Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Hand drawn backgrounds are officially a thing, and games are better for it

A curious thing is happening in the gaming community.  

We live in a time when you can load up the latest gen game and be transported to a world with visuals that approach Avatar levels of ersatz beauty, but in this same world an increasing audience of game designers - and game consumers -  are embracing the allure of hand drawn artwork despite the potential of the latest graphic engines.

Admittedly, the artwork in question is usually relegated to the backgrounds and is given a distinctly modern lick of polish to help it shine, but it's a glorious, and undeniable, refutation of what a modern day game's graphics are capable of.

The reasons why studios go hand drawn are twofold (threefold, perhaps) and I'll dig into why game designers are going the artistic route below.

The first, and most obvious, reason for hand drawn artwork is an issue of style.  

If you want a fantasy game to appear more - well, fantastical... you'd be hard-pressed to find a better method of evoking a fairy tale atmosphere than hand drawn illustrations.  It's no coincidence that the majority of games with hand drawn artwork are either RPGs or are set in a high-fantasy world, after all.

Taking this approach, hand drawn are appeals to our minds and imaginations on an almost primal level.

These deceptively simple set pieces help us recall a time when things weren't so complicated, when we no idea what the hell a frame rate was, and our attention was commanded by each turn of a storybook's page which held the promise of adventure.

On a less grandiose level, the decision to embrace hand drawn artwork can also be made for stylistic reasons by those looking to recapture the faded beauty of pre-rendered, PSone era graphics that you'd see in, say, Final Fantasy VIIVIII, and IX.

In either case, whether the designers are hoping to appeal to one's childhood or adolescence, there's a conscious choice being made to direct a large project budget elsewhere and keep the backgrounds simple - if incredibly detailed.  

Games like Bravely Default could have easily made its town and cityscapes more sprawling areas where a traditional, 3/4 top-down perspective reigns supreme (a la Pokemon) but in keeping things simpler it managed to conjure up a great aesthetic success.

Of course, not every game has the budget of Bravely Default or Dragon's Crown, and in these cases the decision to embrace hand drawn artwork is often a case of budgetary constraints as it is stylistics.

Often seen more in indie games - which, by nature, have a more nimble budget than their 'biggie' game counterparts - a game that rocks hand drawn art and does it well can win over an audience of players almost instantly.

Paper Sorcerer struck gold with this formula, which it took to the absolute extreme, and the recent indie darling Darkest Dungeon is finding great success on Kickstarter by presenting fans with a comic book aesthetic that's one-half Hellboy and one-half H.P. Lovecraft.

Ultimately, the reason why a game designer opts for hand drawn art is immaterial.  Whether it's a big budget game hoping to evoke a sense of simplicity or an indie game hoping to stand out, both types of game are placing the player experience above the temptation to flex their technological nuts and churn out another bland, pseudo-realistic fantasyland for players to lose themselves in.

And the world is a much better place because of this.