The Xbox Live Arcade game Snoopy Flying Ace strikes me as a clear example of an underlying aspect of stylized games and movies. From left to right: An original drawing of Snoopy, a Vinyl figurine of Snoopy, and finally a screenshot from the game. Notice the character in-game is almost identical in appearance to the toy figure. It does not have much in common with the original art, nor would it make much sense to attempt to bridge the gap; the drawing of Snoopy, while pleasing and iconic, has several view-dependent features that don’t map into a 3D virtual space.
On the other hand, we certainly do not want to see a completely photorealistic, bipetal beagle in aviator googles in the game, even though the character will be rendered with realistic lighting and textures. The solution is as old as Pixar’s 1989 animated short Knick-Knack, a concept they would later expand on in 1995, with the first 3D animated feature film Toy Story. The lighting techniques that existed then made for convincing matte material, but little else. Thus, creating characters who are made of plastic allowed them to wow audiences with expressive characters while avoiding complex materials.
Fast forward to present day. While existing rendering clusters can create near photorealistic scenes, interest remains for more abstract designs. You may have heard this has to do with the uncanny valley, but that is a bit of an oversimplification of a complex problem. The uncanny valley has to do with unrealistic motion (or, as more often is the case, unrealistic stillness), but that seemly long understood phenomena will simply disappear once animating technology can catch up to graphical rendering, and it nearly has. No, while stylized worlds will always follow a historic thread of technological restriction and small-budget production, the truth is that style, artistic designs which embody expression and exhibit a playfulness of form, are just as meaningful to people as even the most polished photorealistism.
Thus, even today abstract models exist in otherwise realistically rendered world, giving the impression that these characters are toys, whether intentional or not. With Snoopy Flying Ace, I believe the vinyl figure aesthetic was intentional. With several recent games like LittleBigPlanet, Modnation Racers or Toy Soldiers, the toy concept has again been made a literal one, same as it was 30 years ago with Knick-Knack.
I’ve always felt that artistic form has taken a backseat to photorealism in computer graphics. I get excited whenever I see a game developer use a more stylized approach. This realization that these designs look like toys when rendered within a realistic settings demonstrates that artists have found purchase within this virtual space, and that maybe stylized games will be seen as less risky endeavors in the future. I wonder if this is the best scheme for artists, or if the physicality places hard limits on their expression.
A few game developers, and many more computer graphics researchers, have tried mimicking artwork directly, but for reasons I mentioned previously, this is no easy task, and while a few good techniques exist, they each have their restrictions and graphical artifacts. Furthermore, matching the appearance of a specific artistic style or medium is no better than mimicking reality in terms of enabling artistic expression; an artist working an engine that can produce convincing watercolor drawing is limited to that style and aesthetic.
So this remains an exciting, open problem. Although I just knocked it, I’m going to work on a game with a watercolor look. I’m going to see if I can approach the entire design of that engine from a watercolor perspective instead of a physical one. But as it stands, the best method is just to work with the well-defined approach of rendering abstracted characters and objects as if they were toy figures.