One of the most popular styles of 2009 has been cel-shading, which is in stark contrast to the influx of hyper-realistic games that marked 2007 and 2008 when people wanted to show off their console’s hardware. There are a lot of reasons to opt for cel-shading. Since games are so often populated with freakish monsters and giant super soldiers, depicting them in realistic graphics can be a bit awkward. You just end up having a bunch of sticky looking critters with muddy, grey skin. Another problem is that the fantasy elements of most games automatically seem unrealistic. Take the cast of Gears of War 2, their enormous size and armor just seem out of place once you slap a realistic head onto them. Supernatural powers that many characters use are also visually out of place once the visuals approach a realistic range. Finally, all of those hyper-realistic games are extremely expensive to make. Cel-shading does come with its own pros & cons, however, precisely because of its retreat back of its stylized nature.
Establishing what exactly cel-shading is helps here. While a game like Crackdown’s thick lines and textures are gorgeous, it is not cel-shading. All art directors take into account how they want an engine to draw a line wherever an object’s borders detect an edge in the game. A very thick line like in Crackdown makes the avatar bolder. Your eyes follow its movement more than you do in a game like GTA IV where the line is very thin. Inside those lines though, the rendering is still rich and textured. The mark of cel shading is to simplify the textures of the object. Wikipedia explains this key element about the aesthetic, “Where cel-shading differs from conventional rendering is in its use of non-photorealistic lighting. Conventional (smooth) lighting values are calculated for each pixel and then mapped to a small number of discrete shades to create the characteristic flat look—where the shadows and highlights appear more like blocks of color rather than mixed in a smooth way.” A post over at Lost Garden calls this visual effect a “neo-retro art” which favors symbolism, efficiency, and style over realism. A good example would be Mario’s avatar in Super Mario Galaxy, which is built out of solid colors and round shapes to create a cartoon effect. With the increased processing power in consoles other then the Wii, this effect becomes even more pronounced by creating blended hues. A comparison between the new Prince of Persia and the classic FPS XIII by Daniel Primed shows the difference once more, processing power is leveraged for the style. Solid, single color shadows and tones like in XIII or Super Mario Galaxy give way to blurred hues to create a water color effect.
The question that this raises is what effect does this aesthetic have on the overall game experience? Unlike a cartoon or comic book, there is no set camera angle in a video game. There is no set perspective. A player might be approaching a doorway from the center or the far right while they’re looking the other direction, etc. With this in mind, the principles of architecture are more useful than just looking at cinematography or story-boards. A book on the basics of how we perceive buildings, Experiencing Architecture by Steen Eiler Rasmussen, offers some insights. Building materials look heavy to us based on their appearance. Put another way, you don’t have to pick up a brick to understand that it’s heavy. Think about the difference between a rough concrete slab and one made out of wood. The concrete is grainier, rougher on the edges, and a dull grey color that all give it a heavy appearance. The wood looks lighter because of its coloring and the smooth grains on the face of the board. Look around the room that you’re in right now. Look at the walls. Part of the reason that you wallpaper or paint over a wall is to lighten the atmosphere by changing the color of the building material. How heavy something looks in a game is defined in part by how we feel when looking at it.
The consequence of cel shading then is that it gives everything an airy, physically light feeling because there is generally a more smooth texture and lighting in the game. Multiple light sources are often present and there are rarely absolute dark tones in the scenery. Going back to Gears of War 2 for a moment, you can see this in action when you ask someone which character looks heavier: the Prince or Marcus? It’s an important distinction to make when seeing what art style a game is choosing because cel shading shouldn’t be an aesthetic choice a game uses arbitrarily. It makes sense for Prince of Persia or Super Mario Galaxy to use it because it fits the theme of jumping on walls and doing wild acrobatics by making everything feel lighter. A game about shooting and combat might want to opt for a grittier look. A game like Borderlands obviously proves a shooter can be fun with cel shading, but then again, the tone of the game is mostly light hearted. There’s also Killer 7, which uses cel shading to create a great sense of stylized violence and darkness. Some games will even combine the two visual aesthetics, like Uncharted 2 when it moves between platforming and combat. The platform heavy sections will usually work around one or two very complex, richly textured centerpieces that you focus and move around on while having much lighter colored and simplified textures for walls and embankments. The characters like Chloe or Drake are all richly textured in the face and animation (along with those creepy eyes), but their clothing has a single-hue and is often brightly lit whenever you’re making a jump. The purpose remains the same: the avatar has to look like it can make the leap.