Art direction in video games lead image

Video games as art is a hotly debated issue. In 2012, the Museum of Modern Art in New York entered the debate when they acquired 14 games as part of their collection of Architecture and Design. Similarly, London’s Barbican recently exhibited several games as part of its 2014 Digital Revolution exhibition, suggesting art museums are starting to recognise their qualities.

On the other hand, the Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones has suggested that if games are art, they remain aligned with old fashioned Renaissance ideals of realism and linear perspective. But whichever side of the argument you agree with, games definitely offer a unique fusion of visual art design and interactivity.

To celebrate the third instalment of Tate Worlds - Tate’s collaboration with Minecraft - we take a look at some great recent examples of art direction in video games.

BioShock (2007)

PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Microsoft Windows, OS X

Art direction in video games Bioshock

A first person shooter set in a collapsing underwater city, BioShock throws the player into an intricately designed world inspired by the art deco style of the 1930s, and in particular the architecture of New York City. The skyline of Rapture (the game’s city) reflects many of New York’s towering Art Deco skyscrapers like The Chrysler Building, The Rockefeller Center and The Empire State Building, and the style also informs many of the city’s statues, posters and neon signs that players encounter along the way.

Art direction in video games Bioshock

Dark Souls (2011)

PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Microsoft Windows

Art direction in video games Dark Souls 1

Medieval fantasy worlds are common ground in video games, but the kingdom of Lordran, the setting for action role-playing game Dark Souls, is something special. Utilising a gorgeous use of chiaroscuro to cast powerful lights and darks, and bathed in a never ending twilight, the game achieves director Hidetaka Miyazaki’s desire for “refinement, elegance and dignity.” Unsurprisingly, one of the game’s most breathtaking locations is modelled on the Italian Gothic style of Milan Cathedral.

Art direction in video games Dark Souls 2

Journey (2012)

PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4

Art direction in video games Journey 1

In Journey the player controls an ambiguous red robed figure and is tasked with wandering a vast, lonely landscape, slowly making their way towards a distant mountain marked by a single beam of light. Journey has a beautiful simplicity of design, with its sharp lines and bold colours creating some incredibly distinctive visuals. The only signs of life in this world are other (online) players, creating an environment where, as art director Matt Nava put it, “people have no choice but to be together.”

Art direction in video games Journey 2

Katamari Damacy (2004)

PlayStation 2

Art direction in video games Katamari Damacy 1

Katamari Damacy is a puzzle action game in which the player rolls around a giant adhesive ball. The player is able to pick up (increasingly large) parts of the environment - from everyday items like pencils and fruit, to houses, cars and eccentricities like mermaids and sumo wrestlers. What emerges are bizarre abstract shapes made up of found objects, inspired by the sculptures that designer Keita Takahashi crafted during his time as a student at Tokyo’s prestigious Musashino Art University.

Art direction in video games Katamari Damacy 2

Limbo (2010)

PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows, OS X 

Art direction in video games limbo 2

Presented completely in black and white, Limbo is a 2D puzzle platforming game set in a minimalist, monochrome landscape. The design evokes gothic fairytales, and is inspired by the mixed emotions of wonder and fear that Danish designer Arnt Jensen experienced exploring the dark Scandinavian woods as a child. With no soundtrack and no dialogue, this game is also part silent movie, and its art direction is a clear nod to 1920s German Expressionist cinema.

Art direction in video games limbo 1

Monument Valley (2014)

IOS, Android

Art direction in video games Monument Valley 1

Monument Valley is a puzzle game inspired by the art of the Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher. The game is centred around perspective and environmental puzzles, with designer Ken Wong explaining the goal was to take the artist’s ideas and transform them into a real environment, “so that it’s not just an impossible shape but there are characters in there and it’s its own little world.” Aesthetics were a strong driving force behind this game, with the studio’s ambition being that “every screen shot could be printed out and hung on a wall.”

Art direction in video games Monument Valley 2

Okami (2006)

PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Wii

Top 10 Art Direction in Video Games Okami
Okami, developed by Clover Studio

What if you could get inside those beautiful Japanese woodcuts by Hokusai or Hiroshige? That’s exactly the experience that action adventure game Okami provides. Using cell shading to create some stunning watercolour and print effects, the game gives the player the opportunity to explore a lush environment inspired by traditional Japanese art. Additionally, your character is also an artist - a divine wolf wielding a giant paintbrush – which he uses to manipulate, or re-paint, the environment.

Top 10 Art Direction in Video Games Okami
Okami, developed by Clover Studio

Rez (2001)

Dreamcast, PlayStation 2, Xbox 360

Art direction in video games Monument Valley Rez 1

Rez is a shoot em’ up with a unique visual style, a blend of polygon shapes, neon lights and digital effects that overwhelm the player. Based on ideas of synaesthesia, the game’s development name was “K-Project”, a direct homage to the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky who claimed to experience connections between music and colour. The game’s electronic soundtrack and colours evolve based on the player’s actions, with everything from the player’s avatar to the enemies locked into rhythm!

Art direction in video games Monument Valley Rez 2

Shadow of the Colossus (2005)

PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3

Art direction in video games Shadow Colossus 1

Shadow of the Colossus lands the player in a huge, expansive landscape saturated in pale blues and greens, filled with mountains, rivers, ruins and forests, but with barely anything living in it. Except 16 colossuses – beings so large they appear as part of the landscape themselves. The protagonist’s goal is to resurrect a young girl by defeating each giant, but every time one is defeated, the player is left with the emotional guilt of having rid the world of such awesome beasts.

Art direction in video games Shadow Colossus 2

Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island (1995)

SNES, Game Boy Advance, Virtual Console (Wii, Wii U, 3DS)

Art direction in video games Shadow Colossus Super Mario 1

And of course, one of the originals is still one of the best. Super Mario World 2 is the 2D platformer everybody knows, but although it features the well known Mario characters, this game’s graphics differ from most other instalments in the series. Due to Mario’s character being a baby, the backgrounds appear as if they have been drawn with crayons and feltpens, giving the world a unique childlike charm.

Art direction in video games Shadow Colossus Super Mario

Explore the latest Tate Worlds Minecraft virtual environment ‘map’ inspired by Sir Peter Blake’s The Toy Shop in Tate’s collection 

Like games? Tate Kids is an online destination for kids aged 5-13 and has a myriad of art games to play and explore!