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Visual Style: Abstract Analysis

Updated: Jun 8, 2021

Within video games design there are many terms used to describe aspects of video games such as theme, style, genre, gameplay and many more, this blog post aims to explain and explore the terminology associated with the visual style, focussing on the use of abstract images within video games. However, what is visual style and how do we as designers break it down?

Firstly let's define what visual style is...

It's clear that visual style represents the visual aspects of a video game and these aspects can be broken down into more detailed areas such as the game world and components that enhancing game play and emursion. Through visual style we can recognise the familiarity of a character or object and that they exist in different visual storyworlds. We could for example recognise a character from a particular franchise if it was presented in an appropriate visual way...

Visual style can be further broken down into more detailed areas such as abstract, photographic and symbolic. As stated in the opening paragraph this blog post will focus on the use of abstract images within videos games, using the classic Space Invaders to explain how abstract images work and hopefully help provide a framework you could use in the analysis of your own products or others.

Let's start with a bit of background information on Space Invaders. Space Invaders was developed by Tomohiro Nishikado, and released to the public in 1978. It was one of the first-ever shoot em ups and also had some interesting features, such as the first-ever dissolving barriers and the increased speed over time. The increase in speed over time utilised the limitations of the hardware, as the enemies decrease in the game, it lessened the strain on the CPU allowing faster load speeds which enabled the increased speed mechanic.

Ok, enough history, let us define Abstract, the term in this instance means existing in thought or as an idea but not having a physical or concrete existence. But how does this apply to video games?

Within the example image above we can see that the enemies are made up of abstract images that consist entirely of the visual elements, such as lines, shapes, and colours. At the abstract extreme, these elements are neither arranged to produce a higher-level depiction of reality nor combined to communicate any clear or coherent meaning and instead relies on our interpretations, which are influenced by our personal experiences, culture, society and many other factors.

One of the reasons Space invaders, in its limited abstract form works, is because the images are unfamiliar to us, therefore we are left to interpret there meaning and as humans, we generally fear the unknown or make negative assumptions about unfamiliar situations. "This type of fear is completely innate. It is a part of our genetic composition, it is not something we will never be able to control". Remember space invaders was one of the first-ever shoot em ups, and was, arguably one of the first games to actually intimidate players.

Space invaders use of abstract images have little meaning to them other than what we perceive them to be, therefor our minds seek out information that is not there, this is a form of apophenia which is the human tendency to seek patterns in random information and is something games designers can make use of within there own products. In the example image, you can see how the arrangement of the lights on the car or eggs, makes a face, which is not actually there, it's just our minds seeking out information.

The desired assumption for abstract images can be reinforced through other methods such as game text, colour, music, cover artwork and much more giving us a preemptive assumption about the game. In the example images above you can see how I have applied different colour and text to indicate a different meaning for the abstract images and hopefully a different interpretation to the player.

Space Invaders also conveys an enemy force because the game sprites are arranged in such a way as to form a formation. Rows and columns alined are used to present a unified force… Again as a designer, you need to utilise human perception, Gestalt laws of perception, are a set of rules, that describe how the human eye perceives visual elements and are usually used within the study of HCI. In our case space invaders utilities the law of proximity which states that objects that are near or 'proximate' to each other tend to be grouped together and the Law of Similarity which states that elements that are similar to each other tend to be perceived as a unified group.

In addition to the formation, the abstract shapes move towards the player maintaining there formation and speed. Motion perception is the process of inferring the speed and direction of elements in a scene based on visual input, again this helps reinforce your perceptions of the abstract shapes. helping to reinforce the idea that an enemy force is moving towards the player in unification.

Another good feature to influence the player's perception of game sprites is the use of colour, within the game the player's character is a very bright green and in many cultures around the world green symbolises, life, renewal, and nature, in this game you are supposed to be defending earth from an alien attack so what better colour to chose for the character than green?

We have summarised the term abstract within the visual style and looked at different ways abstract images can be used within video games, look out for other blog posts on photorealism and symbolism within video games.

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