1. Visuals – Cuphead
To master the principle of visuals, your imagery needs to directly reinforce your message, synchronizing not only with your script but with the other imagery in frame, and the work’s overall aesthetic. Cuphead is what happens when a game designer doesn’t just focus on visuals—a better term would be “obsess.” While obsession might sound negative, play twenty minutes of Cuphead and you’ll see things differently.
A game about a deal with the devil gone wrong, the narrative is simple; fulfill the infernal contract and fight the bad guys. What’s decidedly not simple is the 1920’s/1930’s animation style, which was meticulously created to mimic the earliest Disney and wartime cartoons (and even earlier animation).
It’s the first game that lets you play a cartoon, in the truest sense possible. It’s a fantastical, out-of-time adventure, and almost all of its success is thanks to its devotion to just the right visuals.
2. Accent Color – Mirror’s Edge
An accent color is an attractive driver of engagement, signifying apart of the visual frame as most important and drawing the eye and focus of the viewer to the accented image. The parkour game Mirror’s Edge uses a red accent color perfectly to drive the player to the right elements of the game world. As Faith, you’re a runner—a foot courier of sensitive information in an oppressive police state.
As you sprint across rooftops and through hallways to get to your destination, you’ll see the color red on key objects. A pallet that will give you the leverage to jump to a higher ledge will be bright red; so will the bar you need to jump to once you reach that ledge.
Red means “use this,” showing the player the path to make a safe wall-run or climb up the side of a building without slowing down. Mirror’s Edge is truly a textbook example of the principled use of an accent color.
3. Image Density – GTA V
The Grand Theft Auto games have always faced an interesting challenge: how can you really feel like a denizen of a major city? It’s great to have a large map to play in, but it won’t work if it’s empty; Los Santos, Rockstar Studios’ version of L.A., needed to feel as teeming as the real thing. Image density, a principle focused on the number of images in a visual frame, was thoroughly achieved by programmers to create a true sense of immersion. Los Santos’ image density is staggering.
What feels like a million cars prowl the streets, and on foot, you’ll be constantly weaving in and out of crowds. What’s more, developers made that density variable—go to the beach, and you’ll see hundreds of people, but drive up to the wilderness, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything but birds and the occasional hunter. It feels real, and creates intense engagement, just as high image density should.
4. Framing – Injustice 2
Framing allows a creator to shift the focus of the viewer and alter their relationship to the onscreen elements. Close framing creates intimacy with the subject, while distant framing provides more information to the viewer. Injustice 2 is a fighter, a game genre that became famous with Street Fighter and Injustice 2 developers’ own classic, Mortal Kombat.
The one-on-one fights that fuel the game need constant and appropriate framing to work. Whether two people are playing or one is fighting the game alone, framing must maintain both in frame for a fair fight. That means it needs to close in when the characters get close to each other, but immediately pull back to a wide angle when they move apart.
Zeroing in on either character puts both players at a disadvantage, as an aggressor can’t target an invisible opponent, and one can’t defend against unknown attacks. Framing keeps the fight fair, and by never showing either player alone, it ensures each player is as intimately linked to their character as the other.
Framing sets the viewer’s relationship to the subject, and in Injustice 2, that relationship is variable and egalitarian.