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Defining visual style

Discussion of visual style for game characters
So far, we’ve discussed line, shape, silhouette, and colour. These formal elements help us describe a character’s appearance. But game designers are likely to consider character appearance holistically, as a combination of lines, shapes, and colours that are arranged to create a more complete and distinctive image. This is what we often call the visual style. Now we all know, tacitly, what this means. The visual style is a look of a particular character. Through visual style we can understand that characters exist in different visual storyworlds. We would probably recognise any new character as belonging to a particular franchise if it was presented in the appropriate visual style. But was describing what visual style is can be a little tricky.
What does it mean to look like a character from the Super Mario universe? Or indeed how might visual style vary within the Mario universe, even between two closely related games, as shown here. One of the simplest, yet most effective means of describing style is provided by Scott McCloud in his book Understanding Comics. McCloud’s framework uses three types of representation that can be considered extremes of character presentation. McCloud suggests that these extremes can be considered the picture plane, reality, and language. These terms can essentially be equated to the abstract, the photographic, and the symbolic. I find these terms more actually communicate the building blocks of visual style.
When planning or analysing a visual style, this framework can be used to identify where the style sits in relation to these three extremes.
The extremes can be described as follows. Abstract images consist entirely of the visual elements discussed earlier, lines, shapes, and colours. At the abstract extreme, these elements are neither arranged to produce a higher-level depiction of reality, nor combined to communicate any clear or coherent meaning. A photographic image provides a recognisable representation of reality. At the extreme, a photographic image is indistinguishable from the reality that it represents. The character looks like an exact copy of a real person. Finally, a symbolic image is focused entirely on the communication of meaning through visual symbols. At an extreme level, letters and numbers can be considered symbols that infer clear meanings.
In character design, the use of a circular shape with an internal curved line in its lower half and two dots in the upper half can be considered a symbol to connote the human face. In most instances, the visual style of character is depicted in is unlikely to exist at an extreme, as an extreme can create undesirable issues for audiences. Clearly, a character depicted in a purely abstract form will be very difficult to read and interpret. Bear in mind that a truly abstract image should not be recognisable as a character form at all. A purely abstract image contains no representational or symbolic images.
Character’s depicted at the symbolic end of the scale will essentially be reduced to visual objects that communicate specific ideas. As we’ve identified, letters and numbers exist at this extreme. This style offers lots of scope for clear and effective communication through visual language, but can be limiting in terms of the nuance of representation or aesthetic qualities that can be achieved by moving more towards photographic and abstract extremes. The photographic extreme seems to be less troublesome. How can an exact replica of reality be as problematic as extremely abstract or symbolic styles? There’s a key problem for this extreme, one that is both technical and conceptual in nature.
Perfect imitation of reality in any character design is highly prone to create feelings of uneasiness in the audience, popularly referred to as the Uncanny Valley effect. This theory states that the closer a representation gets to that of a real human, the more likely it is to be perceived as imperfect, unusual, or unfamiliar. The Uncanny Valley effect is an important phenomenon to game character design, and definitely one worth studying beyond this course if you’re interested in realism in game characters. So with this in mind, we could try to position a character’s visual style somewhere within the diagram that we looked at to help us define, approximately, what kind of visual style we’re looking for.
But most typically, we want to take this further, through use of categorisation. We want to define a style through comparison to existing conventions and style types. To approach a categorisation of a given visual style, we should therefore be prepared to consider the relevance and value of a number of factors. This could include the following, period, location, art movement, individual or studio style, genre, culture and subcultures, and audience. Firstly, let’s discuss period. Period is commonly used within Art History to define a particular phase of artistic development, both in terms of the general movement of the time, as well as a period in a particular artist or auteur’s development.
More generally, consideration of period should serve to identify a particular point in time that can be aligned to the particular visual style in painting, sculpture, film, or, of course, in gaming. Alongside period, it will typically be important to identify a location in order to provide context. In other words, identification of the early 16th century as a period is not sufficient to define a particular visual style in image making. It would also be important to identify whether the period is in relation to work being created in Italy, the Netherlands, Russia, China, etc. Location can tell us a lot about how characters might be styled and presented.
Both periods and locations can also interact with a finer description of visual style, which is the associated art movement. For example, period and location might be narrowed to look at Western European styles of early 20th century, but we can also identify a plethora of art movements– for instance, Cubism, German expressionism, or Impressionism– within this time and setting that more concisely communicate a desired visual style.
Looking at particular artist, auteurs, or studios, it may be possible to identify a consistent style that can be used to help to find the appearance of the character. For instance, this might be the style of early Walt Disney or Fleischer studio animation, which is the inspiration for games such as Cuphead.
Genre is a useful factor to consider in all visual art forms, but it is clearly of importance when looking to draw influence from the style conventions seen in film, animation, comics, and video games. Overarching genres, such as science fiction, can be broken down into sub-genres that more succinctly inform visual style, for example space opera, steampunk, diesel punk, etc. Additionally, we can also see the period and location interact with the genre to more clearly communicate a style, for example, the visual style of 1950s American alien invasion B-movies. In a more contemporary sense, a visual style might be best defined along cultural or subcultural lines rather than national ones.
For instance, modes of cultural activity and engagement can inform a particular visual style, for example, hacker, punk, hip-hop, pro wrestling, extreme sports, etc. With all of the above in mind, it would seem that we have a fairly exhaustive range of criteria with which to identify, research, and shape a character’s visual style in order to achieve a particular aesthetic effect. But of course, we must also be mindful of the target audience, and pay heed to how the tastes of different age groups and different cultures might inform and alter a visual style. In summary, the visual style is what drives everything about a character’s appearance.
While we considered the formal visual elements, line, shape, silhouette, and colour use, what audiences really engage with is the whole, which is often greater than the sum of its parts. Some of the most successful game characters in franchises have, in effect, defined their own visual style, to the point where we can say we want a character to be produced in the style of Final Fantasy, of Overwatch, or Gears of War. It is really important that game character artists understand how a style is constructed, so they can proceed to produce new characters that conform to this established style.

Finally, we will discuss how we might define the overall visual style that can be applied to the design of a game character.

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Video Game Design and Development: Video Game Character Design

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