Yesterday, the Writers Cabal found itself careening along narrow roads ensconced between rocky gorge and looming green mountain. The torrential rains had thrown a layer of mud in our path, and we wondered if we’d skid into the suspiciously flooded-looking lake nearby. As we contemplated our mortality, the conversation naturally gravitated toward how art direction supports story in games.
Sande discussed the technique of integrating story within art direction used in cinema. A film director would read the story and identify key dramatic points and the story’s major themes. S/he would then link these to artistic choices. This cinematic technique has often been missing from games, but they can help both writer and player enjoy the story they’re creating.
For example, if the story explored a theme of power and control vs. weakness and chaos, the film director might choose to symbolize power with the use of red, and symbolize chaos with jagged lines. The story might begin in chaos, and the viewer would see broken lines throughout the art direction. However, the main character, symbolizing power, might arrive wearing red. The motif of red would appear whenever the power and control theme came forward in the story. If the story and art direction were developed collaboratively, the symbolic value of red or jagged lines could occasionally tell the story without the need for dialog or characters.
Generally speaking, stories consist of a series of mini-climaxes. Once the director identifies these key points, s/he can use the symbols to emphasize the drama. At the final climax of our power/control vs. weakness/chaos story, the director can throw in both the broken lines of chaos and then allow red to gain control of the scene. I imagine the player entering a location that is in shambles — jagged lines everywhere — the epitome of chaos. While player fights against the final villain(s), perhaps the “set” itself begins to crumble. As the broken facade crumbles, you see it was hiding a rich red rock that had always been there beneath the surface, the foundation of the PC’s future. Have you seen any great use of art direction in a game?
We will be exploring these themes even more at our South by Southwest panel on March 10th. You should join us! As for the Writers Cabal, we obviously survived our trek and relaxed in the hot springs at the top of the mountain.