud.

growhomeBuoyed by a lack of rendering demands, these games are able to push strong resolutions and high frame-rates, which while not the sole measure of a game’s quality, certainly help to push the quality of a game versus games that either stutter or have muddier visuals due to power short-falls. Now I am not getting into resolution-gate here, because as far as I am concerned, and as stated at the outset, all of these consoles are lacking to a certain degree at getting the visuals we were promised. I can’t tell the difference between 900p and 1080p from my couch, and I doubt other than the most detail focused individuals out there, neither can the majority of gamers. That said, I was taken back by just how much that strong frame rate and clear resolution enhances my level of enjoyment of a game like The Witness.

firewatchNow I am not saying that I want all games to adopt a more simplistic cartoon-like aesthetic. I want the realistic and the fantastical. No, what I am trying to articulate here is that there is an option out there for designers that I am in full support of, that in which realistic detail is substituted for vibrancy and colour, and it looks like many developers on the horizon feel the same. Many of 2016’s Hero shooters like Overwatch, Battleborn and Gigantic have opted for a colourful aesthetic, and it is a look that is far more appealing to me than a game like Epic’s Paragon. The upcoming Firewatch is another beautiful example simple design. It is a trend that I welcome wholeheartedly and I hope to see it continue into the future.

Follow Tom on Twitter @thomaskagar

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