The Function(s) of Game Art

Often times I find that the forums provide a group think toward terms and ideals that fall short of the reality of the games and game creation. One such is the use of the word “functional” as it applies to game art. Whenever I hear it I tend to wince as it I know it is not what the writer really means to say and certainly does not capture what is going on. When individuals say “function” or "functional” what they really mean to say is “user friendly” or something to do with information design. Comments such as “It (the board or art) looks nice, but is not functional” illustrate the specificity and single purpose many assign to the function of art. While information design is a function of design and art, it is not the only function of art. It is then that such comments fall short in describing – or comprehending – what is really happening here. Statements such as these suggest the total functional failures of a particular games’s art without the full consideration of what the art is really doing.

Game art functions on many levels – information design which is clarity and comprehension, aesthetic needs which provides attraction and ambience, thematic needs which enhances the story and finally a branded “look” which provides a unique, iconic look for a branded property (not “samey” looking). It is easy for many to say that none is more important than information design or that information design should never sacrifice for other needs. In reality, the addition of thematic details and aesthetic needs will always lead to a reduction in information design as the more the eye needs to take in, the more difficult it will be to take in a game situation. It is a balance that is sought after. One can certainly find a very “functional” game in terms of user friendliness. But if it does not look good, something big is missing. Cheapass games fall into this category. While many of them might work from a clarity point of view, who really is seduced in to playing them? The art in such games remains relatively non functional despite any user friendliness.

Sure, Cheapass' Kill Dr Lucky may be "functional" in terms of user friendliness, but what does it matter when it looks terrible. The art has done nothing to lure me in and give me confidence that this game is going to work beyond some homemade concoction. Someone will have to work hard to convince me to play the game. ...And they did. This as opposed to the look of the game doing the selling and creating the desire from within me to really want to play. Just because it reads does not make it good art.

A more recent implementation of Kill Dr Lucky. The read has taken a hit here from the previous version. However, unlike the original, I would be initially interested in playing it, were someone else interested. Compared to the original this actually looks fun wheras the old one did not. I've not seen this production in person though, or played the original in years, so I do not know if the board is very readable. It could have readability problems which would be an issue. The only point I make here is that art now functions to generate appeal and consequent interest as well as confidence that this will be more than a prototype.

A game called Siena. Here, we have a pretty board with nearly no functionality in terms of usability. My hunch with this was that the authors had very pretty art (an old medieval fresco) that they were afraid to “blemish” with graphic detailing. Consequently, the game has legendary difficulty in playability.

Aesthetic application functions to attract and hold attention, it creates anticipation and longing, it can drive sales and can promote future plays. I recall when first coming back to gaming a few years ago and seeing the board for Days of Wonder’s game Mystery of the Abbey. Now, this is a game that I should not like. It has deduction, is somewhat chaotic with card movement, it’s sort of silly and has a basic light play – all things I don’t like. So, I debated for a long time but finally broke down and bought it. I stuck it out for 5 games wishing things would be better as the look promises so much. In the end, I gave up on the game. Here, the game art functioned to attract me to the game and hold my attention and desire to believe in the game – even after just so so plays. I really wanted this game to work! I was on the game’s side – routing for it until the very end. It also functioned well to get others to play it with me as they too liked the look.

I have often heard it said of game board art, “The game art needs to be functional, not a painting to hang on the wall.” This seems a very nonsensical statement to me. Art for walls serves to enhance the ambience of a room. By the same token, the art on the game board provides an ambience to the gameplay that very pure data will never drive. I maintain that you are more likely to spend time looking at your favorite games than the art on your walls. Thus, the game aesthetics are just as important as wall decoration aesthetics for setting a mood and ambiance. How often have we stared at the wall art for 60 minutes or two hours at a time? Now how about the game art?

The artwork seduced me. I bought it and played a few times hoping it would get better. The artwork fuctioned both to seduce me and to give me confidence in its performance. Here, the sucess and function of the artwork had nothing to do with ease of play, but of aesthetics.

Cards and board from Through the Ages. They work pretty well from an information design function (though the board has a little problem with the notations). However, from an aesthetic point of view the game really suffers. The amaturish, homemade quality of the art has a prototype feel to it. It lacks the richness and drama that the game actually yields. Were it not for the high praise and ratings that the game has recieved, I might have passed on it. Boy, am I sure glad I didn't though as, for me, this is a great game.

Another point to be made is that strong aesthetics reduces fatigue during downtime. If there’s something pretty to look at, you’re less likely to get as bored when waiting on slow players. If one is less bored, the experience will come across better in the end. Game theme application works toward this end as well by enhancing the environment.

Good aesthetics also increases gamer pride. I have heard many people say they are very embarraced to show non gamers some of these games based on their looks. They look geeky. The art is amaturish for the most part and does not communicate something of sophistication – as these products actually are. The art is generally out of sync with these high grade games using low grade execution art. Certainly there are exceptions like Michael Menzel’s art, but the main point here is that a good look increases pride in the hobby.

A good sense of aesthetics works much like theme in game development. For many Euros, theme is but texture and ambience as well. Many euros really do not need the theme and could be played as green cubes, brown cubes, big square, little square, etc. Theme does aid in recall and in teaching, but more so it makes us feel good during play. So it is that we get medieval and reniassance game after another. These themes tend to be rich with texture, romance and a shared language that we can all relate to. Certainly anything can be as interesting as theme – my guess is that these two subjects are easier to slot in thematic elements to the actions. The point here is that we do desire something to make us feel good beyond the tickling of the brain that we get from gaming. In a way, theme is the pretty picture.

Thematic application functions to enhance thematic detailing in a game environment of weak thematic connection (as is the case with most euros). We all know that Euros are built on certain reductive principles that tend to smooth out the real life details and complexities that provide for richly themed experiences. So it is that game art helps to fill in the gaps here. Taluva is one such game for me. It is simply a pure abstract. However, the game board and bits explain a theme to me so beautifully that I want to believe there is some thematic truth to the game. Again, the art drives me to want to believe in the game. How many times have we seen a game theme rich with history and potentially great visual stimuli that has not been captured in the art? Instead, the art remains pale and bland – marginally themed at best. How disappointing this is! Like pleasing aesthetics, theme is ambience. It allows us to escape into a world of imagination.

Taluva – a pure abstract infused with theme by virtue of art and bits. I can feel and even believe that there is some primitive island life in the works here.

Another abstract game here – Santiago. Unlike Taluva, I don't get a sense of time or place (other than a farm). The art really does not much support theme. It looks very dry, abstract and boring. This also falls under a failure in aesthetic application as it does not look nice or compelling. Consequently, I'm less likely to pick this game up and more likely to get bored of it as soon as gameplay shows wear. Sure it reads, but so would a hand drawn black and white pencil sketch. I wouldn't be interested in playing that either. Just because something reads does not make it good art.

Finally, the branded application functions to give a unique look to the game. This function also serves to attract – if the game looks different then all the rest, then it promises to be different. We all hate games that play “samey.” So too, a samey look does not reinforce that something special is going to happen here in the gameplay. When at cons, spotting a game from a distance that looks unique certainly has the potential to attract individuals over to the table to observe. This branded application also serves to aid in recall both in describing a game and when thinking of the next game to play.

A forgettible board here for Kreta as it looks like any other island map. There is nothing here that looks unique. Consequently, I'm more likely to pass on it based on a first look.

Everything reads pretty good in Augsburg 1510. But there's nothing special going on here. When I played it with my group it came up a number of times... "what do you think of the art?" someone asked. Another said... "well it reads fine..." All the while there was a reflective silence and a shrug of shoulders. It's just that there was nothing of interest here. It's sort of a "been there, done that look".

In the end, art’s function is much more than simply information design. Weighing in the success of all these functions collectively can yield a better view of art’s contribution to a production.

– Mike