Thursday, February 23, 2012

Cartoony vs. Realism?

I am hoping to approach this new module with an open mind, without falling into my "comfort zone". Before exploring concept ideas for the themes, I've been interested in having a look at how the game industry approaches the stylisation of their games. I found another very interesting article on Gamasutra which breaks down the definition of "cartoony" - a very vague and unhelpful definition - into more understandable and clear terms.

The article suggests that the gaming industry's current relentless drive to make contemporary games as realistic as possible stems from the fact that, when these developers were experiencing games in the past, they were heavily limited to a very simplistic, garishly coloured style, and so with the advancement of technology they see it as necessary to break away from this as far as possible. Generally speaking, a modern "gamer" will believe that the more realistic a game is, the higher it's quality, with the majority of styled "cartoony" games tending to be aimed at younger audiences. Quickly looking at IGN's top Xbox 360 games from the past 6 months, it is possible to see that cartoony games often are only available from the 360 Arcade (Joe Danger, Warp, Puddle), and/or tend to be 2D side-scrollers (Rayman Origins, Bloodrayne: Betrayal, Shank 2).This all suggests that the style isn't perhaps seen as suitable for an innovative, full-length, high-quality gaming experience; instead, games which strive for realism such as Crysis 2 or Skyrim are seen as graphical hallmarks that demonstrate the medium's true artistic capabilities.

which style would be seen as more likely to offer a quality gaming experience?

Of course, this is quite a major generalisation, and looking at the Top 10 Best Looking Games of E3 2011 it is clear that there is a variety of styles considered, from the photorealism of Battlefield 3 to the highly graphical styles of Rayman Origins (which is quite deftly described as an "interactive cartoon") and Journey. Cartoon games which are praised and valued for battling gaming conventions (Journey, Limbo) are often short in length, quite abstract and open to interpretation, more like an interactive work of art rather than an extensive experience of a story, but perhaps it does hint at a future for a deeper experience of games that are also in this style.

However, as the article I linked earlier suggests, these definitions of "cartoon" and "realistic" are highly problematic. Many games which are valued for quality of storytelling as well as art style can't exactly be said to be realistic: titles such as those from the Final Fantasy series, or Bayonetta, for instance. Having a look at a demo of the upcoming console the Wii-U, there's an example of some beautiful graphical capabilities existing in a "cartoony" world in this Zelda video. Although it has been said that the final game might not look like this, it's still a good example of how a stylised game can still be incredibly cinematic and exciting. 

This is where the style definitions given in the article are helpful. On top of realism, we have, to differing extents:
  • Enhanced Realism
    • Proportions and details kept realistic
    • Increased contrast between light and shadow
    • Increased color saturation

    e.g. Gears of War, Batman: Arkham Asylum, and games that are stylised whilst retaining a very human quality, like seen in the above demo of Zelda

    Bayonetta probably more accurately falls between enhanced and distorted realism. I would place it under enhanced because the world is styled and textured in a way that we recognise, and feels tangible. 

  • Simplified Realism
    • Increased contrast
    • Increased saturation
    • Fewer and distortedly large details
    • Color ranges, patterns and shapes simplified to clichés

    e.g. games often associated with being "cartoony" like Animal Crossing, games from franchises such as Mario or Pokemon.

  • Distorted Realism
    • Shapes and internal proportions are violently distorted
    • Increased contrast
    • Increased saturation

    e.g. Psychonauts, Ratchet and Clank, perhaps Alice: Madness Returns.

  • Different combinations of the above...
Following this research I can see that, personally, I'm probably most interested in pursuing a style somewhere between distorted and enhanced realism. I'm fascinated with the idea of creating a three-dimensional world that offers a meaningful experience, whilst being quite fantastical and distorted. I'm interested to see where a beautifully dark style like the one seen in Alice: Madness Returns could go in other games.

Of course, for this project I am trying not to get too carried away with my ideas as I'm aware of my limited experience of 3D modelling software. The three themes we could choose from include a fairytale setting and a crashed UFO site, and I was very much drawn to the fairytale setting as it seems to offer the most creative freedom, but I'm now aware that I could take the UFO site and take that in many directions as well. I'm going to have to brainstorm...

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