The Evolution of Graphical Styles in Video Games

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One of the most vital things in game development is graphical style. Overall, the visual style of a game is often the significant factor in creating a fun and interesting experience for gamers. Various methods of experimentation are used to visualize game content (Lee, Gee, Dolah).

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By applying diverse design techniques, artists as well as game developers are able to achieve different results in the presentation of video games. In the context of visual design, graphic style is a term used to describe illustrations in games, and it is also the presentational facet of the surroundings in gaming that is seen by the players (Lee, Gee, Dolah).

Game scholars have discovered three specific categories of graphical styles used in the game industry. These styles are abstract, stylized
and realistic. These graphical stylescan be compared and explained to show successful gaming graphics and experiences.

Abstract Graphical Style

Abstractionism is one of the graphical style categories. It uses geometric shapes and forms instead of clearly detailed characters, objects, or recognizable places (J?¤rvinen 124).

In art, abstractionism it employs lines, colors, various geometrical forms, and their relationships to one another (Abstract). Abstractionism is nonrepresentational and does not derive directly from life. At the very least, games do replicate some sort of an environment. Different abstract puzzle games emphasize forms and shapes, however, these forms are generally more stylized instead of being abstract (J?¤rvinen 123). The 1970s showcased the beginning of arcade and home video games, reaching mainstream popularity. Many of the games from the 70s were minimalistic and abstract when relating to graphic design. Due to the technology and hardware limitations at the time, the creation of characters, objects, and environments were simplified to the bare minimum of recognition. The majority of the games were stylized graphics with geometric shapes that served as abstract style (J?¤rvinen 123). There were many successful abstract games, especially during this time period. Pong is a good example of this (see figure 1). It launched the video game industry in the 1970s. Pong was like a virtual version of a table tennis game where the white ?blocks’ were expressed as racquets and the small square as the ball. Pong was considered one of the most successful games created because of its simple nature and entertaining gameplay.

The 1980s was the golden decade for the development of video games. A memorable event was the Great North American Video Game Crash between 1983 and 1985. This created a recession in the game industry due to an oversaturated market of undistinguished video games and systems (The Great Video Game Crash). In 1985, with the success of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), the game industry finally got itself back up. The 80s showed more variety in graphical styles as game developers started to exercise with new technology, thus creating games that were more complex. For example, more details were created by a higher amount of pixels (Wolf, 58). By the end of the 1980s, technology had greatly improved which led to games to become graphically more complex and detailed. Therefore, instead of abstract style being a default style, it began to evolve to be more of an artistic choice (Wolf 58.).

In present day, seeing video games with abstract styles is less common. This is mainly due to the increasing popularity of storytelling and how abstract games are more difficult to market. It is also unlikely for big budget titles to be purely abstract, however, the style has been making a comeback in the world of mobile gaming (Egenfeldt-Nielsen et al. 144). The 2000s have been a vital era in video gaming. During this decade, Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft have taken control of the gaming world with its stylized and realistic graphical styles. However, that only lasted until the popularity of smartphones bloomed in the late 2000s, which resulted in the high demand of mobile gaming as well as the comeback of abstract games (Number of Apps). The abstract style is also easier to work with on different mobile hardware since abstract games are usually not as demanding graphically, as compared to some stylized ones, for example. One of the most popular mobile games utilizing the abstract style is Geometry Dash (see figure 2). Even though mobile gaming existed before the time of smartphones, the choices and the quality of these games are not the best.

Stylized Graphical Style

Stylized graphics involves on depicting a person or an object by exaggerating its most prominent features (Egenfeldt-Nielsen et al. 173). Stylized graphics are carried out in a wide range of different artistic interpretations. One form is caricaturism (Egenfeldt-Nielsen et al. 123). A caricature refers to the representation of character or an object that is simplified to its most characteristic features (J?¤rvinen 122). In terms of computer graphics, this style can also be attributed as non-photorealistic rendering or NPR. In other words, NPR focuses on visualizing the content with particular digital art styles (Winkenbach and Salesin). As opposed to photorealism, where the idea is to accurately recreate detailed representation of life-like images, NPR takes incentive from paintings, drawings and cartoons.

From the 1990s until now, stylized graphics continued to be used in numerous two-dimensional video games. The 90s was a time to be considered as one of the most innovative eras in gaming (acyentertainment). During that time, video game graphics started to make its transition from pixels and sprites, which were icons in computer games that can be moved around the screen by a controller (Sprite), into fully rendered 3D graphics. Due to this, stylized graphics were able to co-exist with 3D graphics. The exaggerated cartoon art graphics made the most impact compared to the other amounts of realistic games. Additionally, stylized graphics were very adaptable and could be completed in different techniques. When 3D computer graphics were becoming more dominant, the first 3D games that had cartoon graphics accurately parallel with their 2D versions from a design perspective. A couple iconic examples of stylized games are Spyro the Dragon and Super Mario 64 (see figure 3). In more ways than ever, Nintendo’s Super Mario 64 was considered the most significant and revolutionary three-dimensional games. It had set a standard for the character and camera movement in third-person and it was also the first Mario game created that was in 3D (Stanton 2015). Since the 90s until today, comic/cartoon styled graphics continued to grow towards a more realistic approach when it came towards big budget titles. Current cartoon games often prioritize the aesthetic and atmosphere or a unique style of its universe. Some examples of the cartoon styles seen in today’s games are Overwatch, Team Fortress, and Splatoon (see figure 4). Square Enix, a Japanese video game company, targets more on character design. Therefore, they are well-known for their cartoon art style. To explain Square Enix’s unique style, they are famous for incorporating both western and eastern art styles (Plunkett). Two noted examples of their look are the Final Fantasy series and Kingdom Hearts series (see figure 5). The trade look of these games, designed by Tetsuya Nomura, has created a style that most fans would associate and recognize when seen. The style usually features exaggerated hair styles, oversized weapons, and clothing details (Plunkett). Stylized graphics are a popular style across all common gaming platforms. Due to the
visual, versatile nature of stylized graphics, the style is cohesive with any game genre and can also be changed or tweaked to accommodate nearly every gamers’ needs, whether it be an adult or a child.

Realistic Graphical Style

In art and literature, realism means the treatment of forms, colors, and space, in a manner as to emphasize their correspondence to actuality or to ordinary visual experience (Realism). Photorealism is a subgenre of realism that takes the style in a different direction. In art, photorealism creates the image as accurately realistic as possible, often when the artist studies the photo and tries to remake it in a different medium (Photorealism). One more subgenre of realism is semi-realism. It is a style that is has a majority of realistic aspects but also has exaggerated, simplified and stylized characteristics.

Photorealism is a graphical style that tries to replicate a detailed representation as obtained in a photograph through a non-photographic medium, such as, computer graphics (J?¤rvinen). A few examples of photorealistic games are Gears of War, the Assassin’s Creed series, and The Last of Us (see figure 6). Current three-dimensional video games are usually rendered using rasterization. This technique is an algorithm that converts an image into points on a grid (Scharr). Then, the lighting and shadows are made separately by pin pointing from a stated light source.

Stylized realism is basically a combined style of stylized and photorealistic graphics. The style is characterized with exaggerated appearances that are found in cartoon and artistic styles. At the same time, it also carry strong photorealistic aspects. In three-dimensional video games, graphics designers would first create the artistic and emphasized 3D models and animations, then render these models with photorealistic textures, shaders and lighting settings (Anhut). The main components that would make a game be considered as stylized realism are: the game must already be stylized, whether it would be characters, spaces or objects and the graphic details must apply realistic materials, textures and accurate lighting in the 3D environment (Anhut). A few examples of stylized realistic games include, Mortal Kombat X, Bioshock Infinite, and the Tekken series (see figure 7). The graphical style in the Tekken franchise demonstrates stylized realism very well.

The game’s design usually depicts photorealistic and innovative environments while still having the stylized aspect as well as the exaggerated features in the character design. Most of the unrealistic parts in the character design are the face and body proportions, intense, oversized weapons, and costume design. Due to the nature of stylized graphics in general, the games were not usually as demanding as pure photorealistic games were. Additionally, by idealizing and exaggerating the character design, the developers managed to avoid the had-to-conquer phenomenon uncanny valley. Because of these reasons, games made in stylized realism managed to age well compared to photorealistic games.

Overall, photorealism has become the common graphical style in today’s video games. It is also assumed that the style will remain as the
popular option for awhile. Even though photorealism has been the most favored style in past years, it is hard to imagine what will come next.

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