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The Intersection of Game Art and Narrative Design

Modern video games are designed with more than entertainment value in mind. Many of these games include immersive graphics that mimic the real world, with others utilizing artistic touches that transport people into other realms, planets or galaxies. Narrative design in video games allows creators to bring their ideas to life and provide gamers with an interactive, engaging experience.

Foundations of Game Art and Narrative Design

Traditional artists have long resisted the idea that video games were a form of digital art, but it’s clear that the video games of the 21st century prioritize art, emotion and storytelling. This makes them one of the most immersive and engaging forms of contemporary art. The foundations of game art and narrative design began in the earliest days of video games. However, with advancing technology, game designers were able to significantly expand upon the artistic elements that were incorporated into their video games.

Defining Game Art

According to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, game art is a contemporary form of art that relies on video game platforms for expression. Game art incorporates environmental storytelling, emotive expression and artistic graphics, allowing users to enjoy a well-rounded experience not only visually appealing but also immersive and engaging.

Understanding Narrative Design

Narrative design in video games refers to environmental storytelling, or the visual way that the story is brought to life within a gaming environment. Procedural narrative generation begins not with writing out a plot or by jotting down ideas, but by asking core questions, such as:

  • How do we visualize this story?
  • How will players experience the story?
  • What tools can be used to bring the story to life within the gaming environment?

The Role of Art in Storytelling

Art has long been used to express emotions and feelings, and there’s no better way to tell a story than to incorporate emotions into the experience. Since the inception of video games, art has played a role in interactive storytelling. Today’s game artists rely on a variety of advanced digital tools to create realistic characters with human-like emotions and immersive environments that make gamers feel as if they have become part of that digital world.

Visual Storytelling Techniques

Video game storytelling relies on a variety of visual storytelling techniques. Some of the most effective video game storytelling techniques include:

  • Lighting — The lighting used throughout the game will set the tone and mood for the experience, ultimately creating the foundation for the story.
  • Shapes and Forms — Shapes and forms are used when creating both the characters and the environment, and they also help enhance the tone and set the stage of the story. For example, geometric shapes can create a sense of structure and consistency for the game.
  • Symbols — Symbols are used as a form of communication and can allow the user to feel included in the world that they have created.
  • Perspective — The perspective of the game will impact the storytelling, ultimately allowing a gamer to feel as if they are in a first-person, real-world scenario, or a third party looking into another world.

Art as a Narrative Driver

Artistic technique and expression will ultimately drive the narrative within a game. The images created as part of the game design will bring the story to life, and will set the mood, tone, atmosphere and scene for the entire gaming experience.

Enhancing Narrative Through Art

Storytelling in video games can be enhanced and improved by art, with many gamers finding that they are more drawn to games that offer some sort of visual appeal. In many cases, the artistic expression used in game design helps to bring the story to life and makes it more relatable and relevant.

Character Design and Development

Juego Studios notes that character design and development is one of the most intricate and complex aspects of video game design, with artists working tirelessly to imagine, develop and create video game characters from scratch. Character design and development is crucial to environmental storytelling in games, as these characters play a central role in the story and define the gaming experience.

Factors that must be considered as part of video game character design and development include:

  • The mood, tone and atmosphere of the game.
  • The character’s appearance and costume, which must be designed in relation to the game’s story.
  • The movement and body language of the character.
  • The character’s silhouette, which should be memorable and recognizable.

Setting the Scene

Before the story can begin in earnest, video game artists must create an immersive and interactive environment. As you work to design and build the environment for the game, you must keep in mind the story, the journey the characters will face and the spaces they will occupy. In most games, a variety of video game art styles will be used to design the environment.

Collaborative Processes in Game Design

Game art professionals often work in collaboration with other game design professionals to bring their artistic ideas for the game to life.

Bridging Art and Narrative Teams

Collaborative game development typically results in the best game experiences for avid gamers. When the art and narrative teams work together, the artists can provide direction for the game while the storytelling team works to bring those concepts to life. A collaborative approach ensures that there is consistency and clear art direction in games.

Integrated Development Workflows

Rather than employing a step-by-step approach to creating a new video game, most game design teams work collaboratively using an integrated development workflow. This means that some steps overlap with other steps, ensuring that the art direction remains intact as the graphics team and programming team work to bring the story to life. An integrated development workflow maximizes consistency and improves the end result.

Technological Advancements Affecting Art and Narrative

More than 40 years ago, when the first video games were developed, it was clear that art would play a role in game design. That said, the technology had to catch up to the ideas and imaginations of game designers. Today, advanced technology allows game artists to create lifelike video game graphics that allow gamers to feel as if they have stepped into a realistic world, one in which they can become part of the story.

Tools and Technologies

Game artists can use a wide range of advanced digital tools and game design technologies to bring their vision to life. Some of the leading tools and technologies in the game art industry include:

  • ZBrush
  • Adobe Photoshop
  • Autodesk Maya

The Impact of Tech on Storytelling

Technology has made storytelling in games an even more vital part of the gaming experience. Today’s most advanced technology, including artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR), rely on high-resolution, intuitive video game graphics and experiential environmental storytelling to allow users to become one with the gaming environment.

Challenges at the Intersection

While game art and narrative design often go together, there are some challenges that can arise during this collaborative approach to game design.

Balancing Art With Story

Sometimes, there can be disagreements about the level of artistic involvement or the direction of the art in relation to the game design. It’s crucial that the narrative and art teams work together to balance the direction of the art with the goal of the story as well as the user experience.

Overcoming Narrative Constraints

Narrative pacing in games can dictate the overall art direction. If you feel that the complexity — or simplicity — of the narrative is leaving you without much freedom or flexibility as an artist, you may need to work with the narrative development team to adjust accordingly.

Future Trends in Game Art and Narrative Design

The future looks bright for the world of game art and narrative design, as more and more people are turning to gaming as a hobby and even as a profession. Users of all ages are finding that video games allow them to develop their critical thinking skills, interact with their peers, explore new concepts and ideas, and, most of all, have fun.

Emerging Trends

Ultimately, technology will continue to play a driving force in the video game art styles that emerge in the coming years. Some of the emerging trends that will influence the world of video game storytelling include:

  • The continued evolution of digital painting tools. The most recent tools allow game artists to achieve a level of depth and clarity that was once unheard of in video game design, allowing artists to create more stunning visuals and immersive environments.
  • The demand for immersive, real-time virtual reality experiences. Game artists will be challenged to meet the expectations of consumers, who are becoming particularly fascinated with the world of VR.

Innovations to Watch

The most significant innovation to keep an eye on is the impact of AI and machine learning on narrative design in video games. This intuitive and advanced technology is sure to have an impact on the art direction in games across all genres, allowing game artists to explore the ways that they can use this technology to complement their ideas and existing skill set.

Explore Game Art and Narrative Design Concepts at Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design

At Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design, we offer both an on-campus Bachelor of Fine Arts in Game Art degree as well as an online Bachelor of Fine Arts in Game Art degree, allowing you to explore a wide range of video game art styles as you prepare for a career in this dynamic field. The curriculum for this degree program covers various visual storytelling techniques as well as 3D modeling, lighting, environmental design, animation and character rigging, giving you an opportunity to develop the practical, technical and theoretical skills needed to break into this field.

Request more information about our on-campus and online degree programs today.


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