Sunday, October 28, 2012

NYU 9th Floor Talks: From Boticelli's Venus to Super Mario

Chris Solarski, author of Drawing Basics and Video Game Art, gave a talk at NYU about how video games can learn from the foundations of art.

  • Chris was a 3D artist at Sony but always wanted to be a concept artist. He quit his job and studied traditional art and painting for two years. He later worked at Gbanga.
  • He was selected by the Swiss Arts Council to present at the Game Culture Conference and argue for games as an art form. It was the first time for him to think about game art and fine art as the same.
  • His book, Drawing Basics and Video Game Art, covers character design, environments, fundamentals of art, and many other topics. The constant thread throughout is emotions.
  • The fundamentals of art such as classical composition, volume, light, perspectives, and proportions can all be applied to video games.
  • Many classical artworks have hidden composition lines that dominate our eye flow. For example, Johannes Vermeer's Diana and her Companions uses a circular composition to guide our eyes towards the soft nature of the work. On the other hand, Peter Paul Rubens' Massacre of the Innocents uses very angular and diagonal lines to convey aggressiveness. Emotions are communicated by displaying composition over details.
  • Edgar Degas's Waiting shows a good contrast between a circular composition and an angular one.
  • "Reality can be reduced to simple shapes."
  • Games, unlike fine art, have dynamic composition. While fine art captures a moment in time, the composition of a video game is constantly changing based on the player's path.
  • There are many ways emotions can be communicated.
    • By level design and pathways
      • Gears of War is a very aggressive and angular game. The way the characters move, the sudden movements of the camera, and the level design and pathways are all very angular. The level design include many corners and sharp turns.
    • By character movement
      • Vanquish is a very angular game in its character movements.
      • Journey, however, uses circular composition in its open canvas and the way the characters move.
    • By character and environment design
      • Sword and Sworcery uses an art style that's halfway between round and angular. The use of rectangles communicate tranquility.
      • Mario uses a sphere concept to denote that he's a good guy. His head, nose, stomach, hands, feet, and even his mustache are composited using circle shapes. Wario, on the other hand, has sharpening details to make him a more aggressive character. In the Mario games, many enemies have spikes and triangles to indicate their evil nature.
    • By the relationship between character and environment
      • In Chris's own game, MORF (, there are only two levels with no technical differences between them. There are only aesthetic differences in that the first level, everything is rounded, and in the second level, everything is angular. However, playtesters treated the second level as dangerous and even said "ouch" whenever they run into the spikes.
    • By narrative and character development
      • Link in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time always stands and moves in the same way the entire game. There's nothing about his movement that shows you he's becoming more of a hero. However, his heroic progression is shown through the UI icons. As he becomes stronger, he will have more options and icons in his inventory.
      • Eugene Delacroix has said that we're not all flat, we're always changing every minute.
      • We're too focused on creating one experience (aggressive vs. passive) that we're not focusing on character depth.
      • Journey does a decent job of conveying emotions through character movement (walking vs. running vs. walking against the snowstorm).
    • By player's movements
      • Motion controllers, camera, and touch use the physical body language to control the game. This revolution bring artist collaboration between the developer and the players.
  • Mario Kart has smooth turns while Tron Revolution has sharp, abrupt turns.
  • A game designer is like a music composer.
  • Immediate actions require immediate communication.
  • The three most basic shapes are circle (representing softness), squares (representing stability), and triangles (representing danger and aggressiveness).
  • In The Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit homes are very circular, the castles and the forests are very rectangular, and the towers and Sauron himself are very angular. Even the volcano is the shape of a triangle.
  • Industrial design of cars also take into account of these three simple shapes. Compare a Volkswagon beetle vs. a minivan vs. a Ferrari.
  • We do judge books by its cover. We think of speed, stability, or softness just by looking at its shape.
  • GlaDos from Portal is a circular character, yet she turns out to be evil. She is a very deep and complex character. Her design was inspired by Boticelli's Venus when turned upside down. You can see the zig-zag hair and the opposing curves.
Question and Answer
  • Lines, shapes, and composition all have powerful influences on emotions. So do complementary and conflicting colors. Mario's colors are near complementary, while Wario's are super contrasting.
  • Halo's characters move in circular, slow arcs, while the enemies are more angular and aggressive.
  • Pixar's Wall-E has a slow, lonely introduction and a large chase at the end of the film. Games are often the opposite with the chase at the beginning and the slow grind afterwards.
  • The Art of Journey is a wonderful book that covers level design and color composition of Journey.
  • In-game photography is not a surprising trend to come out of video games, since many game environments and composition are very beautiful.
  • The talk reduced emotions to three fundamental shapes, but reality is much more complex. Designers should find inspiration from outside world and real experiences to drive their design.

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