Friday, 28 March 2014

Background Art in Video Games and their Visual Impact

   Nowadays video game graphics are turning hyper-realistic to the point where people are voicing concerns that we will enter a technological era where we can no longer distinguish what is the virtual world and what belongs in reality. Looking at the time from when it began to the present we see that the game industry has matured at a fast rate – approximately 70 years. Back in the 90’s when technology limited the amount of detail in graphics the designers had to rely on background detail to help the player find the game appealing despite there being limited pixels. This was considered revolutionary, especially with games such as Final Fantasy, you had coloured artworks on your screen to interact with however it was problematic for some players as, although the background was visually appealing to look at, the art could be misleading for such simple reasons as it didn't provide enough information that you had to exit from a certain side as there was no opening to hint at you. So, just how significant is background art in relation to the story provided throughout the game? This essay shall look at the importance of background art in various games and how they help the player to understand the story’s progress and immerse themselves in the game’s world through the tone and atmosphere given through colour.
   The game Yume Nikki, literally meaning ‘Dream Diary’, has no concrete narrative; there is no dialogue or a narrator telling you how to proceed or give hints on what to do next. Instead it is up to the player to be free and immerse themselves within the worlds and explore at their own leisure. What is certainly clear within the game is the use of colour for the different variety of worlds.

Fig. 1 Graffiti World (KIKIYAMA)

Fig. 2. Windmill World (KIKIYAMA)

 It is unknown if the creator of the game had a colour system or not for the worlds but in the examples above there doesn't seem to be a coherent system as everything is all put together to create a chaotic world. When looking into the theories of the game it can be assumed this is intentional as the chaotic nature of the worlds could represent the main character’s life or warped perception of her world. Holtzschue mentions “Colour can be a visual expression of mood or emotion... alter behaviour or induce mood” (2011:8). This is certainly true in relation to the player’s reactions to the dream worlds, with the clashing of colours to make abstract backgrounds, visually, we can deduce the chaotic nature of the colour palette reflects the main character’s state of mind, and since there is no concrete narrative the player is intrigued to investigate and dive further into the game. Rose states that by being surrounded by visual technology we are given a warped perception of the world through their images and although these images are rendered they are never innocent – “These images are never transparent windows on to the world. They interpret the world; they display it in very particular ways” (2001:6). Although this is in relation to the analysis of colour I can’t help but feel it strongly connects to the overall feel of Yume Nikki.
The main character, Madotsuki, name literally means ‘window’ and with many fans of the game her name is considered to be a metaphor of the player’s experience when exploring the dreams. From looking at the variety of the dreams I can summarise that Madotsuki must be experiencing some kind of hardship for having such a difference of chaotic yet calming dreams.

Fig. 3. Snow World (KIKIYAMA)

Even in the calmer dreams there is still an eerie feeling in the atmosphere. From the examples above there is an abundant use of white. Peacock states that “An all-consuming whiteness mirrors strong yet introspective emotional states: loneliness, self-pity, jealousy and the blankness of a hollowed-out life” (2010:9). In Snow World it is clear there is a large space and the way Madotsuki is placed gives off the vibe that she is alone or isolated. The trees having a hue of blue adds a bit of a grey atmosphere to the scene which contributes to the lonely feeling the image has. With the lack of narrative it is up to the player’s imagination to piece together what the story could be in which David Dring remarks in my interview with him, considers the process as a ‘lost art form’. But even with narration does the game become any less than ones without it that are produced by independent developers?

Fig. 4. Dollet (SQUARE SOFT)

Fig. 5. Balamb Town (SQUARE SOFT)

Final Fantasy 8 (FF8) was considered part of the revolutionary change with the way Final Fantasy dealt in telling their stories, in art and narrative. In the interview I conducted with Dring he said that for him the detail in the backgrounds were more realistic and helped him to bond well with the game’s plot than other Japanese games where they had a more stylised art form which seems more childish  than serious (2014). The colours in the image of Balamb Garden mainly rely on blues to reflect the nature of the town being near a sea port and giving it a calm, relaxing vibe to the town whereas the palette choice for Dollet is a mixture of brown and red, with a hue of grey which reflects the situation of the town caught in a war. I find that these two towns juxtapose each other as Dollet has a dark colour palette which reflects the theme of war whilst Balamb Town, mainly using blue to give off a calm feeling, is a town not knowing war and only knows of peace.
   Although the backgrounds are more detailed than the ones in Yume Nikki and give off a better atmosphere, the main problem that seems to pop up about them is that they are a flat image to be interacted with compared to Yume Nikki where the backgrounds moves together with the character. McAllister mentions in the interview with him that certain rendered objects in the background give off a misconception of the feel of the game and feel as if they don’t belong in the overall graphics (2014). Continuing from his point he mentions that with a flat background hidden secrets tend to be overlooked because after rendering they look part of the background and sometimes the same background colour palette is used on them so it causes frustration for players to enjoy the area in the game. However some view that the frustration adds to the enjoyment of the game play; players are divided into two groups: one enjoys the exploration and self-figuration of puzzles whilst the other, influenced by tutorials in later games, prefer things to be obvious and laid out in front of them.

Fig.6. Castlevania (1986)

With games advancing in graphics there are more opportunities to add realistic flares to the scenery such as a wide variety of colour, texture and lighting. However this is seen by some as a bad thing because, certainly with the hyper realistic graphics everything in the game’s world starts to feel real but it loses out in the limitation of older games and their reliance on the player’s imagination. In Hanson’s (2011) video he mentions with the NES game Castlevania that despite the limiting graphics the developers had to rely on the game itself to make it enjoyable for the player, and a particular element that made the game enjoyable was the colours for the background. The game has a gothic theme to it so the colour palette needs to reflect that nature, thus the choice is primarily black and dark blues but the levels also contain an abundance of orange. Both colours complement each other and the blue made the orange ‘pop-out’ and as a result the game felt more dynamic than a flat 2-D image (2011). Dring added on to Hanson’s comment that the result of the limiting colours made the player rely on their imagination which made the game more enjoyable because it felt personal to the player when following the story. Although the limitations of old games enhanced the imagination of the player it can be visually dampening, so what happens when the player encounters a visual game that solely relies on colour?

Fig. 7. Okami (2006)

Fig.8. Okami Village (2006)

The main part of Okami that stands out to many players is the theme of nature and being eco-friendly. The game is unlike typical Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs) because most of the game play involves helping nature grow and helping the environment. In looking at the backgrounds the game incorporates bright, vibrant colours to help the game feel alive. This is evident in the scenes where flowers bloom as the bright variety of colours gives a sense of spring time and filing the player a sense of achievement that they have done some kind of good. In the second image of the village there is a red saturation which dulls the look of the houses but fills the scene with a warm feeling, conveying the idea of the sun setting into the night. McAllister mentioned in the interview with him that a lot of one colour conveys messages to him, which he further goes into when describing scenes from the game:
“Darker shades like black and deep reds, to me, always give off an ominous feeling,... whereas white of light blues give off a sense of calmness in the area” (2014).
   He has mentioned that the colours, together with the imagery of flowers and nature, have pulled him into the story. It is not a typical save-the-world kind of scenario as the same time you are helping the world to ‘live’ and combat against the poisonous vibe off the villain. The plot is simple at its core but what seems to make the story so effective is the art style and how the narrative is similar to a picture book as Dring mentioned:
“Okami makes you use your imagination and decide for yourself what the objects are, similar to how reading a book works where you imagine what people and places look like” (2014).
   For Okami their success lies in the art style being different from the conventional style that a typical JRPG would have, as well as the wide variety of vibrant colours to represent the blossoming theme of nature appearing throughout the game play, showing that it is possible to convey messages and narrative solely through imagery than dialogue and the player would still recognise the atmosphere within the story.
   It seems there is no right or wrong way with the designs of backgrounds but the choices made in their design do affect the initial reactions of the player when experiencing the game play for the first time. With Yume Nikki, to a certain extent, the chaotic nature of the colours seems to be excused because the usage links back to the hinted nature of the game. With Castlevania the game was made in the 80’s so technology was still premature then but the designers were clever in using complimentary colours to boost the background imagery. Final Fantasy 8 had detail incorporated into their backgrounds which isn't really shown clearly with the previously mentioned games, but together with the selective colour palettes of the areas helped to convey to the player the atmosphere and help them understand what the situation would be like if they stood in the main character’s shoes – hence the term ‘role-playing game’. The games have proven in their own unique way their importance on creating a vibe within the story and showing the audience a creative outlook into their world.

Words by Victoria Chu

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