Video Game Art Styles You Will See In Almost Every Game

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The game art styles we know and love today have come a long way ever since the release of the first video game. We went from the era of 8-bit games like Tetris (1984) to the advanced digital age that creates photorealistic games, such as Resident Evil 3 (2020).

But all art styles — from the ‘80s until today — have persisted in one way or another. And in this blog post, we will tackle all of them.

The Basic Video Game Art Styles

Video game consumers often think a game’s art style results from the developer’s or designer’s choice. Of course, this is true — but only in part. Because the truth is a game developer’s artistic decision is confined to the technology available during the time they decide to build their game. So as you’re reading this blog post, bear in mind the progress technology has made through the years since the 1970s.

The frameworks we will use to describe the most defining game art styles are those theorized by Mary Keo, an Information Technology graduate of Häme University of Applied Sciences, and Aki Järvinen, a game specialist and academic. In their thesis Graphical Style in Video Games, Keo posits three basic art styles. These are: 

  • Abstract
  • Stylized
  • Realistic 

These fundamental styles are based on Järvinen’s work Gran Stylissimo: The Audiovisual Elements and Styles in Computer and Video Games. They simplify the way we categorize the art common in video games. In fact, these styles are so prevalent that you will start seeing them in almost every game by the time you’re done reading this article.

Screenshot of mobile game Vertyball showing the abstract art style

Abstract Game Art Style

The abstract game art style is mainly composed of simple shapes and forms. Users often have to surmise what a game element’s function is because there is no clear picture of what the elements represent. Nevertheless, the game elements reveal their role once users play the game after some time. 

To determine whether a game has an abstract art style, it must have the following elements according to Keo:

  • Geometric shapes and forms are the main elements of a game (i.e., the environment, characters, and objects).
  • Game elements are indirectly represented.

This style, which Järvinen refers to as abstractionism, is the first to appear among the three simply because gaming was at its earliest, experimental stage. There was no technology to support complex gaming experiences, and developers had no idea what a game is capable of achieving at the time. 

A good old example of this game art style is Pong. Players can deduce the vertical lines on each end of the screen are the paddles, and the small circle that looks like a dot represents a ball. But it’s so abstract because the elements in the game are simply two lines and a dot.

In the picture above, you can see the mobile game Vertyball at work. The user’s goal is to surpass all the hurdles before the cyan ball, including the hexagonal shape and the triangular spikes. Notice how these shapes have no inherent meaning. Yet because the developers placed them in an environment where everything interplays with one another, users are able to determine the role of each game element in relation to its surrounding elements. That’s how and why abstractionism works. 

Hello Kitty game by NarraSoft

Stylized Game Art Style

If you have played games such as Super Mario Bros. and Animal Crossing, then you have already encountered good examples of stylized art in games. In a stylized game, the appearance of characters, objects, and the environment takes inspiration from cartoons, comics, and caricatures, according to Järvinen, who refers to this art style as caricaturism

The elements that you will observe in a stylized game include the following:

  • Game elements’ features are generally exaggerated.
  • Game elements are reminiscent of paintings, drawings, comics, caricatures, cartoons, and the like.

Stylized games are also not limited to realistic movement, Keo says. But some games with a highly stylized art style do adhere to the laws of physics. Fall Guys is a good example of a stylized platformer video game whose animation mirrors what it’s like for bouncy objects to waddle, fall, and get hurled out of an arena by obstacles.

In their thesis, Keo regards stylized or caricaturism as the most flexible and expressive of the three game art styles. There is no pressure to strictly observe the standards — such as fidelity to real world objects’ appearance — imposed by the realistic game art style, and in stylized game art, game developers generally go beyond geometric forms. It’s the best middle-ground among all the art styles, in terms of the style itself and the technology available. Järvinen even says caricaturism is a sound alternative to photorealism if game companies want their audience to feel a specific mood and ambiance. 

Realistic game art style by NarraSoft

Realistic Game Art Style

We have seen this art style everywhere. The characters, objects, and environments inside a game look like faithful replications of the things we see in real life. We have seen it in first-person shooter games, such as Hunt: Showdown, in horror games, such as Visage and Until Dawn, and action games, such as The Last of Us and Resident Evil. But this game art style emerged fairly recently — in the 1990s. 

The more progress technology makes, the more sophisticated games become. This is why the realistic game art style appeared in the ‘90s. It started when gaming companies released games that featured realistic human characters, such as those in Mortal Kombat, Tomb Raider, and Tekken. These games paved the way for the high-quality, AAA games we enjoy today.

There is, however, some debate with regard to the type of game art style exhibited by Mortal Kombat and Tekken. Some might regard the game art as stylized, owing to the fantastical elements in the game. But Järvinen argues games with realistic-looking elements set in a fantastical world are a sub-genre of the realistic game art style illusionism. On the other hand, Keo proposes this is an intersection of the stylized and realistic art styles

For a game to be considered realistic, two elements need to be present. However, the following elements merely serve as guidelines and should not be set in stone:

  • Game elements are depicted as close to real-life as possible.
  • The movement of these elements are as close to real-world physics.

Which of These Game Art Styles Should You Consider Outsourcing?

Outsourcing is an old and common practice in business. Time and time again, studies have shown how outsourcing significantly improves a company’s operations. So much so that asking whether it is an effective practice has already become moot. Instead, companies ask, “What work should we outsource?”

The video game art styles in this article require different levels of work. If you’re planning to build a game with an abstract style, then you might find developing the game relatively easy. Creating stylized and realistic games, on the other hand, can be much trickier to accomplish than the former. 

Keo notes how time-consuming it is to develop realistic games, citing “modeling, texturing, lighting and [animation]” as only a few stages of the process. The level of work involved in rendering realistic games is also applicable to stylized games, especially since elements in such games have become complex. At NarraSoft, we know why gaming companies decide to outsource their art assets. They need a special set of skills.

Outsource to Optimize Your Operations and Give Your Company a Competitive Advantage

The good news is gaming companies have the option to outsource. But let’s go back to the question, “What work should your company outsource?” In a previous blog post, we created a layout of a well-known matrix that helps companies categorize their work efficiently. It answers what work a company should keep in-house and what work a company should outsource. 

According to Philippe-Pierre Dornier’s matrix, two determining factors tell you your company should start outsourcing. These factors are:

  • Whether the work you need to do is essential to your company’s operations but is a non-core activity (e.g., data entry work)
  • Whether the work  you need to do gives your company a competitive advantage but has the potential to hamper your operations (e.g., digital art creation)
Outsourcing Decision Matrix Guide by NarraSoft. Use this guide to know whether you should outsource your game art assets. Download the file below!

So in case you’re seriously considering outsourcing your game art or development, you have a tried-and-tested guide you can easily use.

In Summary

The most prevalent game art styles in video games, which have persisted through the years, are the following:

  • Abstract
  • Stylized 
  • Realistic

If your company plans on outsourcing game assets with any of these styles, you can outsource them to NarraSoft.

NarraSoft creates 2D and 3D game assets and animates art for any gaming experience.

We can also build games from the ground up, thanks to the amazing talent our company has. 

Interested in working with us? Send us an email at sales@narrasoft.com today or message us on our chat box or contact form.

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.