Choosing the art style for your game can be difficult, there are benefits and difficulties on both sides. It would be far too complicated to address the individual art styles, so we’re just going to tackle the question of stylised versus hyper-realistic art. In short, whether you want to favour a creative or thematic style over hyper-realistic visuals.
For hyper-realism, it is quite straightforward what is intended. The progression of the Call of Duty and Battlefield series are an excellent example. Over time, their visuals have gotten more realistic. Faces and characters look closer to real humans, visuals, assets, and elements have all gotten sharper, all emulating a real-life look.
On the other side it’s trickier. There are huge swathes of differences between ‘stylised’ games, such as Cuphead or The Wolf Among Us. The former, is a 2D side-scroller that was painstakingly hand-drawn over many years. It is a Disney-esque throwback to teeth-grindingly difficult old-school scrolling shooters. The latter is a heavily stylised, narrative experience that is an homage to the source comic books, created using Telltale’s proprietary game engine. It pulls players into the comic book world and holds us there with the detailed elements drawing our attention, just like its source material.
So, for this comparison, we’re going to address the stylised artistic style as a whole.
Initially, you would think that hyper-realism would be the difficult one to attain. Trying to emulate a real-life look, surely that’s more difficult than an artist’s expression of a given style or theme.
The growing technology of the games industry means realistic game art and models are more accessible than ever. While it is expensive to get a full-body scan of an actor and a high-quality 3D model, the tools are there and available. Even with the release of Unreal Engine 5, things that were dreams for game artists and designers, suddenly now seem realistically achievable. Ultimately, gaining a hyper-real baseline is technically easier. The trick and time-sink is the refinement. With such detailed and realistic models, mistakes are easily noticed. Animation has to be perfect; players will spot a bad run-cycle a mile away if it’s hyper-realistic. The devil really is in the details in this case.
Though, it’s important to remember that these details are resource intensive. Both in terms of manpower and technology. And these costs are often high, which is why hyper-realism is typically pursued by bigger studios.
Initially, a stylised approach is easier to make. You can work within your means in pursuit of what your look is. Of course, this implies that stylised is easier overall. But, in the games industry, nothing is easy!
For strong stylised visuals, you need great artists. All who have unshakeable fundamentals in their artwork. Their understanding of colour, design, shape, and form must be cohesive and innovative. And pinning down an art-style takes time and exploration. It will need to be discovered and dialled in. Not to mention buckets of creativity, of course! Not that hyper-realism doesn’t. But hyper-realism has the benefit of real life as a reference, stylised must create from scratch.
Stylised designs can also give some leeway. That isn’t to say that these artists are happy to leave mistakes or rough edges. But that, without something trying to appear hyper-realistic, players will forgive things that might look strange. And this freedom gives the artists time and areas to explore.
Top Three Art Style Considerations
From our team at Ringtail Studios and Magic Media, there’s an agreement on three top-level considerations for deciding on your art style.
Hyper-realistic often has higher budgetary and resource requirements. Which is why we often see bigger studios tackling this art style more often. But, for many studios, like Naughty Dog, hyper-realism is also their niche. The Uncharted series is well-known for its advancing technical achievements of realism. They’re a staple in the backdrop behind their stunning set-pieces.
You have to have a market to appeal to. Hyper-realism and stylised, both need the market and audience to enjoy it. It’s key for your team to understand what your target audience is and how best to engage with them. You don’t need to pursue hyper-realism because you’re a bigger studio, if your audience love your stylised games, go for it!
Influence of Management
This might sound strange next to the previous two. But depending on your creative-director, CEO, or owner, the art choices can be influenced. Ultimately, you are making something for a purpose. In the case of The Wolf Among Us, the stylised comic-book aesthetic was pushed from the top down. There was a distinct desire to pay homage to the source by emulating it directly. The team and those in charge have to consider what they want. Games are projects of passion and love, you have to love what you’re making if you want it to be the best.