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The black & white era: are games finally waking up to aesthetic style, or taking a step back?

By on February 12, 2009
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Love, by Eskil Steenberg

There was a time (and perhaps we’re still in the middle of it) when visual quality equalled realism. Vectors lead to sprites, lead to polygons (forgive me if that’s the wrong order, most of it happened before I was born), and more polygons meant more detail and a better simulation of reality.

For a long time each hardware generation supposedly signalled the arrival of photo-realism (marketing departments have a lot to answer for), and finally we’d reach a time when creative design – rather than technical prowess – became the be all and end all.

Clearly games aren’t there yet, although, as ever, a brief glance at cinema indicates where interactive graphics will be in five to ten years’ time – and Benjamin Button’s looking pretty damn convincing. All the same, it seems to me in the last three years we’ve finally arrived at a point where visual fidelity is taking (or can afford to take) a back seat to visual style. Is that a good thing?

Style over substance

As the title would suggest, I’m thinking fairly specifically about Platinum Games’ MadWorld (footage), an ‘ultra ultra violent’ actioner for Wii that’s almost entirely black & white. I wouldn’t be so bold as to claim that Platinum’s Shinji Mikami, Atsushi Inaba and Hideki Kamiya were the first to emphasise style over definition in 2006’s gorgeous Okami (then working at Capcom’s Clover Studio), but they certainly popularised it.

Before that year we’d seen Intelligent Systems take a step back into two dimensions for Paper Mario in 2000, and the likes of Introversion making DOS screens and vectors cool again in Uplink (2001) and Darwinia (2005). For me, there’s just no denying the visual delight of Darwinia in particular. It’s one of the best looking games I’ve ever played (despite running on a 600 MHz CPU).

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MadWorld, by Platinum Games

Jumping on the bandwagon

Today we’re seeing more and more mainstream and AAA titles shun realism in favour of copycat styles. See the cell shading of Prince of Persia, the polygon-lite cartoon exploits of Sam & Max, or the plethora of vectorific retro curios on XBLA.

It’s reassuring to notice, though, that the bulk of visual innovation is now occurring in the indie arena, rather than the mainstream. Where a one man band cannot hope to compete on polygons, the likes of Jonathan Blow’s Braid, Introversion’s Subversion, and Eskil Steenberg’s Love are all forging paths that the EAs and Activisions will no doubt be falling into over the coming years. I’ve never been a proponent of style over substance, visuals over gameplay, but I believe I may be coming around. When you look at the astounding achievements made by these tiny dev teams working with minimal system resources, it’s hard not to be blown away. So perhaps these games won’t be offering anything profound in terms of interaction (although many are and will), but these days it’s exciting to see true innovation on any level, even if it is ‘only’ an aesthetic one.

MadWorld, and the future

Which takes us back to the ultraviolent, black & white – but otherwise by the books – brawler, MadWorld. As stylistic innovations go, it’s a bold but not entirely imaginative move. We’ve seen this approach work in Sin City, and we’ve seen monochrome succeed in indie projects, but MadWorld will – I believe – be the first AAA title to go this route.

I’m a little dubious. Beyond rinsing the look for every drop of Sin City – esque cool, what’s being achieved here? A high-action game seems ill-suited to the lack of definition offered by black & white, while the cramped, low resolution Wii screen will hardly help differentiate friend from foe.

All told, it’s good to see larger studios committing to trying something broadly new, and it’s better to see smaller studios committed to trying and succeeding in things entirely new – even if there are some inevitable flops along the way.

For the first time in my career, I’m excited to see what tomorrow’s developers are going to do today’s technology.

About Tom Jubert

Tom Jubert is a freelance games writer / narrative designer, best known for his work on the Penumbra series, for which he was nominated for a Writers' Guild Award. His upcoming releases include Lost Horizon and Driver: San Francisco. He was previously the Managing Editor at GameShadow.com, and has also spent time in production.
  • Online games are also pushing that trend forward a lot. When you plan to maintain a game for 10 years+ if successful, you need graphics that won’t age too much, and style is the best insurance for that. And you need clients to be as small as possible, even preferable to run in a browser, so there’s a real incentive to favour style over realism.

  • Yeah, of course, XIII was awesome, a real triumph of style over substance (and I mean that in the nicest possible way). As I remember, the gameplay itself was nothing outrageous, but in visual terms it did more than just arbitrarily adopt cell shading as the big titles do today (I’m looking at you, Prince of persia).

    The comic book styling extended to the cut scene design (with comic frames etc), in-game split frames to represent off screen action, and text bubbles for sound effects.

    Really cool.

  • I still have a very soft spot for Ubisoft’s XIII. Cel-shaded, drawn like a comic book, with comic book death’s for the bad guys. The plot and the characters couldn’t quite carry it, but it was an early move away from photo-realism, and for that, I applaud it.

  • Patrick

    We’ve been playing Flower a lot over the last few days – it’s available on PSN, and is simply stunning. It’s a brilliant example of how creativity is flourishing with digital distribution outlets like PSN, XLA and the Appstore; this kind of game simply would never be made at retail…. Awesome!

  • There’s a load of games I’d love to draw attention to on this topic. Things like The Path, Mirror’s Edge, Team Fortress 2, Flower, The Passage… I think whatever you want to say about stifled imagination in a risk averse climate, there’s no denying that right now is probably the most exciting and creative period in video game aesthetics we’ll ever see.

    What toots your horn when it comes to visuals?