When the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 were announced last year, a large part of their respective reveals focused on the new consoles’ technological prowess. Microsoft and Sony were quick to identify just how advanced their hardware was, showcasing the two machines’ ability to render realistic guns, cars, and faces through clips of games like Forza Motorsport 5 and Battlefield 4. Watching the light reflect off the hood of a nearly lifelike Lamborghini and seeing a perfectly rendered version of Michael K. William escape a sinking car is impressive, but it was hardly the most exciting thing in the world. Videogame technology improves all the time, after all, and the kind of visual improvements that our current crop of new consoles afford are far less drastic than they have been in the past.
Last week, on the other hand, saw the release of two long-awaited games that are bound to be remembered in large part for their exceptional looks, even if they aren't technologically astounding. Both Double Fine Production's Broken Age and Stoic's The Banner Saga were funded through Kickstarter campaigns, their releases eagerly awaited by project backers and interested players. The two games don't have a tremendous amount in common — The Banner Saga is a Viking inspired strategy/role-playing game while Broken Age is a point-and-click adventure — yet they share a love for organic, hand-drawn animation that isn't seen all too often.
Broken Age's aesthetic is largely the result of Nathan "Bagel" Stapley, an artist who has contributed to the look of most Double Fine games to date. The mainly static environments of the game are based on original paintings, giving the cloud cities and spaceship interiors explored by the two hand-drawn protagonists a warm, lived-in feeling that would be difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish through computer-generated polygons. Stoic's Arnie Jorgensen pulled off something similar with his role as the artist behind The Banner Saga. Heavily inspired by Eyvind Earle's work on 1950's Disney films like Sleeping Beauty, the Nordic world imagined by Jorgensen is captivating for the strength of its environmental design — snowy plains and icy mountains dotted with enormous pagan "god stones" — and memorable character design.
Both of the games are very well written, but it's their visual style that makes the most immediate impression. Videogame graphics are often judged purely by their technical fidelity with little consideration paid to the art direction that gives their characters and settings life. Broken Age and The Banner Saga are incredibly endearing because it's impossible to ignore the hand of the artists who created them. The presence of visible line work and brush strokes makes each of the games feel essentially human. Just as a fantastic 2D animated short can still inspire awe, we connect more readily to the visuals in a hand-drawn videogame when we can identify a person's touch.
The cel-shaded effect employed in the similarly beautiful Okami and Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch have proved the validity of a more organic aesthetic approach in the past, but games like these are still few and far between. Ultimately, it's probably safer, when millions of development and marketing dollars are on the line, to seek the largest audience possible by sticking to art styles without so distinct a personality. After all, Insomniac Games famously overhauled 2013's Fuse visuals before release, replacing its unique cartoon style with a more generic, realistic look, in order to hedge its financial bets. Even Nintendo, a developer/publisher with immensely devoted fans, seemed wary of repeating The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker's gorgeous cel-shaded aesthetic when it came time to create the next installment of the series. The resulting sequel, Twilight Princess, featured a less colourful world and a Link with more natural proportions.
Of course, none of this is to say that realistic, high-fidelity graphics are somehow undesirable, only that hand drawn visuals are a welcome change of pace that it would be nice to see more of. It's understandable, given how expensive games are to create, that not every title can feature art styles as distinct as those employed in Broken Age and The Banner Saga. My only hope is that these games will demonstrate just how successful a hand-drawn approach can be to developers considering that path in future.