I admit that I’m a Valve fanboy. When I describe them akin to the Patron Saint of Desktop Gaming, you should understand my sick love affair with this company. Valve is a creative leader in the video game industry, and as many late-night gaming sessions can attest, their award-winning game series Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead are no exceptions.
Only a few years ago, art direction was in its early stages in the video game industry. Video game developers adopted a style of realism, and art styles were influenced more by graphics hardware than art directors. Valve, by no means, introduced art direction to video games, but how they communicate with art direction is ground-breaking in this space.
Our agency often describes art direction as “establishing the look and feel of a project.” I have personally been guilty of defining it as “Let’s hire that sick artist who did that mind-blowing thing for that brand.” Both in advertising and gaming, art direction can convey premium and personality to a product. For Team Fortress 2, Valve used art direction to communicate gameplay first, and along with that, added value and an ownable style.
Moby Francke, the art lead on Team Fortress 2 (TF2), joined the project after four failed art directions. The game mechanics introduced several issues that creative had to solve. In addition to the faced-paced game play of TF2, the player needed to quickly discern teams, classes and weapons. The TF2 creative team went through multiple years and creative rounds before arriving at an art direction inspired by early 20th century commercial illustration style.
From the classic commercial illustration style, the artists emulated the stylized shading and rim highlighting and combined it with distinctive silhouettes for in-game class readability. “We really understood our game,” describes Valve software developer Robin Walker, “so we knew the areas that the art direction had to be able to solve […] We have nine different classes and it’s incredibly crucial that when one of them comes around the corner, you immediately know which one it is.”
Randy Lundeen, level designer, continues, “Designing Team Fortress 2 taught us a lot about how important silhouettes are. Clear character silhouettes helped players get distinct reads in an instant, giving them the information they needed to make important snap decisions in a fast-paced environment.”
Beyond character design, the art direction communicated friend or foe through environmental materials, hue and saturations. The red team’s environment is composed of warm colors, natural materials and angular geometry. The blue team makes use of cool colors, industrial materials and orthogonal forms. In all cases, communication guided the art style rather than the personal preferences of the art director.
Independent video game art director Viktor Antonov said, “In a well designed game, every little piece has a meaning… skillful storytelling is invisible storytelling. Games are consumed through the eyes, and are a visual medium. They should use the language of the eyes, and not have a story pushed on them.”
So why the geeked-out gaming rant? If Team Fortress 2 has taught me anything about how I consume information, it’s less about the visual trend of the moment and more about clear communication through art direction. Yes, I still want to hire this guy, and that guy, and of course this agency for my next project with that brand. However, the Valve example demonstrates that the primary role of art direction is creating visual shortcuts for the end consumer.
LEARN MORE ABOUT TEAM FORTRESS 2: “Illustrative Rendering Featurette”