Aesthetics, Feel and Traditional Art Principles in Relation to Video Game Design

One of the aims I laid out in my last post was to look into how feel is expressed though game aesthetics. This links very nicely into examples of how this can be driven by traditional art principles and practices. This is a combination of some of last week’s research and some things I have found out today so this could be a long post!

How Does Emotion Work in Video Games?

Grant Tavinor, a games theorist, proposes that emotion in games is very important.

“The role of emotion in the arts has long been known and theorized about, and indeed this emotional involvement is one of the principle reasons why the arts hold the important place in our lives…our emotions connect us to the fictional worlds presented in artworks.”

These emotions can be split into two distinct categories: Higher Cognition Emotions, and Automatic Appraisal Mechanisms. At a base level, higher cognition emotions are an imagined emotional reaction to an event taking place in an imaginary world that the player puts themselves in, whereas automatic appraisal mechanisms are real gut reactions to what the game is doing to the player as a real person.

Notable examples would be:

HCE – Final Fantasy 7 – Sadness and mourning at Aeris’ death, then heightening the final boss battle as you take revenge on Sephiroth.


AAM – Frustration at multiple deaths in Dark Souls leading to a heightened boss battle as you take revenge on the game itself.


AAM emotions can be created by effects fairly easily. An example noted by Tavinor was System Shock 2.

“things have a habit of exploding when approached, startling the player…all I could do was panic…overwhelming feelings are those of fear and apprehension”


“In this case it is not the fictive content that drives the response, but the sheer visual and acoustic unexpectedness that the prop creates. ”

The sudden explosion gives the player a real world shock, as it is unexpected. They might jump out of their seat when playing. On the other hand, HCE emotions are created by the player imagining that they are a part of the game world, being immersed in the experience, and interacting with objects in the world as if they are real.

“Video games involve us, guided by digital props…the perceptual properties of these props and our make believes about what is fictional are emotionally affecting.”

“emotion arises quite naturally out of an imagined engagement in a hypothetical scenario because of the naturalness of the connection between imagination and emotion.”

These props could be any part of the game – the idea is the belief in them, not what they do. This could be a good way to bring fx into the emotional landscape of a game. These fx would have to somehow tie into emotional symbols that represent what the player should be feeling. (More on that later in the post…)

Jenova Chen, designer of Flow, Flower and Journey, feels that there are not enough games that explore the HCE type of emotions on the market.

” We realized that there are actually a whole spectrum of feeling that games are capable of creating, but not a lot of them are on the market…we want to be a company to extend the depth and width of the emotional spectrum that games can communicate.”


The games that are most readily available tend to explore the more reactive, AAM type emotions.

“Right now there are a lot of action games, there are a lot of horror games, sports games…but where are the dramas? Where are the documentaries? The romance?”

I discussed Journey earlier, talking about how the sea like shifting sands make the player feel small. This is exactly what they were going for – to “feel small and to wonder”. This is a lot more abstract that the shock of an explosion. These sorts of feelings are created in Journey though shape, composition and colour, which I will discuss later.

Game Aesthetics

When referring to game design, aesthetics encompasses a number of different aspects of the game that are more abstract than the mechanics or the emergent gameplay that arises from these mechanics. This is a part of the MDA or Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics approach. In order to promote emotion in games, Robin Hunicke, producer on Journey, uses the formula backwards, starting with aesthetics.

“Think of the aesthetics first…think of the feelings you want to bring to players. I believe that if you start with the aesthetics and move backwards towards the mechanics though the dynamics, you can create successful games.”


Visual art is a large part of a game’s aesthetic, so perhaps when designing these an emotion should be used as a frame of reference.

“Visuals are one of the elements that are very useful to help communicate an arc of emotion.”

Traditional Art Principles

“Video games rely on the same design principals – perspective, form, value etc – which classical artists employed to create the illusion that the television or canvas is a window to an imagined world. These design techniques also serve a second purple equally applicable to games design, which is their aesthetic value, and application in visual narratives.”

Classic art relied heavily on visual psychology to create meaning within their works that everyone could share. This was especially true within religious painting.

Shape and Composition

Shape association plays a huge part in our understanding and perception of visual arts.

“because reality is so visually complex, professional artists conceptually reduce objects to simple lines, shapes and volumes, to simply the task of rendering reality.”

General associations are normally:

Circle – Innocence, Youth, Energy and Femininity

Square – Maturity, Stability, Balance, Stubbornness

Triangle – Aggression, Masculinity, Force


These come about as reactions to our environment and lessons learned as babies that explore the world though touch. A pyramid’s sharp corners suggest that touching it would hurt, the cube does not move when tipped and the circle will move and will not hurt us.

These shapes can be simplified further, brought down to curved, straight and angular lines. These lines are often seen in design and can quickly communicate the purpose or message of a product or brand.


Curved lines are safe and dynamic, straight lines are sophisticated and stable and angular lines are edgy and violent. These associations can be seen in the brands, designs and products that they are used in. This “shape spectrum of emotion” can be used to evaluate and understand artwork as it is a “timeless feature of art”, this then helps us “find relationships between seemingly disparate artworks and better understand the aesthetics of video games.”

An example of this in classical composition would be Diana and Her Companions by Vermeer, in contrast with Massacare of the Innocents by Rubens.


Diana is calm, showing a soft continuous motion. This is created though the use of a circular composition.


Massacre is violent, turbulent, full of energy, created though an angular and sharp composition. This fits well with the shocking, violent theme of the piece.

“the type of composition an artist designs…should reinforce the emotional message of the artwork”

Solarski asks his reader to imagine the composition styles swapped – it really would ruin the messages of each piece.

This idea can also be applied to non-representation artwork, which is useful to note as effects animation aligns more with the abstract.


When talking about Black and Violet, Kandinsky said that the “content of a work of art finds its expression in the composition…in the sum of the tensions inwardly organised for the work”.

“throughout history, basic shapes and composition have been a primary artistic tool used to organize a work of art and shape the aesthetic quality of the images.”

Solasrski talks about how these shapes relate to level layout and character design, but those topics are starting to stray a bit too far from my project aim. I was interested however, in how shapes can integrate a prop into an environment and how arcs in animation can compliment the mood of a game.

He compared the jumping animation in Journey to the composition of Diana and Her Companions, noting the smooth and soft arc of the animation. This could be taken further by animations changing based on the mood of the game event.

“Video games being such a dynamics medium, there’s no reason why we can’t design experiences that take advantage of the whole range of possible animations to communicate more complex narratives.”

This was focused on character animation, but I think it could actually be better applied to effects, as they are more likely to be bespoke for different parts of a game.


An example of this could be a game similar to Journey, that has temples and religion as part of the plot. If you were a circle person, in the circle temple you might see torches where the fire is soft, containing circle motifs. This would suggest that this is a light to guide you. In the triangle temple however, the torches would contain angular fire, fire that is jagged and contains triangle motifs. This would suggest danger, would make you feel like the fire could burn you, or lead you into danger.

To integrate an environment, characters and props together, they must share the same shapes. Echoing the motif creates a sense of harmony and belonging, where as contrasting them creates dissonance.


A circular character in a triangular environment will make the character seem threatened, whereas a triangular character in a circular environment will make the character seem threatening. This can be seen in both film and games, as in the Lord of the Rings films, the hobbit’s appearance and home contain circular motifs and are generally soft and round, whereas Mordor and Sauron share angular lines and triangular motifs.


In Super Mario Galaxy, the player must control circular Mario and rid his circular world of triangular enemies.


Solarski created a game called MORF to demonstrate this principle. It aims to explore the emotional links between character and environment shapes. Generally players “bumped their way around the round level without concern” but “spent an inordinate amount of time carefully avoiding sharp objects” in the angular level.


I had a similar experience when playing. I kept trying to go near the round red blobs, as I associated them with the character I was playing with. These actually bounce you back and should be avoided. When they were spikes however, I avoided them. I wonder how this could be applied to a first person game where you never see the character – where would the shapes come from? How could the familiar vs the unfamiliar be played on to create certain feelings?

Symbolism (or Iconography)

Symbolic association is a more sophisticated version of shape association, in that we as viewers or players associate certain objects, motifs or sounds to characters, feelings or events. (It is simpler to refer to this as iconography, as symbolism also refers to an artistic movement.) David Freeman discusses this in his Creating Emotion In Games, with regard to Ico.


“the boy you play obtains a magical sword that crackles with a kind of spiritual electricity. This is a symbol of the boy’s condition or change in condition. It symbolizes that he’s attained a new level of power. The demonic creatures that used to attach him now flee him and the sword. And it also symbolises that he now belongs with the girl, for the spiritual energy the sword exudes looks exactly like the mystical energy that the girl can wield when she needs to, and that has the same magical abilities. So the sword symbolises two conditions: the boy’s attainment of power and his attunement to the girl’s soul. Because the boy uses the sword to accomplish his final tasks, this is a usable symbol, serving double duty: working to deepen the emotion experience but also playing a role in the gameplay.”

images (1)

Its really interesting to see an effects example. Iconography uses both shape and colour to create recognizable designs. In Ico’s case, the magical symbols and the light, semi transparent colour. I will admit that I did not actually enjoy Ico that much when I played it, and there are plenty of games that do the artistic angle better in my opinion, but I understand Freeman’s ideas.


Icons are incredibly common in traditional art, especially in religious or purposefully symbolic works. An example of a purposefully symbolic work would be a vanitas painting. I wrote about these for our Digital Media Context module in second year, comparing the painting to forms of interactive media.

Each object in one of these paintings is imbued with religious or symbolic significance, overt to the viewer of the time through the use of emblem books. These books contained symbolic pictures with accompanying text that explained their meaning and significance and were very popular in the 16th-18th centuries. They also, along with the vanitas paintings themselves, promoted a particular life ethic. A well-known scholar of art history states that emblem books,
“…together with other forms of popular literature and prints, encompassed the prevailing ethic in words and pictures. The stern Calvinist sensibility is exemplified by such homilies as “A fool and his money are soon parted” [Janson, 1997]
This shows that vanitas painters clearly attempted to promote an ideal to their viewers, and though requiring these viewers to read emblem books, encouraged them to actively find these meanings by interacting with the piece. This is very similar to modern forms of interaction, particularly video games, as players must progress though the game in order to
learn the story.


Colours were used in Journey to help communicate to the player which stage of life and the hero’s journey they were currently experiencing. These feelings can also be seen though colour in traditional paintings. JMW Turner uses colour in his expressionist works to promote feelings and the idea of landscapes, without being too representational. Olifur Elison did a project based on Turner’s works, where he extracted the colours. I saw this at whilst in London and though this was a really accessible entry point to Turner’s palettes.

Peaceful and Calm, Safe, Early Years/Just Setting Out – Yellow, Overcast, Low Contrast.

(c) Lady Lever Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation



Same Desert but More Exiting, Experimenting, Wonder, Risks – Same Yellow but More Contrast, Dramatic Lighting




Lost, Cold, Unsure – Cool Colours, Blues, Greens, Underwater Feel – Far from Home

Seascape with a Squall Coming Up circa 1803-4 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851



Lifeless, No Energy – White, Drained, Low Contrast (Colours in Journey and Turner don’t match here, but do have similar moods)




Freedom, Liberation – Sky Blues, Streams, High Contrast Again – Similar palette between dark and light moods but saturation level changes it.




Most of the games and paintings cited here were the examples used by the writers of the books and articles I got the information from, going forward, I would like to investigate these principals in the pieces that I use for inspiration in my own work.


The Art of Video Games – Grant Tavinor

Various Turner Paintings

History of Art – Janson


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