Inferior Design

As well as being a childlike geek with a passion for gaming, I have a rather artistic side. I love painting and sketching, I love writing, I love buggering about with Photoshop and I love admiring other pieces of art – even CD and computer game box art has its place and whether or not you like to admit it, so do computer games themselves. Just look at games like Prince of Persia, Bioshock and Mass Effect 2 and tell me they’re not works of art. Some games are so visually impressive you can’t help but mouth “wow” when you play them. The sheer scale of games like God of War III, which features boss battles with enemies the size of Norwich, the quirky art styles used in games such as the cel-shaded RPG-em-up Borderlands and fully immersive worlds the likes of which can be found in Fallout 3. Look me in the eye after playing any of these games and tell me that games aren’t works of art.

More and more games are creating immersive worlds with their own unique takes on popular styles throughout history. Bioshock’s underwater paradise is inspired by the 1920’s Art Deco style that regained popularity in the late 1950s whereas Fallout 3 takes the 1950s imagery and drops it slap bang in the middle of a post-apocalyptic wasteland – a perfect example of two games using the same idea to entirely different ends. Some games have even had complete overhauls in art style to produce something more unique. Borderlands had a complete image shift from the bog standard ‘realistic’ character models and environments seen in many shooters now-a-days to the cel-shaded comic style shooter it is today and was better for it. There are also other games that take their art direction from much more recent art styles such as Dishwasher Samurai, heavily featuring a mix of pen drawing and graffiti art.

The styling of Borderlands is beautiful but, unfortunately, not anywhere near as obvious during gameplay

My favourite art style in any game however isn’t inspired by some famous movement in the art community nor is it based on some spraypaint based scrawling in a train tunnel. It’s not a brand new title released in glorious HD, in fact it’s 12 years old. The game in question is Yoshi’s Island. The cutesy cartoon intro and retina burningly bright colours maybe be too much for some, but the home made feel of the levels and the pop-up colouring book style of the game’s menus and cutscenes get me every time.

Much like you can’t make an omelette without eggs, you can’t have a game without levels to play through. The overall theme of the game has a pretty big impact on the level design (well, duh) – for example, having to climb a magical talking tree in the middle of Call of Duty doesn’t quite work. Some games have such wonderful level design that you can lose yourself exploring, or even admire the stunning architecture as you walk your linear path. Others are quite frankly crap (Legendary springs to mind). The newest trend in games is sandbox, where you’re offered an open world in which to wreak havoc – one giant map to get completely lost in. Games like Fallout 3 and Oblivion set the standard offering two entirely different types of captivation; Oblivion’s lush foliage and Fallout 3’s brown, barren wasteland both provide a fully immersive, living breathing world. Other, more linear games offer their fair share of immersion too through beautiful architecture – such as God of War III’s ancient Greek palaces or Mirror’s Edge’s plain white utopia – and with fantastical new locales, such as the back of colossi in Shadow of the Colossus.

The best instance of excellent level art and design for me is an easy one and anyone who’s played it will probably tell you the same. Fallout 3, for me, is by far the best example of level design. No other game has provided such an immersive experience while almost solely using various shades of brown. The level of detail in Fallout 3’s post apocalyptic version of DC is simply staggering and really encourages you to explore every inch of the environment and with each piece of DLC adding newly designed areas, there’s little wonder my playtime has far exceeded 100 hours.

Stop crushing me... I was only trying to give you a manicure!

So you’ve got the overall art style figured out and you’ve made your fancy levels but there’s still something missing. You need to populate your little world. Character design can be broken down into many different sections such as enemies, NPCs and playable characters, with different games excelling in different areas. God of War III is the clear winner for me when it comes to enemy design. I love Greek mythology anyway but God of War III adds to that with stunning graphics and suitably twisted creatures such as the half hag, half vulture like harpy. Where God of War III’s enemy design really shines however is in it’s boss battles. From an epic fight with Neptune across the back of a city sized titan through to a more subtle fight with a giant scorpion (that’s right, giant scorpions are considered to be subtle in God of War) on top of a large suspended crate, God of War’s bosses are nothing short of spectacular.

As far as playable characters go though, there are a lot of iconic heroes out there such as Gordon Freeman and Master Chief but my personal favourite in terms of playable character design can be found in a slightly obscure title; Clayfighter 63 1/3. The fact that the entire game’s graphics were made out of digitized stop motion videos of actual clay models goes a long way towards why I like the character design so much, plus there aren’t many games that feature an evil snowman, a cyborg rabbit, a creature made out of taffy and Earthworm Jim as playable characters. In terms of overall character design however – taking into account playable characters, NPC’s and enemies – Mass Effect 2 wins hands down. The sheer variety of alien species in Mass Effect 2 is very impressive and really adds to the feeling of a galaxy full of strange creatures such as the monotonous elephant/manatee hybrids that are elcor, bug like creatures known as collectors and massive living ships called reapers. Even the more humanoid creatures such as salarians, drell and turians all have their own unique appearance and behaviour.

Just some of the many different races in the Mass Effect universe

Last five articles by Iain



  1. Samuel The Preacher says:

    Interesting musing there Iain. Level design and the design of open world games is something I’ve put a lot of time and thought into considering, but I tend to think of characters in terms of writing, voice acting where it applies, and personality development… of course, someone has to have decided what they should look like, but it is something I somehow overlook when thinking about games, and take for granted. I suppose it is simply that often I find landscapes, architecture, and technology more visually interesting than people… when I do look at people it is the history and the culture and the ideologies that draw me, rather than what they look like.

    It is therefore perhaps for the best that I cannot enter the competition. It shall be interesting however to see what others come up with.

  2. Pete says:

    Good stuff…. and a reasonable excuse to put THAT Borderlands picture up again :D

  3. Mark R MarkuzR says:

    I love design in games. I love design anywhere really, and even enjoy the patterns and textures unknowingly thrown up by nature, whether it’s the odd occurence of perfect symmetry or just an incredibly detailed simulacra in a pile of leaves or the bark of a tree. Awesome.

    The problem with design in games is that sometimes the developers overlook the important aspects whilst concentrating on others. Preacher pointed out above that he tends to look for back story, cultures, and what makes them who they are rather than how they look… and I think Team 17 fell into that trap recently with Alien Breed: Impact when they created this vile race of alien species who should have been feared, should have given the player cause to jump and, had it been real, created an adrenaline rush to bring on that “fight or flight” response. Instead, they spent too much time over the design of the ship and the surroundings, the detail in the organic nature of the craft and just threw in a haphazard excuse for an alien as the enemy. The lack of any discernable design within the actual aesthetics just killed that game. Sure, they’re aliens… and yes, they kill us… but come on… they looked like chocolate raisins. All I could think was “om nom nom” followed by a quick reminder that I don’t particularly like chocolate raisins anyway.

    In contrast, the character design in Mass Effect had me glued to the screen… watching every facial tick, flaring nostrils, even the tiniest eye flicker… all made the characters so much more realistic for any interaction BUT the game itself, while visually stunning, just fell flat for me. I had more fun playing Alien Breed: Impact and it was just a top down shooter with no immersion.

    Borderlands looks great in principle. The art style for the character introductions whenever you come across a new enemy (they didn’t do that enough, in my view) was fantastic and the cel shading for all their promo material just blew me away as an artist… but, in the game, the cel shading aspect was lost as it was too subtle. It looked no different to Fallout 3 in certain areas yet Fallout was photorealistic detail and Borderlands was supposed to be a comic art style. Bit of a fail there, but I still can’t fault the overall design of Borderlands in that respect.

    Bioshock, hell, that’s beautiful. The trailers were beautiful, the demo was beautiful, the game itself was beautiful and it ALMOST had me playing it purely for the art style alone but I still got bored after a few hours and walked away. I haven’t walked away entirely though – I watched Victor play through Bioshock 2 recently and geared myself up to play it again and give it another chance. Sometimes the design is enough to have me play, but sometimes it’s just not enough.

    As a designer and artist, I should find flaws in games but I rarely can. I tend to miss important aspects of the game for the first few minutes as I’m simply caught up in the aesthetics and sit with my mouth hanging open like that 15 year old that sneaks in to the strip joint late on a Friday night. I drool, I shake my head, I smile, and I think “shit, I wish I was that good”.

  4. Ste says:

    A few other games which I think are worth a mention in this piece are Uncharted 2 and Assassins Creed 2. The visuals in Uncharted were amazing and the character design was top notch as was the story albeit a little bit whacky towards the end of the game but still very very enjoyable. The same goes for AC2 except the story was even more fucked up than Uncharted towards the end. It actually partly ruined the game for me, but overall another brilliant game.

    I suppose there is an arguement that as both of these games are considered “Triple A” games you wouldn’t expect less than amazing but that’s probably a whole other article right there so I won’t bother stirring that pot.

    But anyway I digress, nice article.

  5. Victor Victor says:

    Whoa. A competition. I wish I was artistic. I get grabbed by the art in games quite a lot. I remember driving around in Test Drive Unlimited 1 and saying to the girlfriend that I don’t need to visit Oahu anymore. The level of detail in that game was so insane that I really felt they had mapped it to represent the exact location of every tree.

    Blue Dragon was a game that just had me enchanted from start to finish. Awesomely unique art style. Deceptively simple, since the protagonists were kids, but connoisseurs knew this was videogaming art at its finest.

    Bioshock 1 was another game that I seemed to admire as much as I enjoyed playing it. GTA IV was a game that was insanely detailed and with enough variety that it felt that I could drive down a road and die in about 25 different ways. My Xbox has given me so many different games whose art style I love, that I don’t feel that bad about only having been to the Louvre once, and being bored for the whole time I was there. Mona Lisa? Who cares, eh? Not when you have Final Fantasy XIII to entertain you.

    But yes, good luck to all that enter.

  6. Ben Ben says:

    I love the level design in Bioshock, was so different from the generic ‘Forest of Enchanting Runes’ or ‘Urban Warfare setting’.

    There are developers out there that will (95%) of the time get a day one purchase from me, Bioware, Blizzard, Valve are three examples, all of them excelling at various levels of design.

    I still think the character design in Mass Effect 2 is some of the best I’ve seen for a few years now, but as a result of such polish in that field other parts of the design.

  7. Michael Author says:

    Tottally gonna enter this competition… I design DnD characters all the time, so designing a vidjo game character should be easy!

  8. Markatansky says:

    I just entered. It’s basic, but I had fun. :D


  9. Lorna Lorna says:

    I also found Oblivion to be stunning..that jaw drop moment when I left the sewers at the start fo the game and looked out across the water at the imperial city or stood on the lip of Frostcrag Spire and looked out over the Jerral Mountans were real ‘wow’ moments for me.

    As far as design, Mirror’s Edge really impressed me and it’s cool that you mentioned it. The sheer beauty of the stark whites against the flashes of primary colour served to created a clean, sharp world, full of edges and lines which were actually stunning. It was a vision of the future without needing to be ‘futuristic’…instead, they relied upon the minimalist, but powerful design and it paid off. The stuff in the accompnying guide and at book is impressive too. Shame that the cartoony cut scenes jarred it all to hell.

  10. Edward Edward says:

    I wanted to try and think of a couple of games other people hadn’t, but I’ll have to say that Prince of Persia 2008, despite its flaws was one of the most beautiful and stirring games around graphically for me. But then, the last few console Zeldas have also had a beautiful design. Wind Waker with its amazing cel shaded looks, Twlight Princess with its grim, darker style, and the upcoming Skyward Sword with its mix between the two and emphasis on impressionism. Super Mario Galaxy, with its simply stunning designs. Brutal Legend with its amazing land of metal.

    It’s an aspect that’s so worth it in games. It can make a mediocre game slightly better, and make an amazing game legendary.

  11. Kat says:

    Borderlands was one for the that I thought looked great, it stood out as being different from other shooters. I think Just Cause 2 was stunning and I’m not 100% sure why specifically but I loved Arkham Asylum’s style too.

    Wish I could enter the comp! My l33t Paint skills would have come up with something amazing I’m sure ;P

  12. MrCuddleswick says:

    Really interesting thoughts Iain.

    Markuz – when you said that you’re interested in any design, even the seemingly random configurations thrown up by nature, that really struck a chord with me too.

  13. Adam Adam says:

    Great article Iain :)

    For me, Blizzard, Bethesda and Valve are way out there, ahead of everyone else for just how incredible their art direction is.

    Warcraft is such a fantastically designed, fantasy world that is by no standards technically impressive (think just how old the game is!) but it’s beautiful. It’s one of these games that you can get really lost in, especially if you hit ALT+Z and remove the UI.

    Oblivion, as Lorna said, is another one of those ‘Woah’ games that just has you stood still, gawping at the world. Nothing ever feels out of place, theirs no pandering to any other game or work of fiction from it’s field -it’s just one beautifully authentic setting.

    Valve though, I don’t know how they do it. I used to play a lot of TFC back in the day (more so of CS) so when I heard a TF2 was definately on the cards, I was expecting a detailed -realistic shooter to really show off Source. What we got instead was jaw dropping and so insanely out there! Whilst I appreciate it doesn’t have the same appeal on the consoles and not as big a following, their aren’t many gamers that haven’t watched any of Valves ‘Meet The…’ video’s . The guy who put that up for suggestion is only bettered by the guy who said yes to it.

    There are other games out there that have already been mentioned. Mirrors Edge was brave for a FPS to not take on the COD approach that all FPS’s do and I thought it added so much more to the game because of it. Prince of Persia 2008 was stunning, can not fathom why they insisted on walking away from that so readily. Wind Waker, another great example of brave art style (sadly shat on by the core of big N).

    Amazingly Mass Effect isn’t one game I’d praise for it’s art direction. I love the game and I agree on every point about just how well detailed, animated, drawn, designed and presented the characters and settings are. I even have to salute and sing the national anthem of the Citadel for Bioware managing to construct an entirely fresh IP with so much Lore -but it all seems so borrowed from everything that Sci-Fi is/was at the time of it’s release. It feels very Battlestar Galactica and who do you praise there? Battlestar for realising this was the way to go or Bioware for transitioning that to VG?

    The walk away winner for me though is Beyond Good and Evil. I’ve never played a game like it and I’m holding on to hope that the sequel with see both the light of day and the same acclaim.

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