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  • Art Tricks For Indies: Abstraction

    [08.25.20]
    - Nicholas Lives

  • Back to gaming, one can see how independent games that choose to take on more expansive concepts, also signify to their audience through their presentation that they're operating in the abstract. Let's look at how characters are depicted in say, Prison Architect, and why that might be. They're these little round pawns with no legs, no arms, and no facial features besides little dots for eyes and sometimes the suggestion of hair or mustache.

    These characters aren't meant to look like this within the context of their world of course, as is suggested by the game's cutscenes, where we're treated to supplementary images of characters as they are supposed to look. In doing this deliberate oversimplification of the game characters, the audience is primed to accept an abstracted game view, and learn to interpret the game's actions through this lens. That prisoner didn't just rub their body against the door to open it, they probably reached out and opened it in your mind's eye, because you are now primed to fill in those blanks.

    This is also why the only time we tend to notice abstraction is when it's inconsistent. New Donk City in Super Mario Odyssey for example, was notorious for making people question if Mario was even human because it presented an abstracted character design alongside more literal ones, highlighting what made Mario's design unlike theirs. It's also why having a single musical episode in an otherwise literal TV show is so strange and off-putting, even if you normally like musicals. Abstraction is a very useful and affordable tool, but you have to use it consistently for it to be most effective.

    I think this is actually one of the reasons you continue to see pixel art in games that are otherwise not necessarily going for an explicitly retro feel. Lower resolution pixel art is a visual language unique to games that has taught players to project more complex forms on blocky figures, and I think it's that very layer of abstraction that pixels represent that allowed for Minecraft to be so palatable to a wider audience. There's something about seeing the actual digital makeup of a piece of art laid bare that tells your brain to project something onto it. Just like finding images in clouds or star formations. It's an excellent primer, and it sets up the appropriate expectations for what most indie games have the budget to accomplish, fidelity-wise.

    That's not to say that pixel art is the only way to prime your audience's expectations on how to frame your work. Just about any amount of stylization will start to abstract something away from the literal, and liberal use of text or narration can also help fill in the gaps, as classic roguelikes and adventure games can attest.

    But how does this make one's game look better? By itself, the concept of abstraction doesn't necessarily make your game more aesthetically pleasing, but by invoking imagination you can impress upon your audience something far more than what's just on the screen.

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