How to Choose the Perfect Art Style for Video Games

April 8, 2022

Graphics is what catches the player's eye at first contact, it becomes a vital foundation, a bridge between the game and the players. However, in its beginning phase, game development focuses on finding the pillars of the future product by deciding on the core gameplay loop, the narrative, and finding the right art style for video games. Exploring different game art styles is crucial in this phase to ensure the game's visual identity aligns with its narrative and gameplay mechanics. Diversity in art styles in games offers developers a broad canvas to express their creative vision and meet the varied preferences of players.

While a game designer is busy finding the working concept of the core gameplay mechanics and proving it through the iterations of functional prototyping, the art lead faces the hard choice of implementing this concept through the visual style of the game. The whole work needs to show a balance between each of its components, but most importantly - to convey the essentials of the gameplay through the art. Choosing the right game art style can significantly impact how players perceive and interact with the game. Let's see how impactful are art styles for games.

How to choose the right art style for video games

Aligning the art with the intended player's experience

First, it's recommended to align the main features of the game and its expected user experience with the visual style. For example, Neopets game is a worldwide famous browser title with a cute cartoonish art style that strongly conveys Pokemon vibes. In Neopets, the stylized drawings for the characters/universe appeal to children, creating a solid bond between the game and the audience.

Pokemon vibes packed in a user-friendly web-browser gaming experience
Neopets - strong Pokemon vibes packed in a user-friendly web-browser gaming experience. Check our Vector vs Raster art difference article.

It's worth keeping in mind that the demographic trends are indeed quite vague, so instead of relying on an outdated notion that the audience N prefers only art style L, it's better consider the gameplay experience and general angle of the game. For example, Animal Crossing: New Horizons focuses on relaxing experience with a strong emphasis on the non-violent social interaction.

Therefore, for a game like this, it's natural to recommend sticking with a casual, cartoony and playful art style for video games. So we shouldn't probably consider Warhammer 40K visuals for a game like this, should we? Animal Crossing implements that through cartoony and toy-ish forms that convey the "playfulness" and overall friendliness of the game. Such decisions highlight the importance of choosing the best video game art styles that complement the game's tone and gameplay.

The art style of Animal Crossing
The art style of Animal Crossing: New Horizons reflects the game's focus on the non-violent experience with the strong emphasis on the social interaction.

Art Style Synergy with Lore and Narrative

Discovering how to find an art style is crucial, as the lore of a game hugely interacts with its art direction. The main story sets the overall feeling and atmosphere of gameplay. In this sense, the art style should be able to enhance most of the game’s message, invoke feelings and emotions and help to further immerse player into the narrative. For instance, the main lore of “Batman Arkham Knight” revolves around Gotham, a city haunted by corruption, violence, social inequalities, poverty, and crimes. So naturally, it isn’t unexpected to mentally picture this place as cold, colorless, sad, and nightly.

These characteristics emerge incisively through the game’s graphics conveying it through realistic 3D models with hand-painted textures. The players shouldn't doubt that they are in fact within the Gotham City. And it's going to be merciless.

Batman in combat in a dark, atmospheric scene from Batman: Arkham City.
Batman: Arkham Knight - feels cold and unfriendly implying that the whole city is hostile to the protagonist.
Metro Exodus immerses players with its reliance on realistic visuals.
Metro Exodus relies on a realistic visuals a lot. But it is a game about a very possible, albeit a grim, future, where even the most exotic phenomena are explained by a somewhat mundane laws of the game's world.

As for the pure, emotionally-driven stories, such as Life Is Strange – the game uses lens flares and appears to be constantly under a “foggy” filter to create a filmic and somewhat cozy effect.

Live concert with bright stage lighting

But the overall art style is still semi-realistic - with somewhat distorted proportions and stylized painting making the characters look real enough, but a if we were looking at them back in our memories or through reading a diary of a close person we used to know.

High-detail fantasy game scene

Hi-Res Pixel Art might become a killer feature on its own

The 2D art styles employed in games like Stardew Valley play a significant role in captivating the audience with their charm and simplicity. But don't forget about the gameplay. Stardew Valley hasn't become hugely popular just because it's amazing pixel art. However, its bright colors and high-quality implementation of the pixel art environment has definitely become a signature of this game. Check our previous piece if you want to read more about pixel art evolution and reasons behind its popularity.

Stardew Valley cultivates a sense of home, inviting players to tend to their cozy farm.
Meanwhile, Stardew Valley is all about making you feel like an owner of a cozy farm ought to plant and harvest your first crops. Having become a "second home" for millions of players, Stardew Valley is an iconic representative of its genre.
Dark and moody scene from The Unliving featuring zombie characters.
The Unliving game by RocketBrush Studio utilizes high-res pixel art style with the sprites from 64x64px and higher (for some objects) that can become a challenge on its own even for a skilled game artist. This approach showcases how a specific game style can influence player engagement and game aesthetics.
Digital rendering of Arleon Town from 'Songs of Conquest'.
Songs of Conquest by Lavapotion is another example of almost impeccable pixel art mixed with 2.5D effect that comprises HoMM-inspired setting and experience

How to make game art: finding the balance between the quality, the budget, and the capacity of the art team

Setting up a high level of quality of the art is a common problem for indie devs. Although understandable, upkeeping the highest-quality of the art results in extensive polishing and extra iterations at the stages of game development when we need to move forward and maintain a steady flow of delivered content. Given into account limited budgets, it might result in a crunch and eventual stall of production. It's worth keeping in mind that the art style is still something that highly depends on the gameplay. Sometimes, for a game to be fun and addictive it's not necessary to have a high-resolution visual polishing with impeccable pixel-perfect assets.

Sometimes - making a good quality art is more than enough than aiming for a perfectly unachievable visual at the level of the Cyperpunk. So, where do we stop polishing the art? – We think, right where the playtests show that the players are immersed enough into the game and are happy with how the art style conveys the main gameplay features and assists in navigating through the user-friendly UI and menus.

Loop Hero by Four Quarters and Devolver Digital
Loop Hero by Four Quarters and Devolver Digital relies on a good quality pixel art that helps navigate around the gameplay and provides clear enough information through the UI. This proved to be more than enough to hit 500K sales within the first week after the release on Steam, reaching a million shortly after that.
Dynamic scene from Vampire Survivors with intense gameplay action.
Vampire Survivors by Luca Galante sold around 3.5 million copies on Steam so far due to the combination of an addictive gameplay concept and a seemingly endless gameplay loop.

How to Create Game Art: Stylized Games and Their Art Style

Stylized games won’t have as evident hiccups or jaggies during gameplay when compared to realistic graphics, avoiding certain breaks in immersion. Such video game art styles offer a timeless quality, ensuring the game's visuals remain appealing years after its release. In terms of art authenticity, stylized art opens the room for a unique drawing style. For example, we can spot a Telltale game and tell what company made it right off the bat; Minecraft also has this trait with its unique cube-like elements in a survival world.

When discussing the game’s graphics expectancy, one should understand that games with stylized art tend to age better. Hence, since using stylized graphics doesn’t necessarily bound the game to high-definition visuals, the art’s prettiness won’t become “outdated.” Feel free to read more in our recent take on stylized game art benefits for game developers.

Additionally, stylized games tend to have more flexibility for hardware or software. In this sense, making realistic graphics inevitably requires the latest technologies, whereas stylized visuals don’t carry this technological bond. Consequently, this type of art can significantly interact with the project’s budget. Moreover, you can also use stylized graphics to contrast different players in a game. For example, to diminish the chances of friendly fire and make spotting quicker, Team Fortress 2, initially supposed to have realistic graphics, ended up going stylized – the developers stated that an action/combat shooter game with realistic graphics could generate confusion.

Timeless classic: Team Fortress 2 continues to captivate players with its enduring charm.
Team Fortress 2 never gets old. Its enduring appeal is a testament to how a distinct video game art style can contribute to a game's lasting popularity.
Dynamic scene from Vampire Survivors with intense gameplay action.
70% of the graphics in Diplomacy is Not an Option that sold more than 100K copies on Steam for the 2 months were made by one artist

Best Video Game Art Styles: Realistic and Photorealistic Art Style - a mark of AAA-game

Even though stylized graphics present various advantages in developing a game, realistic visuals can also be a highly fruitful alternative. So let’s discuss the most decisive points realistic graphics have. A game with realism-centered graphics often holds specific advantages in gameplay, art, and technology.

When analyzing realistic graphics and their role in enhancing the gameplay experience, one must envision the immersion. In this sense, games with photorealistic visuals will portray elements aesthetically closer to reality. Therefore, playing in real-like scenarios and interacting with authentic objects while creating convincing animations can feel considerably immersive, bringing the player closer to the game’s fantasy.

In terms of art, realistic graphics, when successful, can be quite uncanny. Since the most initial forms of art, we can notice how paintings and drawings had this constant goal of depicting the world as our eyes can see it. In games, achieving an industrially-praised realistic visual on graphics can place the game as revolutionary. For example, The Last of Us: Part II, a game with a realism-centered style, which along with its narrative made TLOU a massive success acclaimed by both - critics and players.

The Last of Us - Second Part Photo
The Last of Us: Part II
Detroit: Become Human Screenshots for PlayStation 4 - MobyGames
Detroit: Become Human
Death Stranding Game Photo
Death Stranding
Red Dead Redemption 2 gameplay, showcasing stunning visuals and immersive world.
Red Dead Redemption 2

Although bringing the game close to what's called a "cinematic experience", realistic graphics sets the bar for quality, budget and game development team skill set incredibly high, making the studios rely on technologically-advanced hardware and software from the get-go. Still, in the pursuit of achieving realism with more potent tools, the video game world walks further in the “next-gen” direction having become a bridge to the most outstanding technological projects of our days. In this sense, development of the games like RDR2, Detroit or TLOU becomes somewhat a foundation with tons of data that becomes the landmark of a new industry standards.

Final Thoughts about Art Style for Video Games

Since every art form for video games usually carries advantages and disadvantages concerning gameplay, technology, and visual aesthetics, it is quite hard to hit a soft-spot for your project. Therefore, carefully considering art styles for games is a fundamental step in game development, impacting everything from player immersion to technical requirements. The rule of a thumb is being realistic about the team's expertise, available budget and keep in mind that the game's visuals should convey the core features of the gameplay. In addition, it’s essential to be aware that the game’s art drastically affects immersion and public likeability. Therefore, do not decide on the title’s graphic style before studying and having a basis for its overall structure.

The ideal approach you can make before deciding on graphics is to first settle on the gameplay. After creating an initial prototype and testing it enough to gather the playtest data, you can start researching the art style for video games that will allow the game to showcase its features better.

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