The Fundamentals of 2D Artwork and 2D Techniques in Video Gaming

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Two-dimensional art is everywhere, and it may be presumed to be as old as the first figure or pattern painted on a cavern wall thousands of millennia ago. In the present day, you see it in paintings, t-shirt prints, and the cover art of books. But most notable is the 2D artwork that people find in games and that gaming companies still use in their products. Along with changes in media, 2D art evolved to mean differently depending on its use.

In this article, we will limit the discussion of 2D art in the digital space, particularly in games — the techniques to create it, its continued prevalence, and the ways you can bring stellar 2D digital art assets to life. 

So let’s start by asking: Exactly what is 2D art, and how does it maintain its relevance in the world of gaming?

Image credits to Unsplash

What Is 2D Art? Its Basic Definition and How It Differs from 3D Art

Two-dimensional art refers to composition that’s generally restricted to length and width and whose appearance occurs on a flat surface. In the context of gaming, 2D games have 2D art assets with vertical or horizontal animation. 

2D video games refer to action happening on a 2D plane and typically are either side-scrolling or vertically-scrolling. What’s more, the characters and environments are usually rendered in 2D.

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But what about games that allow only vertical and horizontal movement and have 3D assets? Many developers and gamers refer to this type of style as 2.5D. Similar to Trompe L’oeil Paintings, 2.5D games simulate layers of depth, but the assets — or piece of art — are actually on a flat surface.

We can distill 2D games into the following elements:

  1. Two-dimensional game art, which includes the characters, objects, and environment
  2. Movement limited to side- and vertical-scrolling

Is 3D Digital Art Superior to 2D Digital Art?

In 1958, physicist William Higinbotham created the precursor to Pong and to a spate of 2D games that followed: Tennis for Two. It’s a tennis simulation game that was played on an analog computer. But then the advent of 3D games came about soon after in the 1980s when Battlezone was commercially released. The gaming industry continued to break past the limits of gaming, introducing virtual reality games in the 1990s and augmented reality games in the 2000s. And 2D games just went out of fashion — right? Not at all. 

Despite the advanced gaming experiences available in the market, the two-dimensional experience in gaming manages to thrive. There is some truth to the notion that 3D games offer a more realistic and immersive experience than 2D games do. You get to play the character and see the environment through their eyes. Plus, there is a whole lot more depth. But 2D games offer a unique, and perhaps nostalgic, gaming experience that’s vastly different and incomparable to 3D games.

But aren’t 2D games easier to make? We defined 2D games as games with two-dimensional elements capable of only vertical or horizontal movement. Three-dimensional games, on the other hand, allow for a variety of animation. This makes 3D games more complicated to produce, but complicated development does not automatically make grade-A video games. Yes, three-dimensional games are more time-consuming and difficult to develop, but difficulty in production is the sole comparison that can be made between these two game art styles.

Image credits to Pexels

2D Artwork and the Gaming Industry

Widely known as the first commercially released video game, Pong is a table tennis-simulation 2D game that gives players the objective to hit the moving object away from their base. As it is the first game ever developed, it uses very simple graphics with pixelated assets representing paddle and ball. 

This was in the ‘70s. Today, we have a variety of gaming styles, some of which are so advanced that it’s easy to presume 2D games have already gone out of style. This, however, could not be further from the truth. Because in truth, 2D games are a force unphased by new styles. 

Through continuous innovation in aesthetics, different gaming experiences using 2D artwork were introduced, but most common is the approach of utilizing 2D artwork to enhance storytelling. 

Image credits to Unsplash

For example, the deeply haunting black and white 2D game Limbo tells the story of a child who finds himself in a dark forest apparently set in the afterlife. The character goes on a side-scrolling adventure where he meets dangerous elements during his journey. This is a great example of how 2D artwork creates an ambiance so fitting for the tale of the game, something a 3D approach is not able to achieve in the same context.

Then, there are games that merge 2D gameplay and 3D art, which is the case for New Super Mario Bros. Inversely, some games employ 3D gameplay and 2D artwork, which is what the popular Untitled Goose Game did.

Some modern games also evoke nostalgia or the idea of “simpler times” by coupling storytelling with pixelated 2D artwork. This theme is stark in Stardew Valley, a role-playing game where the player leaves their corporate life behind to tend to the farm passed on by their grandfather.   

With the number of 2D games companies and developers produce today, it’s safe to say that 2D is sure to stay until the end.

Image credits to Pexels

Common 2D Artwork Styles and Techniques Used in Games

Vector Art Technique

Vector artwork in games is a high-precision type of asset that’s created with geometric elements and math formulas. The integrity of the asset remains intact whether you zoom into it closely or view it at a small scale. You can find this type of technique in the video game Castle Crashers.

Flat Art Technique

Flat art is common among 2D games. Its simplified style makes use of basic geometric shapes and its color palette greatly emphasizes the mood and ambiance the game is going for. A good example of a two-dimensional game with a flat art style is Alto’s Adventure.

Realistic 2D Art Technique 

This approach does not always translate into a fully developed game. Realistic 2D art is more commonly used for creating elegant AAA (Triple A) concept art, which is fundamental to the game development process. Want to see examples of eye-catching AAA concept art? Check out our portfolio

Pixel Art Technique

The pixelated design is an old two-dimensional game style. It did not start off as a style as much as it did a limitation, but gaming companies today, such as the developer of Stardew Valley, use this approach purposefully, often with the intention of alluding to the earlier era of video gaming.

How We Create 2D Artwork for Our Clients

Now comes the question of whether you should outsource the 2D art assets of your game. While this is a decision that heavily depends on a company’s needs, a few considerations you want to keep in mind include whether you have the right creatives on your team. And if not, think about whether you have enough time to go through the recruitment process. Then, you have to know the right infrastructure your 2D game needs, and if you have the resources to set up your production station.

Should you decide to outsource 2D art creation, you have to then find a company with tons of 2D art experience. At NarraSoft, we’ve worked with so many gaming companies that have asked us to produce 2D game assets. Here’s what our process looks like:

First, we create the concept art for our client. To comprehensively know our process, check out our post here! In essence, we discuss the aesthetic our client wants for their game, then we sketch and flesh out several suggestions until we arrive at the final guiding appearance.

Second, we rough sketch all the desired elements of a game. That means we create the shape and outline of the environment, the characters, and the objects. 

Third, we add color to the assets. This is where we make sure the elements really pop out, or appear more subtle — depending on the client’s needs!

And lastly, we execute the final render. This is where we polish the assets and add the final touches to make them ready for use.

In Summary

The 2D game art style continues to thrive because of its unique ability to tell a story and evoke emotion. Some of the common techniques used in 2D games include:

  • Vector Art Technique
  • Flat Art Technique
  • Realistic 2D Art Technique
  • Pixel Art Technique

Outsourcing your 2D game art assets is a good way to save capital, time, and resources, especially if you’re a new gaming company. At NarraSoft, we can create your 2D art through a simple yet reliable process:

1st: We make your concept art.

2nd: We rough sketch the assets.

3rd: We add color.

4th: We execute the final render.

NarraSoft’s outsourcing services range from project development to business processes. You can expect services involving data entry, technical support, 3D art creation, software development, and so many more. If you’re interested in outsourcing to NarraSoft, send an email to sales@narrasoft.com!

Justine Jordan

Justine Jordan

Justine Jordan is a content and copy writer. She has written for a popular business daily in the Philippines and for various startups across the globe before transitioning to work for NarraSoft. She graduated cum laude from the University of the Philippines-Diliman with a bachelor's degree in journalism.