The collaborative nature of game development has never been more apparent than in 2019, when we have a better insight into the sausage-factory than ever before. However one of the more unsung aspects of game development is the person or persons who create the artistic style of the game.
As such a visual medium, our eyes get the first impression of what a game is like- and if we like it or not. Think of the first thing you usually see when going to purchase a game- some (hopefully) snazzy box art. And no other artist has won me over more thoroughly than Japanese artist Yoji Shinkawa- artist for the Metal Gear Solid franchise. This is not his only claim to fame, however. Additionally, he has created art for other Konami franchises such as Zone of the Enders. Fans of monster films may also recognise his work in promotional art for Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim.
What makes Shinkawa such a brilliant artist in my opinion is his use of a simple medium -ink- to its fullest potential. Shinkawa works mainly in brush pen (or fudepen) which gives all of his work a wispy, deconstructed feeling, while the boldness of the dark ink creates a powerful, commanding style. Shinkawa is unafraid of leaving large amounts of white space in his art, which paradoxically makes this negative space provide detail to many of his concept pieces.
His work is featured on much of the box art for the Metal Gear Solid series and it’s not difficult to see why. Shinkawa’s art is honestly one of my favourite aspects of a series that I already love very dearly. And if an artist can achieve that, then something must be said about the power they have over the authorship of games.
Video games are a weird medium to analyse. On the one hand, its fairly evident that they disseminate their core message through their mechanics yet, at the same time, those mechanics themselves need to be rendered meaningful through audible or visual elements (after all, most of us can’t really engage with raw code).
Naturally, the interaction between visuals and mechanics opens up a number of interesting gameplay opportunities, and few games take advantage of them as well as Lucas Pope’s Return of the Obra Dinn.
The visual differences between Return of the Obra Dinn and Pope’s previous title Papers, Please are readily apparent. Departing from the pixel art of its predecessor, Obra Dinn is not only rendered in 3D but also adopts a first-person perspective. Even more striking however is the colour palette, or the lack thereof. In an interview with PC Gamer, Pope stated this monochromatic art style drew inspiration from early Macintosh games. In terms of visual appeal, I personally like it. Despite being deliberately reminiscent of older games, Obra Dinn doesn’t really look like anything on the market today and its art style goes a long way to establish an uncanny, almost foreboding tone that fits perfectly with the game’s narrative.
But for me, the true artistry in Obra Dinn’s visual style lies in how it informs the gameplay. The game centres on the titular Obra Dinn, a ghost ship you must investigate with the aid of a magic pocket watch which allows you to relive moments of death. Through these haunting frozen scenes, the player must then deduce who particular crewmembers were and what fate befell them. Here, the monochromatic art style necessitates the player pay close attention to their surroundings, observing what crewmembers were doing and who they were interacting with. As a fascinating example of a game’s visual style effectively becoming part of the mechanics, Obra Dinn is a truly memorable experience.