I remember a while back when you said that the best art style is no art style at all. I had to spend some time thinking about it, and had developed an understanding I wanted to share but haven’t bothered writing anything since art styles haven’t been discussed on the blog until lately.
Thinking upon the statement, I first thought you were simply presenting a solution to the issue that some recent games have styles that are just plain embarrassing to look at. I have memories of proud neighborhood fathers enjoying NES Zelda, yet recently feeling uncomfortable for a young woman playing (by which I mean working) through an early scene in Skyward Sword at a store. I realized, however, that there is another element to the problem of having too much art.
As you and I know, video games are closer to sports than to movies. A first-time viewer can figure out the basic rules of a sport intuitively, and a good video game allows the same thing. Yet a video game that tries to be like a movie will fill up the screen with a variety of confusing crap. I want the reader to picture in their head a tennis court. You see the green rectangles and net? The boundaries are so simple and clearly defined that anyone can tell what’s going on even if no one explains the game.
Every major sport has a simple field of play. Even though there are adds on some of the walls (or race cars), you probably can’t think of any appearing on the grass of a baseball field during a game. It would be so confusing! There are, of course, some times where there are adds in the field of play when like, a company owns the arena. Hockey rinks often have a few logos near the center, but they never disturb the important lines, and so players and the audience aren’t confused all the damn time.
In the NES days, when colors were limited and shapes were blocky, this same thing applied. In Mario, the skies are bright blues against the brown bricks (essentially orange, blue’s opposite), creating a high contrast that makes the boundaries literally clear as day. This actually makes me wonder if the Goombas are brown only to enhance the fact that they are 1) enemies and 2) supposed to be jumped on. Anyway, take a look at some pictures of NSMB Wii U. I recall seeing a background with large, white rock formations jetting out into the sky, with clouds floating around it. The colors are so similar, and these backgrounds are probably animated or dynamic in some way, that a person new to games might be overwhelmed by the amount of crap happening on screen with little clarity. That was, really, the only complaint my friends (who don’t normally play games) ever had with Mario 5: too many things happening on the screen at once. Even I would get confused sometimes and I’ve been playing games my whole life.
Now, I’m not saying having any aesthetic is bad (which I recall is how some readers misinterpreted your statement), but many games have adopted rather ridiculous styles that to a novice can be like looking at a Magic Eye. Mario games especially need to not fall victim to this, being a central pillar of all gaming. If I decide to buy a Wii U, then I will certainly buy NSMB Wii U as well. Yet, I have a feeling it will be a rare opportunity for me to convince my friends to play it.
I suppose it is like the saying of “How do you know if the game’s programming is bad?” If the gamer notices the programming, it is bad. The programming should be invisible to the gamer. The gamer should never think of the programming when playing a game.
The same has to be true with art styles. If we notice the art style, it is bad. Gamers shouldn’t be noticing the art.