All posts by Anjin Anhut

Art Style Atoms

art direction and style guides for video games

This is an excerpt from a 2-day lecture I gave on art direction, in which I provide a toolset to take any visual style apart, so you have pieces to combine anew to make your own vision come to life.

What is a “visual style”?

Style is a term universally used to capture how stuff looks. And as a creative, you are very much invested in controlling how your stuff will look. And just gathering reference images and saying “we want this kind of style” is not gonna cut it.

Different people see and value different things, looking at the same picture and so we need to be able to precisely explain and discuss what we mean with “that style”. Usually we don’t want to recycle all aspects of any given style, because usually we are driven to make something at least somewhat unique.

…so what are the parts of any specific reference style we want to incorporate into our own work? And how do we recognize and name them?

Creating plenty of style guides and teaching plenty of art classes over the years, I developed a way to break any given style apart into 4 separate aspects…

what are design atoms visual styles?

Art style atoms:

  • Subject – what is the artist showing us?
  • Technique – what are the tools and methods used to create the art, and to reproduce and publish it?
  • Visual properties – what are the colors, shapes, lines and volumes like?
  • Ductus – How does the artist’s handwriting shape the stylization?

Using this way to examine and discuss these 4 style atoms individually, frequently revealed how one person wanted the artist to use the content of the image for example, while the artist thought they should focus on the illustration technique. Or written briefings have been rejected by artists, because they were confused about the fact they have been provided with 2D references, even though they were making a 3D game.

Working with art style atoms can remedy these kinds of miscommunication.

Clear atoms versus muddy atoms.

Within the established 4 categories, it can be quite clear, what kind of atom we are looking at, but depending on the category, it also can be a bit arbitrary. The used technique for example is usually easy to pinpoint and the subject is as well. Sure, for both categories you need to be familiar with what you see there, but if you are, there is not much arguing about what has been shown in an image and what methods and tools have been used to create it.

Mainly because subjects and techniques have already established terminology… in the end, you can gather as much references as you like, you need word your ideas as well.

However, ductus and visual properties are more ambiguous. A reference image can be very noisy and confused, so that finding consensus on the overall color scheme or shape language – and how to name them – can be tricky. Ductus is even worse as many artists have overlapping elements to how they draw, paint and sculpt. This makes it equally hard to nail down, especially when there is no previously established terminology for the visual properties and the ductus you want to discuss.

There is always going to be some waste paper to be produced to reach the ideal stylistic goals. No guide or briefing can be 100% clear. There will always gaps in how people imagine the final result to be and only making art and reviewing it and making art again will bridge that gap.

Let’s discuss some examples…

The following examples are intended to show you how to discuss design atoms individually, but also should demonstrate how important it is to actually verbally discuss them. In my work as a project lead, I have worked with many young artists who would just stuff downloaded images into a reference folder and call it a day. Please, don’t.

two official mickeys

Late 20th century Mickey Mouse
Subject: same as right version, but with flesh colored face. Technique: Color filled fine lines, digitally painted coloring and shading. VisProp: Soft but solid shapes, maintaining consistent shapes and volumes. Ductus: controlled lines and colors, similar to cel animated character.

2015 Mickey Mouse
Subject: same as left version, but with white colored face. Technique: Black lines, flat cel coloring and no shading. VisProp: Squishy shapes, inconsistent shapes and volumes. Ductus: lines are drawn in a freehand fashion, similar to a black marker sketch.

kojima versus miyamoto

A typical Kojima game
Hideo Kojima has a strong affinity towards cyberpunk as a subject matter and sci-fi anime as a ductus.

A typical Miyamoto game
Shigeru Miyamoto enjoys adorable heroes with often super-deformed proportions as a ductus, while his subject matter is usually circling around themes of adventure and discovery.

mk9 versus mkx

MK9 Sonya Blade
Subject: The female characters of MK9 – like in many interations of the franchise before – had very revealing clothes, focussing on providing titillation for the marketed towards young male demographic.

MKX Sonya Blade
Subject: In MKX much more priority towards a believable universe was given and clothing was designed to be appropriate for the role of each character within the story.

various shaders

SF4 default shader
Technique: common used of a model with painted textures and a specific lighting setup, using specific subtle shaders to create an illustrative appearance.

SF4 ink shader
Technique: additional use of an outline shader, intended to give an ink drawing (sumi-e) appeal.

sketch versus 3d rendering

Disney’s Rapunzel design drawing
Ductus is very similar to right version, as Glen Keane’s design drawing have been translated closely by the 3D artists of the film. The technique is obviously pencil on paper, which creates visual properties, such as a black-and-white color scheme.

Disney’s Rapunzel 3D rendering
The 3D technique adds visual properties, such as specific color palettes, realistic materials and realistic lighting. Ductus is similar to left, subject is the same.

black and white or color?

Visual properties: Platformer with a black-and-white color palette and using clean and heavy black sillhuoettes for assets. Technology used is modular animation based on 2D assets.

New Super Mario Bros U
Visual properties: Platformer with a bright color palette, including primary colors. Shapes are solid but round, materials are plastic-like. The technology used is based on 3D animation using 3D models.

Examples of visual properties for shapes and lines and how I would label them:
visual properties

Examples of color as a visual property, change to create variations of a sprite (palette swapping):
color palette swapping

Concept artist Matt Rhodes demonstration how he used the visual properties of basic shapes and colors to create visually distinguishable characters [more here]:
concept art shapes and colors

Cartoonist Malinen keeping subject and technique consistent in each row, while changing the ductus of the drawing from column to column, imitating the ductus of world renown comic artists and cartoonists:
many artists many styles

In conclusion:

For each comparison, I’m sure that you would have chosen other differences to point out or at least would have given them other label. And that’s cool. The style atoms approach I explain in this article is not more or less right than other ways to discuss style elements.

I at least hope I was able to inspire you to go beyond falling back on the term style and become more detailed in the way you read, argue, document and define how an image is created and how to create your own stuff.

Let me conclude this article with a quick checklist to consider when preparing style guides (references and style descriptions) for other artists or for yourself, just so you don’t forget what you aim to accomplish:

Questions to answer when providing references in styleguides:

  • Do you want me to draw/paint/sculpt the artwork like this artist would do it?
  • Do you want me to incorporate similar colors, shapes and/or volumes?
  • Do you you want me to use the same techniques?
  • Do you want me to show the same motifs, subjects or content of the image?
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What Murdered – Soul Suspect could have been…

Early gothic horror concept art for Murdered – Soul Suspect. The game became much smaller than what these concepts have been exploring, so the mind wanders, what the game could have been. The artist is Yuki Matsuzawa.

Scroll down for images:

unused cocpet art for murdered soul suspect

gothic horror art

speed painting gothic horror

unused cocpet art for murdered soul suspect


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One to watch: Bulo Studio’s Shmup Creator


Oh, sweet! Specialized game dev tools FTW!

Still in development, Shmup Creator by Bulo Studio, looks really promising with tons of editing options for 2D and 3D assets based shmups. In the end it always comes down to how well one can incorporate self-made content and what the publishing options of the creator will be.

Anyways, I’ll be keeping an eye out, always looking for to the point tools and systems. Here are impressions from the twitter feed:

make bullet hell games

bulo studio's shmup creator shoot em up creation software

game engine for shoot em ups shmups

For more, visit:

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Metal Gear Solid in Unreal Engine 4

shadow moses metal gear solid in HD

A group of indie devs is remaking Metal Gear Solid in Unreal Engine 4…

Let’s check out the trailer and talk about gains and losses, when doing current gen versions of low spec titles.

First, credit where credit is due. Even though, we can expect this project to never get a full release or in worst case not even being publicly available at all, due to copyright laws, I always like to support bottom up game development with widely known and beloved IPs. They are obviously putting in a ton of effort and I hope the content they produce gets as much circulation as possible before Konami puts their foot down.

So, please visit iRam Gamer’s dedicated facebook page: and make sure to give the video above a like and share.

Now the issue at hand…

Is this improving anything?

As an exercise and public proof of concept, yeah, it’s great. It shows what can be done with the Metal Gear IP and explores different directions and I have no reason to doubt, that the game will also play well, if it becomes available.

However, it also serves as an interesting case study for the trappings of remaking low spec 3D games. Current Metal Gear games clearly show, that Kojima was never interested in making particularly anime-style or otherwise expressionistic looking games. The old look of the first PS1 instalment was mostly driven by the desire to create something cinematic, but was limited by the specs of the development software and publishing platform. They just made the best out of what they had.

Art direction solved this problem neatly. Iconic and precise shapes, big readable graphic elements on textures, carefully crafted color palettes and lighting, …all this has been tweaked with low specs in mind, ending up in a cohesive and unique semi-realistic look, impressive for its time.

metal gear solid hd remake

The first challenge, when doing a current gen version of this super reduced original, is to fill in all the detail gaps with your own design decisions. How old do you make Snake’s face for example? Which ethnicity exactly? What’s the default expression? The original only provides a pixilated blur and super simple geometry, with a generic empty facial expression. You have to decide how to fill in which detail.

The second challenge is to decide how much realism to add. The original designs are optimized to work with the low spec geometry, color range and texture fidelity, which resulted in big colorful shapes and surface details. Repeating those shapes and details in HD reveals how cartoony they actually are. How do you change the combat suit for example, so that it does not look like a costume once presented in a photorealistic context.

metal gear ps1 playstation and unreal engine 4 comparison

And this is where Shadow Moses (the title of the UE4 remake project) needs to step up their game, I think. The obvious steps are to rebuilt assets, using 3D materials and HD textures – sometimes photo elements even – and high-poly sculpting. Fresh rusty steel here, some crisp crackling concrete there. However, what Shadow Moses gained in fidelity it currently lacks in art direction.

The colors are generic, the models are generic, the angular graphical nature of the Metal Gear series lost in generic naturalism, driven by UE4 graphics benchmark standards. And worse, darkness is confused for atmospheric lighting, swallowing up the visuals that are there. Metal Gear games have never been about darkness much – that’s a Splinter Cell thing – and I still had to increase the brightness of those screenshots by 60-80% to even squeaze out the limited amount of detail, we have here.


Since, Konami can’t be bothered to do a remake themselves – and maybe that would be something nobody wants, now that Konami pissed allover the Kojima legacy – I applaud iRam for picking up the slack and hope that future project updates show a bit more dedication to the iconography of Metal Gear, rather than just pasting photorealism on top of everything.

As an inspiration, it’s always helpful to look at how other people already dealt with the challenges above. And here, remakes are as valid as fan sculpt or even licensed goods. Like this one:

metal gear solid snake toy hd remake


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Surrealism and Games

surrealism in video games

Surrealism is a genre in which the psyche, the subconscious and the fears and desires of a person or character are translated into images, spaces, objects and characters. Whenever game designers let you explore the mind or dreams of a character as a virtual space or come up with characters who personify someones feelings (inner demons so to speak), it’s very likely we are talking surrealism.

As I will argue further down, the same goes for ghostly manifestations of past trauma, hallucinations, childlike imagination, as well as religious/mythological incarnations of sin, virtue and the afterlife.

key ideas/tropes of surrealism

  • revelation of the sub-conscious, rather than expression of the rational mind
  • revelation of the psyche through imagery in dreams, visions, hallucinations, psychosis, imagination and/or metaphor
  • personification and other manifestation of a person’s fears, desires, struggles and ambitions.
  • remix and twisting of a person’s perceived reality or memories, familiar objects in strange contexts
  • impossible physics, biology and spacial relations, irrational logic

Surrealism as an art movement

The term “Surrealism” is mostly associated with the art movement of the same name.

The movement is usually said to have begun in the 1920s and went on until the later 1970s. Of course, works of art and fiction with surrealistic qualities and premises have been created before and after that time, but many of the artists from that movement defined what popculture calls “surrealism” today.

Such as…

Salvador Dalí
surrealism art in video games

Rene Magritte
surrealism influences on video games

Max Ernst
max ernst

Leonora Carrington

You can learn more about the art movement, including many more artists here:

Inherent surrealism of video games

In a certain sense each and every video game with spaces and/or characters ever is surrealistic. Even the strongest attempt at realism – an Arma for example – is doomed to only be an approximation of reality with plenty of things being odd. People behaving weirdly, laws of physics wonky, impossible architecture, spaces of nothingness, things appearing and disappearing… In a certain sense, virtuality is always inherently surreal.

surrealism in video games

In fact, it is more work to create something realistic or expressionistic in game engines, with surrealistic almost being a default. Just place a familiar object – a chair for example – into a scene, no skybox, no terrain, just the object floating in nothingness and you have instant surrealism iconography. Surrealism is not only a fascinating subject matter to make virtually explorable, it’s also easy to make (depending on graphic fidelity of course) and a neat way to save on complexity.

Symbolism versus Surrealism

On paper, surrealism follows one simple rule: The images and events unfolding are a product of the subconscious mind of a character of which we are either exploring that subconsciousness or we see the story unfold through that characters perception of reality.

Sometimes authors play with the ambiguity of reality and delusions and keep it unclear if we are following a protagonist through reality or their dreams and hallucinations. But the possibility of it all just being the protagonists psyche unfolding as dreams and visions allows us to read it as surrealism.

How much of Silent Hill is actually projected by James Sunderland's subconscious?

How much of Silent Hill is actually projected by James Sunderland’s subconscious?

However in many instances it’s not ambiguous at all. The psychological manifestations we see on screen are meant to be actually there. In many ghost stories or stories about the biblical afterlife, many images are a product of the inner feelings, desires and fears of the person who died. … a ghostly body depicting the gruesome way they were murdered. …a special kind of hell for a sinner with a special kind of sin.

Other instances are not metaphysical at all, they are quite real (in the diegetic space anyways). For example, when a psycho killer was able to create their personal environment (usually their lair or home) in reference to their twisted mind. These instances are actually symbolism… an external creator or force referencing a person’s psyche, but not the psyche manifesting itself on its own.

Batman is about to enter the domain of the Joker. The open mouth decor at the door symbolizes, that we are entering the head of the Joker, while inside many many environment objects and scenes are symbolic of the Joker'S twisted psyche.

Batman is about to enter the domain of the Joker. The open mouth decor at the door symbolizes, that we are entering the head of the Joker, while inside many many environment objects and scenes are symbolic of the Joker’s twisted psyche.

From a design perspective this distinction is mute. It’s just a distinction of premise – more a writer’s thing – rather than a distinction in presentation. Since we as players are always experiencing virtual spaces, the distinction between real spaces in games (symbolic imagery) and mindscapes (surreal imagery) is not making much difference. And as said before, this distinction is often left open for the viewer to make.

Surrealism in Games

Here are some games with a strong use of surrealist themes and images:

adjacent genres / subgenres

Surrealism often overlaps with these genres:

  • lovecraftian horror
  • survival horror
  • Psychological horror
  • ghost stories
  • german expressionism
  • romanticism
  • fairytales
  • impossible architecture
  • christian symbolism
  • symbolic creativity

Additional reading:

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New Site, New Posts, Ready To Go…


Dear readers,

it’s finally done. A bit more than two weeks of reworking the site from scratch and howtonotsuckatgamedesign is back. New theme, new structure, plenty new features and posts to kick-off 2016.

Why would you do that?

The site has become too complex, limited and chaotic to maintain. The blog was stagnant – sometimes no post for weeks at a time – while my backlog of shareworthy links, drafts for articles, and gathered material grew bigger and bigger.

Many ideas for posts had no previously established context on the site, so there was no platform to post them. Many formatting methods – iterated and doctored over years – had become finicky to keep track of. And many articles promised big follow-ups, which have been too time consuming to make.

Additionally, the site had too many too angry rant posts for my taste. Back then I was in the mood to let ranting swallow up optimistic and constructive criticism – which was much more about vanity than public service. Those posts have been moved to the archive for those who miss them.

A fresh start was needed.

blogging about game design and art

What’s new?

  • The new theme is clean and easy to maintain, giving the stage to the actual content of the respective games, artists and other works of art in each post.
  • The structure of the site now allows me to post smaller articles and share links and have it make sense in the new topic driven tags system I set up. Check the new home page to see an ever growing collection of handy tag links, hopefully guiding you to the stuff you want to read.
  • I completely ditched the use of div-based formatting, everything is theme-based or solved through handy plugins. Like the new gallery system for example and revised sharebuttons.
  • A selection of related posts below each entry helps readers find related content, while a new revamped sitemap hopefully makes finding specific posts quick and easy.
  • I still offer to give advice to readers about anything related to the subjects discussed on this site, but have moved the form to submit those questions to the standard comment system via a page, so that readers can browse submitted question and find the respective answers.

Is it working?

Yes. I not only managed to restructure the site in my free time during the last two weeks I also added 35 new posts, with plenty of more to come.

I’m optimistic, that the new setup allows me to post much more frequently and freely.

What’s to come next?

The featured tags on the front page will grow in numbers, while individual tags get filled with more posts. I’m hoping to create a creative resource here, where old articles are just as relevant and important as new ones. Think more a collection of useful content rather than a stream.

And I’m working on a podcast thing. I gathered the necessary equipment and will start recording and editing soon, aiming to get as much of the advice responses done in audio form as possible.

Anyways, I’m super grateful for the support in the years before and hope we can continue this learning adventure together this year, full steam ahead.

Cheers, Anjin.

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Overwatch’s Torbjörn Guide

Great references, step-by-steps and detail shots of Torbjörn from Blizzard’s Overwatch.

torbjoern torbjörn character design


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Character Surfacing

Some digital artists sharing their methods and choices when it comes to modelling and surfacing their characters.
Check the via links for more.

Michel Strömbeck on young Mike via
3d character design

ANDRÉ CASTRO on the Mad Monkey via
3d mad monkey tutorial
photoshop character design

Aurthur Mercader on a Minion via
3d character surfacing

Blizzard’S Winston from Overwatch via
overwatch character concept art

overwatch character design

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