The Art and Technique of Video Games

Male 3D designer sitting at the table at home and making animation for video game character, using modern computer and software for creating 3D modeling projects

Key Points

  • Video game techniques and design require extensive collaboration between departments.

  • Four elements govern video game techniques.

  • The camera angles in games determine players’ perspectives.

  • 343's game design elements have improved in many ways, including behind-the-scenes elements of Halo

Video game techniques aren’t easily gained or employed. The creative process in games is evidence of this. Creating a video game is one thing, but creating a generation-defining title is difficult. AAA studios often dominate Game of the Year discourse and receive the largest budgets to punch out big money-making games.

Since games are surrounded by passionate people, the medium is full of an intense desire to create something that stands the test of time. Something they enjoy with friends and family, to forge memories – like a Halo 3 couch multiplayer session.

They want to create something that is more than just a game but is also considered a work of art.

You Can’t Rush Art

The visual language of video games must be first and foremost.

No one wants to play a game devoid of anything interesting to look at or interact with. A lackluster game design leads a video game to commit the highest sacrilege of all — to be boring. Discussing the four elements of game design is an excellent place to start the discussion about the process of producing video games. 

These four elements, as defined by Jesse Schell in the book The Art of Game Design, are mechanics, technology, story, and aesthetics. 

Video game developers create games at computer

How Developers Design

Mechanics are the predetermined rules of your virtual space. How the game plays, what strategies develop within it, and how the player acts are all defined by mechanical rulesets. The player then operates freely within the predefined rules and even discovers exploits if they’re creative enough. 

Technology is the engine of the game – both literally and metaphorically. The resources used that bring the rulesets to life — hardware and software in consoles, the game engine, and the controller — are the technology pieces that ensure game design walks the full path to realization.

The story is the occurrence of events through a game’s runtime, separated by emotional and detailed beats. A story’s plot, emotional resonance, and flow are imperative components of what the player is actively doing. If that's boring, the game overall likely is too.

These principles determine how effective game design techniques are. Every studio and developer in the world adheres to them. Whether done well or not is up to the audience. Capitalizing on design principles is what every dev’s endeavor ought to be. 

The Aesthetics

Aesthetics is such a dense category that it deserves its own subsection. Art direction and aesthetics are formidable in games and are governed by four principles. These principles are applied and accurate for all of your favorites. It does not matter whether that’s games, movies, or anything else you visually consume. Consciously or not, these are recognized immediately by the player. 

These four elements of art are line, shape, texture, and color. 

Lines

A metaphorical skeleton, lines create the boundaries wherein the other essential elements of game art visuals function. They are the basis of communication for ideas, feelings, and physical and emotional space within a video game. They communicate what a player should interact with and even surprise a developer by taking an unexpected detour. 

Video game 3D world laid out

Shapes

Shapes are composed of lines, the muscle of the proverbial art skeleton.

These include geometric environments, angular, soft, hard, round, and even transparent. Artists use shapes to create breathtaking and monumental game worlds. Developers take these shapes and form them in-game for players to look at and interact with them.

In some cases, if the object doesn’t have collision, the player phases through it. Speedrunners exploit these design oversights to finish a playthrough in nearly every game imaginable.

Texture

Imagine for a moment how a tennis ball feels. You feel the light fuzziness of the wool and nylon and the soft rubber core if you squeeze it.

Game worlds implement these kinds of texture detailing to enhance their immersion abilities. These include grass, metals, water, rock sediment, and whatever else players imagine. Texture helps convince them that what they’re interacting with is not just striking and desirable but believable.

Even though they’re playing in a digital state and cannot physically touch the Halo ring, they imagine that it feels real by noticing the bark on the tree, the sands of the beach, and the metal of the gun in their hands. 

Color

Likely the first thing most noticeable when observing something, color psychology also influences the mood of a piece.

In a game world, color brings all other design elements together to make or break the experience. The Pacific Northwest landscapes of the Halo rings contain hues of green and blue, which connect with feelings of contentment and relief. The sight of Sandtrap’s deserts connects to joy based on color alone. 

No intentions to discount your splatter with the Elephant, of course.

Graphics, character design, and the game world tie the visual language and rule sets together, building toward inspiring video game techniques and design. A compelling enough visual language surmounts even the poorest mechanical and story oversights, and even poor audio. It’s an essential piece of the proverbial video game pizza. 

Life Is About Perspective

Early on, developers must decide from what perspective their game world takes place. While switching camera perspectives midgame isn’t entirely discouraged, doing so too often runs the risk of disorienting the player.

There are three camera perspectives in video games: first-person, third-person, and top-down.

Video game designer conceptualizes characters

First Person

When people imagine first person games, they likely think of first person shooters (FPS) like Halo or Call of Duty.

Not every first-person game is an FPS. Games like Skyrim and Outer Wilds show off the variability of this camera approach by inhabiting the protagonist’s view and having the game as an extension of their sight and body. This level of immersion and interactivity is impossible in other mediums — you are the protagonist. You are not simply observing them. 

This perspective is adept at immersing the player into unique situations they likely don’t experience in everyday life. Players must solve puzzles with their eyes rather than looking at clues that a player character model might point towards with their eyes. 

Looking at you, Wind Waker.

Other popular entries worth mentioning in the first-person perspective include Battlefield, Minecraft, Portal, and Manifold Garden

Third Person

Games are excellent vehicles for storytelling because of their interactivity.

Third person perspective is an excellent tool for any director to communicate a story that doesn’t directly place a player into the shoes of the protagonist. They control a character to an extent, but the character still makes story decisions for themselves until the player decides for them.

In third person you control the character while viewing their body from behind. This helps orient players of all skill levels and is often the most comfortable way to play. The view also aids the player to understand a character and their behaviors via body language rather than just voice. 

Among the best examples of third person perspective include the latest God of War entries, The Last of Us, and Red Dead Redemption 2.

Video game controller, headset, and keyboard

Top-Down

Top-down games are what they sound like. The camera is placed directly above the action and is where the player controls the action. Within the top-down perspective is also the isometric perspective, where the camera is angled slightly, likely closer to the field of play but still observing from above. 

Often, role-playing games and real-time strategy games use this camera perspective. This allows the user to get the layout of the playing field, teammate and enemy positions, and deploy their strategies quickly.

Some of the best-selling and critically acclaimed games use this perspective, including Diablo, StarCraft, and indie darlings like Hades.  

You Know the Music; It’s Time To Dance!

Music composition is arguably the most important part of the video game experience.

As music is one of the strongest memory enhancers known to man, the challenge of video game music is to make something memorable, catchy, and loopable. A good soundtrack allows players to remember the moments they spent with the game, and a main menu screen floods them with fond memories of game nights with friends. 

One quintessential exemplar of musical impact is Halo music creator Marty O’Donnell's work. Halo fans know his music and the iconography of the series’ music. From the gregorian chants of the main theme to the piano keystrokes of “One Final Effort” make O'Donnell's art untouchable. 

Originally a film and commercial composer, O'Donnell decided to pivot into video games because of their adaptive and interactive nature. After composing the soundtrack for Riven, O’Donnell connected with Bungie Inc. His first video game scoring job with Bungie was Myth: The Fallen Lords. On this project, he realized his interest in video game music software. To have randomized, player-driven audio cues that played in unpredictable loops sounded like the best way to simulate reality. 

Video game developer creates a world

“There are two sides to successful game audio,” O’Donnell explains in an interview with beepmovie.com. “Writing good music is paramount — you have to be able to write music that is likable, appropriate, or memorable. But that will only get you so far, that’s like halfway there. The implementation side, how it plays back, how your sound is designed, how it plays back for the player, what their experience is, [that’s] the other 50 percent.”

An example of this implementation is what O’Donnell calls the “Bored Now” switch. If a soundtrack is looping for too long as they play, it becomes a detriment to their enjoyment of the game. Audio that annoys the player, he continues, is the worst thing to happen when creating games. 

As the years went by and Halo became a mega-hit for Microsoft, O’Donnell and his musical partner Mike Salvatori's approach adapted to each successive game’s themes. He incorporated rock guitarists and melancholic motifs like “Ghosts of Reach,” and collaborated with Breaking Benjamin in Halo 2.

Halo 3 saw the piano take center stage, a first for the series, and improvements to the audial interactivity system. Multiple variations of game audio were randomized and triggered based on where the player was in each mission while they moved from point A to point B. And it would be criminal not to mention the noirish saxophone work in Halo 3: ODST and the morose, bittersweet vocals of Reach. 

Marty O’Donnell, alongside Mike Salvatori and the entire audio department, are owed a lion’s share of praise for the success of the Halo series. And as such, their work serves as an example of the necessity of impeccable sound in video game creation.     

Where 343 Industries’ Halo Has Improved

It’s not a secret that the 2000s have been a bit bumpy for the Halo franchise.

Halo 4 and Halo 5: Guardians unnecessarily deviated from the series’ classic feel of simple art direction and low-strings, tribal percussion, and rock-opera music direction. 343 Industries, the studio that has developed every Halo game since 2011, have stated its desire to establish its studio’s identity. It has led to a loss of players.

While each game operates on a distinct mechanical level, some features that make up that unique Halo feeling were missing in action. Halo Infinite is 343’s strongest outing thus far — and is worth playing in 2023 — because of its adherence and additions to Halo game techniques. The open world could use some work, but the art direction is a blend of Halo 3 and Reach, and Master Chief has never looked sleeker. The grappleshot handles like a dream and is the best of its kind in all of gaming. The weapons sandbox is arguably the most balanced and fun to use in the entire series.

Software developer writes code for video game

Even though the fanbase has iterated its interest in Marty O’Donnell and Mike Salvatori to return to compose for the franchise, their relationship with Microsoft has experienced some strain, to say the least.

In their absence, however, Halo Infinite’s soundtrack is the series’ best outing since Halo: Reach, with new renditions of Halo classics and additions of original work by a talented audio and composition team.

Perhaps one day, a triumphant return is in the cards, accompanied by a face-melting guitar solo. 

Bringing It All Together

Excellent video game techniques, design, and art direction are easily spotted but challenging to construct.

There's a lot more that goes into creating a masterpiece video game than what initially meets the eye. Everything from sexy characters to jaw-dropping graphics needs a front-seat role.

Some might roll their eyes at video games, but others know that video games are the 21st century's version of Renaissance art.

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