Anatomy of a Video Game Part 3: Aesthetics

(Art Direction, Graphics, and Sound)

Most “AAA” titles of the past two decades have focused so intently on this factor that it has actually caused a schism in the industry: Big-budget studios (such as EA and Activision, and their many subsidiaries) see a direct correlation between dollars spent on making a game push the graphics envelope and dollars earned at retail.  This results in games such as the Gears of War, Fallout and Call of Duty franchises, who focus on rendering bleak war-torn environments in spectacular clarity, covered with a fine layer of dirt and (to paraphrase video game reviewer Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw) consisting of two colors: gunmetal gray and dirt brown. This becomes somewhat of a strange exercise, as the “how” of making graphics as crisp and clear as possible eclipses the “what” of what graphics are being depicted to the player.  Lower-budget independent studios (such as those who publish “smaller” games for digital download instead of retail purchase) and some lesser-known studios (such as Tri-Crescendo, creators of Eternal Sonata) focus more on the art direction of their games, creating visual displays that are spectacular uses of modest technology rather than modest uses of spectacular technology.  Jonathan Blow developed Braid almost entirely by himself, at a fraction of the cost of most “AAA” titles, yet the artwork on display in Braid uses artistic techniques far more effectively, and earned high praise from reviewers and players alike. In one soundbyte sentence: Great art is not always made by those with the best art supplies, and is often made by those with the worst.

While great attention is paid to graphics in the video game world, music has frequently been considered as only an afterthought. Games that concentrate on developing a strong sense of atmosphere through music are rare.  The only two composers of video games in the last ten years that I know by name are Nobuo Uematsu (composer for the Final Fantasy series and various additional games published by SquareEnix) and Bear McCreary (famed composer for the Battlestar Galactica television series whose fantastic score to Dark Void elevated that game’s quality from mediocre to very good.)  An honorable mention goes to chiptune band Anamanaguchi, whose music (a type of electronic rock that uses old video game consoles for instruments) has come full circle and formed the excellent score to Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: The Game.  Rather than invest time, money and effort in composing a score, many game studios take advantage of modern games’ increased storage capacity and audio capability and focus instead on securing popular music to fill their soundtrack.  As a result, sports games are often filled with the latest tracks from popular rap, rock and rap-rock artists.  This approach can work well if the music fits the genre, such as the alternative music picked for the early Tony Hawk Pro Skater games or the classic jazz-age records in Fallout 3, but tends to fall flat and fail to impress players more often than not. Then again, in a marketplace where two of the three major consoles support the option for players to upload their own soundtrack from their music library, in-game music may be on its way out.



Fallout 3 (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC)

Eternal Sonata (Xbox 360, Playstation 3)

Flower (Playstation 3)

World of Goo (PC, Wii)

Braid (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC)

A Boy and His Blob (Wii)

Okami (Wii)

One Response

  1. I remember when times were different… Turok 2, to name one, had a terrific soundtrack… Even today, still, I’m moved by it. Not only the sound was great, though, the game itself was (and still is, in many aspects) ahead of its time… Another gem (from the same creators) was Machines.

    As for the early Tony Hawk series, damn right… I burned a CD with the THPS 2 soundtrack on it, so I can play it every time I drive my car. Takes me back everytime… They were also partly responsible for my current taste of music.

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