In Art Of The Game, Nick Wanserski explores how visual design shapes video, tabletop, and role-playing games.
I was so eager to try Rain World, the recent debut game from the four-person team at Videocult, that I snatched the chance to play it away from A.V. Club Internet Culture Editor Clayton Purdom. I had only seen some preview coverage of it, but how could I resist? It looked amazing! A shifting palette of colors dappled the screen like the shadows cast by clouds on a rolling landscape. Impressionist monuments stood alongside neglected technology hung in a perpetual mist so evocative you could almost smell the petrichor. And the whole experience is anchored by the Slugcat—the name of the adorable amphibian-feline creature you are tasked with navigating safely through this strange, damp world.
Then I played it, and man, did I hate playing it.
It looks great, but it felt like a wheezing, moribund Metroid, a sluggish and resistant adventure where limited mobility and finicky level design makes traversing the world a chore and its minimal interactions needlessly flat. Your main task is to guide the Slugcat through a series of narrow tunnels, a simple enough task made difficult by Slugcat’s limp movement and the game’s titular weather killing you if you haven’t found a sufficient, unspecified hiding spot when it arrives. I tried my sincere best to work through my initial distaste, to show some patience and break out of what could reasonably be a poor first impression to find a deeper, more satisfying game farther in. But I just couldn’t chew on this tinfoil long enough to eventually reveal the gumdrop that may or may not be nestled in the middle. Even with my dislike of the game, it remains beautiful. It’s rare that I have this vitriolic a response to playing something, but to a milder degree, my experience with Rain World is common. I get excited by a game’s art style, only to fail to connect with the game itself.
My first experience with buying a game solely based on the look of it was Cel Damage, a 2001 demolition derby-like game for the Xbox. As hinted at by the title, it was among the first games to replicate the look of cel-shaded animation. There was already an actual Looney Tunes game, but that was a bland, licensed kart-racing affair. Cel Damage was the first to wholly embrace Tex Avery-style manic cartoon violence. I wasn’t a connoisseur of the car-combat games that preceded it, but I assumed my eagerness to drive around with a comically large chainsaw emerging from the front of my devil-car would overcome that. The game did a fine job of capturing the anarchic look and feel of an old cartoon, but it was clunky and feature-light. I tried to convince myself it was a thing I was enjoying. I tried to pound my experience playing the game into the shape of satisfaction, but it invariably sagged back into dull disappointment. Similarly, when Capy Games’ Sword & Sworcery was first announced in 2011, I couldn’t wait to play it. The sprite graphics deconstructed to the point of abstraction, the somber, delicate color palette, Jim Guthrie’s amazing score—it all suggested a sea change in mobile games. Go figure, it was not. It is gorgeous and strange but also obtuse and fussy.
The obvious colloquialism here is that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but earned or not, art direction carries a lot of implications about a game. While I love big-budget releases with polished, video-card straining graphics, there isn’t much of a narrative to that pursuit beyond the unstoppable glacial push toward immersive visual fidelity. When a game has an unconventional look, it’s easy to imagine that ethos is spread throughout all its facets, that you’ll play something as thoughtful and clever as it appears. And if the game plays as well as it looks, good art direction can draw you into something you might not bother with otherwise. I don’t mess with many punitive, reflex-heavy games, so I wouldn’t have given Hyper Light Drifter another thought if it weren’t for its award-winning (by me) visuals; but its challenging combat is tight, responsive, and fun. When Metroid Prime was first announced, most people were suspicious of changing what had previously been a side-scrolling adventure game into a first-person shooter. Previews of Prime’s intricate alien worlds kept players calm enough to play the game and eventually embrace it as one of the medium’s finest.
I’m always going to be a little susceptible to a game that looks like a watercolor or old-timey daguerreotype, even as I try to be mindful of what I want from it. Like a lot of people, I’m looking forward Cuphead, the long-in-development game that pairs Fleischer brothers-era animation with, of all things, bullet-hell shooting. While I love the former, I am decidedly terrible at the latter. But c’mon, just look at it! How could it be bad?