In this article, aspiring game designer Gabby Taylor explains the role game art plays in a game's overall design.
Graphics are usually the center of the console versus PC argument (next to overall cost). We argue about how noticeable pixels should be, acceptable frame rates, and sometimes even perspective. And nearly everyone comes up with one reason or another why they’re right, but so few people seem to actually understand what role game art plays.
Our eyes play a huge role in how we explore the world around us, but it’s how the world is perceived that gives this visual information its potency. This psychological phenomenon is what game art plays on. It’s what causes you to beeline for the one lit area in an otherwise blacked out room. It’s what makes you feel confused or alarmed when things are blurred and red, and what makes the scene with a faintly violet glow seem enchanting. Horror games also use this to clash against our idea of what should be, thus making it creepy. There are a thousand different ways game art assists the design, for those who know how it works.
Game art can be broken down into two basic building blocks: color and design. Each area in a game is carefully crafted using these two principles in order to achieve the feeling the game design needs to successfully immerse the player in the gameplay and story. Think back to Batman: Arkham Asylum. If the place were brighter, or painted in pastel colors, do you think it would have felt the same? No, of course not. It sounds simple, and it is in theory, but applying them effectively requires lots of practice and expertise. Let’s clear the air of all the nonsense arguments, and briefly examine what each game artist has to know.
Colors typically have a meaning attached to them, that can vary by culture. In the United States, for example, white stands for innocence and purity. They can also have physical effects on us, like increased heart rate when we see the color red. Colors affect everything from our appetites, to how heavy something appears, to what emotion we feel when we look at it. The use of color is further broken down into values, hues, and contrast. Hues are the colors themselves, whereas the value is how light or dark that color is. For example, pink is a lighter value of red, and navy is a darker value of blue. A scene with all light values is called high key, and a scene with all dark values is, you guessed it, low key. Colors complement and contrast one another, creating different effects. Using yellow and red, for instance, creates a much different scene than using green and blue, or purple and brown, or even shades of grey.
Design is more about how the scene and the colors in it are arranged. This is not to be confused with overall game design, though; this is artistic design of a scene or area. When designing the scene, you’re focusing on lines and objects to which the colors are applied. You can think of design as the skeleton on which color is the fleshy bits. Going back to the Batman: Arkham Asylum reference, the whole game would have a different feel to it if Calender Man didn’t cover the walls of his cell with calendar pages, or if Poison Ivy didn’t have plants everywhere, or if the whole place looks like it had been meticulously cleaned.
These two elements come together to create game art, which is necessary for the game design to convey the intended message and emotions. That’s all it is. There is no art style that’s superior, or acceptable frame rate ceiling. It’s the emotions, the perception, that’s important to the game’s success at allowing the player to delve into the world set before them.
Gabby Taylor is an aspiring game designer and head of GreyBox Studio.
When not making design documents, she contemplates going outside, and
sometimes even takes a few steps when feeling particularly frisky.