I had a discussion very, very recently with Josh (the concept artist for Turtles all the Way, if you’ve forgotten), and it was concerning visual styles and design. He was basically having trouble figuring out what art style to use for the game. I’ll keep mum about what I told him to go with, but I figure that it’s a perfect segway into a topic I’d meant to talk about for quite a while now, which applies to me for any piece of visual fiction, but I’ll use games as an example.
I’ve found that I’m able to enjoy just about any piece of fiction that I normally wouldn’t even glance at, solely due to the aesthetics of the world it takes place in. For example, I can instantly enjoy anything with a beautiful, natural landscape more than anything with a dark, more realistic style. I also enjoy seeing nice and bright futuristic settings much more than the standard game representations of volcanoes.
A clear, personal example of this in action can be derived from the recent NIS America title, Mugen Souls (Japanese title: Attōteki Yūgi Mugen Souls, or Overwhelming Game Infinite Souls). While the title had its fair share of problems, I initially had faith in the game. By pure coincidence, though perhaps not, the first area of the game was precisely what I’d just mentioned, a natural landscape named Sun World. Although I’d eventually gotten used to Mugen Souls‘ quirky and poorly-thought-out mechanics, and was even willing to put up with a lot of them, guess where it was that I decided to just stop and put the game back on my shelf to possibly never play again?
Yes, I gave up right when I was reaching the end of the lava-filled area, which felt very lonely compared to the previous two areas of the game. The game had more than its fair share of problems, but that place felt very dull and was the last straw for me.
That said, I’ve plowed through games that are arguably worse Mugen Souls in terms of game mechanics. An example that comes to mind is Ar tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel (Ar tonelico 3: Sekai Shūen no Hikigane wa Shōjo no Uta ga Hiku, literally Ar tonelico 3: The Girl’s Song that Pulls the Trigger of the World’s Demise), which also happens to be an NIS America title. The game mechanics were very weak compared to, at the very least, the first game, Ar tonelico: Melody of Elemia (Ar tonelico: Sekai no Owari de Utai Tsudzukeru Shōjo, literally Ar tonelico: The Girl Who Continues to Sing at the End of the World). I own the second game, Ar tonelico II: Melody of Metafalica (Ar tonelico 2: Sekai ni Hibiku Shōjo-tachi no Metafalica, literally Ar tonelico 2: The Girls’ Metafalica that Echoes Throughout the World), and haven’t touched it yet due to not yet finishing the first, but it was probably similar in that its mechanics were way stronger than the third game’s.
Yet I still played the heck out of the third game, and it wasn’t simply because the plot was interesting or because a central game mechanic, exclusive to Qoga, involves making the female leads strip off their clothing, down to their underwear, to cast more powerful magic (no, seriously, though the video’s NSFW for obvious reasons). It was because the entire game consisted of the aforementioned natural areas, as well as very brightly lit futuristic cities, with only a handful of exceptions, such as the few sewer and cave areas. Thankfully, Melody of Elemia also consisted entirely of those sorts of areas up until the point I’ve played (with the exception so far being a really long area that’s literally black with glowing markings, during which I nearly shelved the game for no reason other than being bored).
Needless to say, this has had significant adverse effects on my enjoyment of many older games, as well as games that try to mimic the art of older games. I could never get into the 8-bit or 16-bit bandwagon, nostalgia or not, because I believe we’ve long-since moved on from the forced hardware limitations from those days. Most games made in such a style scare me off immediately, in fact, though there are still several 32-bit games I like to go back and play, such as the Hoenn Pokémon titles, which are based in the most nature-filled region of the series so far.
Voxel graphics also don’t exactly impress me the way most games use them, with them being completely and utterly off-putting for every game I’ve seen so far except 3D Dot Game Heroes, which I never finished anyway, and Ace of Spades, which I refuse to purchase for being multiplayer-only. Yes, this means I’m put off Minecraft.
That isn’t to say that darker settings can’t interest me at all, but they can’t play their darkness completely straight if they want my attention. An example of a series that does this well is Disgaea, which uses good doses of humour and slightly-lighter-than-expected art that completely prevents me from being put off the series’ common setting that is the netherworld.
And perhaps it is for similar reasons that I tend to like cel-shaded art styles. They simply exude an aura of silliness, even when being used seriously, and they age extremely well. Try to seriously tell me that you can see the difference between Jet Set Radio and Jet Set Radio HD, for example. That said, I find that cel-shaded art styles have to be used as subtly as possible if they don’t want to introduce potential problems, with trailers for Ōkami HD making my eyes hurt while I could handle it just fine on the Wii. Really subtle use of cel-shaded graphics can be found in most recent anime-style games, used only just enough to make it resemble hand-drawn art. You know what uses cel-shaded art? Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch.
Ultimately, I enjoy games that have more whimsical, detailed, bright and colourful art. Games that make me feel alive. None of the gritty stuff. As I mentioned a few times, just the art style is occasionally enough motivation for me to keep playing (to a point), regardless of how bad a game might be. I will never understand why people enjoy darker series, and I don’t think I even want to understand. I play games to relax and to challenge myself, and there are plenty that can do both at once for me to have no need to even glance at stuff that I don’t care about aside from the occasional fit of curiosity. This might extend to why I watch so much anime, as well, but that may be better saved for another post.