Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Please Select a Party Leader - Art Direction in Games

There are so many components of art in a game that sometimes its hard to keep track - everything starts to go in circles, and if the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing…well, you could end up with Ninja Golf (Not that anything really could have saved that game - ninjas? Golf? I think my mind just imploded). So how do the great games keep everything straight? How do they keep it all unified and smooth?

Easy - they hire an art director.

Now, if you look up Art Director in the jobs section of Gamasutra, you’ll be hard pushed to try and find one that doesn’t request a list of skills a mile long. Things like ‘Team player’ and ‘Excellent in all areas of art’ seem to come up a lot, along with ‘Must have the patience of a Saint’ and ‘Exceedingly good with small children’, not that I can blame them, really.

Truth is, the Art Director is the one who keeps everything unified, the person who guides the overall vision until its as close to perfect as they’re going to get. Every piece of art, and every 3D model passes over their desk for inspection before being fine tuned and inserted into the final product.

But they’re not just a glorified manager or supervisor, no, they’re job is far more important than that. Art Directors are the visionaries of the studio. To most people Visual Communication is just a word to throw around when nothing else fits, to the Art Director it’s a very real language, and one they have to know fluently in their line of work.

The most accurate comparison that I can give, for visual communication, is that it’s a subtle kind of mind control. You take a scene, a setting, a character a kind of lighting and set of lines and action, and visually bend them to psychologically appeal to the player, to trick them into thinking and feeling a certain way. Something as small as tilting the camera thirty degrees can make a viewer feel uneasy, unsettled, and is the usual lead into a dramatic, villainous or disturbing section of plot. See that forced perspective, looking up at the villain? Yeah, it’s used to make you feel intimidated and inferior. Extreme close up? Totally trying to make you uncomfortable.

However, this is a far harder task in games than it would be in movies. In film, you can plan out every camera angle, and finely control what the viewer is subjected to. In games, its an unfortunate fact that the player is going to go everywhere they can - they’re going to crawl through every hole, find every glitch and just wait for you to trip up so that they can film it, post it to YouTube, and laugh about it for days. Hey, if you’re lucky, it might go viral.

The answer? Try as hard as you can to control where the player goes, through a subtle use of lighting and visual cues, use consistent colour palettes to its full effect, and just try as hard as you can to make everything as interesting and dramatic and believable as possible. Even down to the style and the way things move - how enemies catch the eye, and just what the user interface looks like - have to be carefully calculated an applied so as not to disturb the players experience of the game. Not to mention making sure every body else understands this vision too.

If you think that sounds hard, well… that’s because it is.

It takes skill to be an art director - of the ninja kind (oh, see, back to ninjas). Skill, patience, and plenty of hair to pull out.

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