Video games aren't all guns and gore; artistic titles are on the rise

When it comes to setting themselves apart, small studios have one especially effective tool in their arsenal.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
5 min read

In Monument Valley and other games, artsy visuals are an important way to stand out from the crowd, grab players and keep them coming back for more. Ustwo

The Water Palace looks like a painting as it rises up out of a turquoise lake. Gray columns interlock at sharp angles and pink-capped spires point skyward. From atop a ledge, an armless crow-headed figure fixes its white-lined eyes on a lonely princess.

She traverses a maze of optical illusions, eventually reaching a Penrose triangle frozen in midair. Featured prominently in artist M.C. Escher's "Waterfall" lithograph, the angled lines form into a shape that can't exist in real life. But those rules don't apply in the video game called Monument Valley.

Developed by the small studio Ustwo Games for smartphones and tablets, Monument Valley was designed to be as entertaining to view as it is to play.

The game has to work as a puzzle, but it also has to work as piece of graphic design, said Neil McFarland, studio director at Ustwo. "If you took a screenshot from anywhere, it would look like a poster that you could print out and stick on your wall."

Ustwo even included a button that players can tap to send the onscreen image to their smartphone photo library.

Art has become an effective way for small developers to make their mark in the games industry. They don't have the person-power, time or money to deliver the photorealistic graphics that are the hallmark of multimillion dollar franchises like the military shooter Call of Duty, which is crafted by hundreds of people. Instead, developers like Ustwo focus on creating a unique visual vocabulary that excites the eye.

Monument Valley, released in April, was made by eight developers and designers and sold 1.4 million copies, thanks to its artful mixing of Escherian illusions, vibrant color schemes and simple geometric illustrations. It joins a handful of games that have, in the last few years, carved out a niche by catching players' eyes -- and being a blast to play.

Bastion, from Supergiant Games, takes place in a lush, color-infused landscape that was hand painted by artist Jen Zee. Playdead's Limbo conveys an eerie sense of menace through its use of a monochromatic, black-and-gray palette. Developer Honeyslug enlisted British artist Richard Hogg to craft the look of Hohokum, a game with a cast of colorful creatures that ride a serpentlike kite through bizarre, dreamy landscapes.

These distinctive styles help these games stand out from the competition. And standing out is paramount in gaming, one of the most competitive and fastest-growing industries in the world. There are currently an estimated 1.2 billion people -- or around 75 percent of the world's online population -- playing games on consoles, PCs and mobile devices. Worldwide sales of game software are expected to rise 59 percent to $100 billion by 2018, according to market researcher DFC Intelligence.

Getting noticed is the most important step to long-term survival in the gaming industry.

"There are hundreds of thousands of these microstudios out there in the world," said Lewis Ward, an analyst with market researcher IDC. "The vast majority of them crash and burn, and 99 percent of these companies will never have a breakout hit."

Because game makers can self-publish on smartphone marketplaces and now game consoles too, "the catalog is virtually unlimited and discoverability becomes a big challenge," Ward said.

Sometimes these titles are developed by one artist and one coder, as was the case with Jonathan Blow. The developer went $40,000 in debt to create the award-winning Braid puzzle game on a budget of $200,000, most of which went to paying comic artist David Hellman. Blow made back that money and more, and is now making a game for Sony's PlayStation 4 called The Witness, with a full development team.

Journey, released by developer Thatgamecompany in 2012 and published by Sony, offered players only three hours of gameplay for $15. Created by a team of 18, it became the fastest-selling downloadable PlayStation game in the online marketplace's history and even won a Grammy for its soundtrack. Journey's appeal? The game contains zero dialogue. Instead, it relies on a visual style influenced by Japanese Zen gardens to tell the allegorical tale of a journey to distant mountains.

The makers of Journey, which became the fastest-selling downloadable PlayStation game of all time, employed a visual style influenced by Japanese Zen gardens. Thatgamecompany

"It has high replay value because you want to see it again," said gamer Brendan Austin, a nonprofit research specialist from Austin, Texas. "It's like looking at a painting or watching a movie."

While the game doesn't have the same photorealistic details as the medieval fantasy epic The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim -- a game Austin says he's played more than any other in the last few years -- Journey "was one of those really good examples of making video games as less of a toy and more of a work of art."

Though Capybara Games started out doing work-for-hire games for cell phones, the Toronto-based developer was "passionate" about visuals, said President Nathan Vella. The company's breakout hit, a 2011 iPhone and iPad game called Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP, incorporates the retro-looking pixel art of Craig Adams, founder of design firm Superbrothers Inc., whom Vella met at a conference in 2009.

The collaborative project, which sold for $4.99, had notched 1.5 million in sales as of July 2013.

Following the success of Superbrothers, Capybara Games landed a deal with Microsoft to bring their next title, an action game called Below, as a temporary exclusive to the Xbox One console before it's available on PC. The game features a tiny warrior that players view from a top-down perspective thanks to a visual effect that blurs out parts of the screen to emphasize the focus.

Below, from developer Capybara Games, uses a blur effect to help emphasize its miniature protagonist. Capybara Games

"Your character is small and one hit away from death," Vella said. That, he added, makes you "feel that the world around you is unknown and almost in the ether."

It's not just about making something that looks pretty. "That's a side benefit of making it achieve a tone and atmosphere and kind of feel for what you're going for," he said.

For McFarlane and Ustwo, the art of the game is as much about creating a tone and an atmosphere as it is about proving there's room for these types of games on all platforms.

Ustwo's next game is a virtual reality title called Land's End that's entirely separate from Monument Valley but follows the same visual tenets. Samsung hired the team to develop the game exclusively for its forthcoming Gear VR headset, due out later this year. For McFarland's team, the prospect of taking mind-bending graphic design into a 3D environment was a no-brainer.

"The first thing we did was drop the camera setup into a Monument Valley level," McFarland said, "and that was pretty amazing."