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The Evolution of Graphic Design in Video Games

The Evolution of Graphic Design in Video Games

When we think of video games chances are one of the very first things, we think about is some kind of visual: that is to say, graphics. Chances are you’re imaging an ultra-high-definition render of a character or object right now—say a car in Forza Horizon or a face from Red Dead Redemption 2. While these graphics sit at the forefront of our gaming experiences, there’s plenty more to be considered when looking at graphic design as a whole.

Here we’re going to take a look at three different types of design and, albeit it very briefly, chart their evolution. The three types we’ll take a look at are in-game graphics (all those renders we just mentioned), in-game UI (such as menus, buttons and clutter) and peripheral graphic design such as box art.

Let’s get started.

In-Game Graphics

It’s fair to say that games have come a long way since Tennis for Two (1958) or the more well-known Pong (1972). While the road to lifelike renders is far too complex to cover here, the main factors we can consider are technological: namely the amount of pixels available on screen, the introduction of colour, and the move to 3D graphics.

In the very beginning, games like pong or space invaders were rendered with massive pixels each clearly discernible on screen and delivered in stark monochrome—the background most often being black and the 2D sprites in white.

While colour was slowly introduced in games like Pac-Man (1980), it took a little while for the pixels to shrink smaller—but such a pixel shrink can be seen in games like Final Fantasy (1987). That said, as you’re well aware, many modern games still rely on pixel art due to its unique aesthetic and excellent performance—so we shouldn’t be quick to label these large pixels as bad graphic design.

The real leap in in-game graphics came with the turn to 3D. While 3D games have been around since the 1980s (Battlezone), it’s fair to say that it wasn’t until the mid 90s that 3D became more commonplace. Games like Resident Evil (1996), Silent Hill (1999) and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (2003) all continuously raise the bar in terms of realism—but, of course, they were still a way off fooling us into thinking the blocky characters on screen were real. It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that games like Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, Dirt and Crysis (all 2007) began really pushing us to believe that games could be lifelike.

From here, we’ve all lived through the crazy graphics race which has seen both AAA and indie studios push for incredible fidelity of the in-game image; pushing the boundary of resolutions, colour accuracy and animation. But while games like Detroit: Become Human (2018), Devotion (2019) or Half-Life: Alyx might trick us into believing the reality presented to us, we should never forget how far these representations have come—and how much they owe that to the technological innovations both within and outside of the gaming industry, which continue to see better screens, processors and GPUs available for us to play on.

 The Evolution of Graphic Design in Video Games

UI Design

While UI often only exists in a player’s periphery, as menus they need to click through or HUD elements that inform them of their status, we can’t ignore the fact that the design of these elements has come one hell of a long way.

Back in the age of arcade machines, these elements would often find themselves pasted at the top or bottom of the screen in plain text, providing very matter-of-fact information like “score” or “lives”. Even with games such as Wolfenstein (1992), players had huge portions of the screen cut off for purely UI purposes.

Yet over the years we have had tonnes of great innovations; from health meters being replaced by on-screen visual information like blood splatters or vignetting, and ammunition metres being temporary HUD elements which fade up and down.

Generally, we have witnessed a progression towards minimalist UI—where as little HUD information is presented on screen at any one moment: perhaps just a mini-map, or nothing at all.

But while minimalist trends aim to demonise on-screen UI, games like Persona 5 (2016) push the boundary in the totally opposite direction, integrating UI design into the very aesthetic of the game. Such an example is important to remind us that UI design does not always have to be about subtlety. 

Peripheral Graphic Design

While many of us likely didn’t get our hands on classic 70s/80s games consoles like the Atari 2600 (1977) making us completely free of nostalgia for the era, we can most certainly gawk in awe at some of the design of gaming box art. Games like Asteroids (1979) or Metal Gear Solid (1998) often featured awesome, hand-drawn box arts which rendered images in far greater fidelity than the games themselves ever could. This allowed box art to have a place in a player’s mind as the imaginary visual of the graphically basic fantasy that they were playing. Sure, their spaceship may have just been a few pixels on the screen, but if you are to look at the box that is what you’re meant to imagine. 

Of course, this wasn’t the whole deal; games like Super Mario Bros (1985) and Duck Hunt (1984) didn’t sugar-coat their visuals, and as such don’t have such impressive box arts.

But as in-game graphics improved, the box art began to play a different role. Instead of providing an awe-inspiring visual for what the game meant to make you feel, box arts have found themselves more often than not including in-engine renders to show off a game’s cutting-edge graphics. Take Metal Gear Solid V, for example, which simply provides a lifelike render of the protagonist. Of course, this is visually impressive, but it lacks that stylistic flair that earlier covers had. 

It’s a given that this trend isn’t seen across every title—with indie games often having unique box-arts which provide an interpretation of the game instead of a more simplistic in-engine render—take a look at Shovel Knight (2014) for example. And, again, this isn’t at all to slander those renders. The box art of games like Battlefield One (2016) are certainly exciting and impressive, but we just can’t help but feel that something is lost in showing the games quite so literally.

Thus, across the decades we have seen countless evolutions in the graphic design of video games. While an in-depth analysis of each of these three areas could fill a book in itself (if not more), hopefully this article has provided you with a nice overview outlining how graphic design has evolved over the years.

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