Visual Design

I've been thinking about art in games, and how it contributes to a game's  longevity. I suppose these are thoughts that many have considered at one time or another, I only write this because I'm caffeinated. The prettiest games in the world aren't necessarily the ones with the most advanced graphics engines, but the ones that had solid concept art and 2D and 3D artists skilled enough to make those images come to life in game form. I can think of two salient examples of this idea. Halo 1 is still the prettiest of the series in my opinion, because the design is simple, yet unique. The color pallet is bright and and saturated. Ever changing, it holds the gamer's interest continually as the levels change (well, barring the middle part of the game where you wander through all those ring shaped rooms). Yes, the engine is outdated, but the design of the characters, environments, and weapons is so tight that there's little that a new engine can do to improve it. Additionally, there is something to be said about simpler, low poly, low res texture rendering. More abstract visuals often leave room for the imagination to roam. It's the same appeal that speedpaintings have- which is why sharper, more detailed images are often less interesting. That is why Halo HD or whatever it is called seems a bit superfluous to me.

I suddenly realise that the entire pot of coffee I just drank is causing me to ramble a bit, so back to the point.

A still better example is the venerable PC RTS Homeworld. Released in 1999, this game featured fully 3D battles that caused you to consider the full XYZ axis. The artists, realising that the black void of space was actually pretty boring to look at, followed science fiction art masters like John Berkey and rendered the cosmos full of color: nebulas filled the gulf of space with ethereal hues, ships left colourful vapor trails that made their combat maneurvers look more akin to an elegant dance than to battle. Designs of the spacecraft themselves were often angular, smooth, and asymmetrical, but always functional and believable. Today, Homeworld's graphics look simple in technical terms. Nowhere will you find the shiny bump maps that are almost ubiquitous in today's games. Instead, there are simple meshes, low resolution textures and crude lighting. Yet, if Homeworld had been kept in a vault until today, it would win awards for its visuals, despite the simple engine.
Now I am reminded of The past three Elder Scrolls games. Technologically speaking, Skyrim doesn't appear to be that impressive. Some games released four or so years ago have prettier engines. Yet Skyrim is beautiful. Each house, tree, rock, creek, axe, beast, and character have hand-crafted beauty. The previous Elder Scrolls game Oblivion relied too heavily on the flashy tech stuff that DirectX 9 facilitated. Everything was covered in those shiny bump maps (aren't' they called specular maps?) that looked neat at first but quickly became visual sandpaper. Skyrim, like Morrowind will endure because their engines support their art, not the other way around as in a tech demo. In other words, they are artistic achievements, not merely technical ones.

By the way, please don't take this to mean that I think Oblivion was an artistic failure. In many ways, it is still a gorgeous game, but I feel that the overzealous use of certain technologies often got in the way of appreciating the game's solid design.

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