Friedrich Romanticism and Games

caspar david friedrich and video games

Let’s get introduced to one of the most video-game-defining artist out there… …born in 1774.

The german painter, Caspar David Friedrich is one of many iconic artists of the romanticism movement and responsible for defining many fundamental tropes in early and modern games. His paintings not only gave fodder for game visuals but also laid the groundwork for core concepts of many popular action, adventure and role playing games.

classic painter old masters in modern video games

key themes of Friedrich’s work:

  • The desire to leave the here and now.
  • Fear, curiosity and/or hope for an unknown future.
  • The urge to explore and visit distant places.
  • Being nostalgic for a distant past.

Romanticism is about expressing emotions, rather than conveying information. And Caspar pushed his work to that ideal in an extreme fashion, making his paintings about the feelings they can inspire and the imagination they can spark, rather than about the actual objective content of the image. The paintings are purposely low on detail and lack specific action, to allow you to project whatever you feel onto them.

To generate the emotions listed, Caspar David Friedrich employs a collection of motifs, which reoccur frequently in his works in various combinations.

Friedrich’s Motifs of Choice

Stillness is a big thing in his works. Usually nothing of significance happens in his pictures, leaving time to contemplate the past, the future and distant places. Your mind can wander, since there is nothing demanding attention here and now. His use of avatars enhances that feeling of stillness, as they are usually resting, standing or calmly walking, always looking for something in the distance.

caspar david friedrich, romanticism and games

One of Friedrich’s most iconic paintings “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” versus a promoshot for Dark Souls 3 (cropped for comparison)

Friedrich’s vast landscapes often feature iconic natural structures, such as giant trees and distinctive rock formations. These structures draw the imagination and so does his use of gothic architecture, often presented as ruins. These structures hint at a forgotten past and pose as significant landmarks for the travels ahead.

romanticism in games

Friedrich and Skyrim

He usually places these structures in the distance, bringing the backgrounds of his paintings into the focus, as we are asked to join the respective avatars in their act of gazing into sunsets (or sunrise) and letting our mind wander to places not yet in reach. He also loves to show us paths, gates and doors, making us imagine what lies beyond.

Selected Works

Here are some of Friedrich’s works, I selected as a showcase. Watch out for reoccurring motifs.


Caspar David Friedrich Applied to Video Games

Let’s walk through a couple of usecases, where Friedrich’s iconography, layout and motifs are employed in games.

But first, let’s talk genealogy for a second. Saying Friedrich is influential is not the same as saying he was a direct reference for the artists in the respective game project. He sometimes clearly was, though. Even without confirmation from devs, games like Skyrim or Dark Souls owe a huge dept to the painter.

Darkest Dungeon devs directly referencing Friedrich as one of their influences. via

Darkest Dungeon devs directly referencing Friedrich as one of their influences. via

In film and comic, similar feelings of adventure, longing, fear and mystery need to be evoked and Caspar David Friedrich influenced these respective shots and illustrations too, way before video games were a thing. His influence was carried through pop culture in various media and many game artist drew their inspiration directly from those media, instead of drawing it directly from the paintings.

romanticism in environment design and concept art

For the effect of Friedrich’s layouts to unfold, it is important that the game designers create moments of stillness.

Games usually thrive on activity if not action. Stillness – moments in which the player stops doing stuff with the controller and rather let’s their mind contemplate the game ahead or the game so far – need to be embedded on purpose. This is frequently done via cutscenes, menus and loading screens, and if the level designers are smart, they carefully guide the player to the necessary platforms to take in the vistas organically during gameplay.

Another popular canvas for those shots is marketing art and trailers. Since these media aren’t interactive to begin with, nobody has to make the player stop pushing buttons for a sec.

Alright, let’s dig in:

Playground – In the genre of open world games, getting the player excited to explore and play with the provided spaces is key. This is why shots of heroes on high ground gazing upon the cities, lands, areas before them in eager anticipation to get going are so popular in advertising for these games.
assassins creed syndicate

Destiny — Popular in trailers, promo art and intro cut scenes, Friedrich-esk shots of heroes facing their destiny are often used to provide narrative and emotional context for the adventures ahead. A focus on threatening structures – like nasty looking castles – in the distance is frequently used for straight forward adventure games, action games and rogue-likes, games where a specific thread has to be eliminated or conquered. More open landscapes – and a sunrise – are often employed for more open ended games, like MMOs or more optimistic adventures and career games.
dark souls and gothic horror

Geography – This method is especially popular in older games, like platformers or arcade action games, where it was not possible to present the player with a seamless world. Sequences of often massively differently themed levels needed connective tissue. It was often done with overworld maps, but also intro cutscenes, which showed a landscape illustration with plenty of spatial depth and the location of last level at the horizon. This spatial contextualization allows players to understand the 2D levels of classic games as a part of a 3D world.
shovel knight and romanticism

Destination – Friedrich’s approach towards showing enticing structures in the distance is successfully used in games to guide a player towards a certain point in otherwise rather open areas. Important landmarks – places the player feels like they need to check out – can be placed into frame to confirm for the player, that they are on track without resorting to explicit GUI elements or corridors. Also Friedrich’s approach towards paths, gates and doors is frequently mirrored by leveldesigners, who want to guide the player through organic terrain via immediate access points.
dear esther

Epicness – Places with a past anchor the player in a universe with an epic history. Mostly popular in high fantasy and sci-fi stories, ruins, wrecks and fallen cities are used to suggest this epic history. The more spectacular the structure must have been in it’s prime and the older that structure, the more epic this universes history is. Setting your game up with those kinds of location and providing the necessary moments of stillness to take them in, suggests that the story we are playing is just a fraction of something much more epic.
the witness

Reflection/Introspection – Commonly used in endings, Friedrich’s romantic shots of us or some avatars calmly gazing into the distance can provide the stillness and time for players to recap what they just played. This is excellent to provide the sensation of calm and relief after a tense final battle or to make a player ponder the consequences of their ingame decisions, if a game allowed for that. Very popular as a backdrop for credit rolls.
undertale ending art

There are more cases. Many I have not yet thought of and many people will invent in the future.

Selected Sample Games Gallery

This is how Caspar David Friedrich’s romanticism manifests in games. This gallery contains 8bit to modern games, concept art and promotional images.

adjacent genres / Friedrich’s influence

Caspar David Friedrich influenced mainly:

  • western fantasy RPG
  • JRPG
  • space exploration sci-fi / space opera
  • post-apocalypse sci-fi
  • gothic horror
  • romantic historical drama
  • open world games
  • exploration games
  • romantic YA fiction

Additional reading:

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Stylized Realism

stylized game graphics with realistic shading

Stylized realism at first sounds like an oxymoron. Aren’t realism and stylization at odds with each other? Yes. And that is why it’s time that we talk about this hybrid art form, which got its big break through thanks to computer generated images.

While we can find examples of art with similar visual properties to stylized realism in the times before digital imaging technology emerged, the modern approach to stylized realism is very much technology driven. If I had to point my finger to who popularized it, I would point at Pixar, who in 1995 released Toy Story upon the world and changed our understanding of how cartoon animation looks forever.

toy story ... a human, aaahgh!

Audience praised the film for its photorealistic look (which in hindsight wasn’t that photorealistic, to be honest), while every character and location have been heavily stylized. Pixar didn’t even attempt to create a naturalistic look for their characters, wisely avoiding the still hard to conquer uncanny valley. The trick was to keep the artists stylizations in place – which made for expressive designs and animation – but rendering those designs and animations in the most photorealistic textures, shaders and lighting situations available at that time.

This is stylized realism.

key qualities of stylized realism

  • Stylized and idealized characters, spaces and objects.
  • Use of realistic materials, textures and lighting in 3D images.
  • Realistically painted materials and lighting in 2D art.
  • Traditional model making and puppetry, simulating realistic materials and lighting.

How official is the term “Stylized Realism”?

Not much. In contrast to many historically established art movements, genres and styles, stylized realism has no official manifesto or book written about it or other previously established classifications afaik. Especially in game development conversations, we usually tend to simply segregate realistic from stylized. We look at a game and if the game is realistic enough in our individual (and arbitrary) opinion, we label it a realistically looking game. Else, it’s stylized or cartoony.

hand painted textures

The devs of Team Fortress 2 refer to their style as “illustrative rendering”.

This rather popular hybrid art form is not definitively labelled yet. In my research I found terms like “illustrative realism” as well… but usually it’s just referred to as “stylized” without any attempt at distinguishing it from cartoon animation, cel shaded 3D, anime, comic art and other stylized art forms with different properties.

So, I’m putting my foot down here and stick with stylized realism, as it describes best what an artist is trying to do with this style.

The devs of The Witness are referring to their style of environment art as "stylized realism". via

The devs of The Witness are referring to their style of environment art as “stylized realism”. via

Discussion: Stylized? Realistic? Stylized realism?

There is always going to be disagreement to how realistic or stylized an image is. ..except if it is maximum naturalistic photorealism, which removes all and any artist’s stylization completely. But as soon as stylization is part of an image, consensus on categorization gets tricky. Different viewers value different things.

This photoshop recreation by artist Pixeloo on the left (with the Nintendo reference on the right)… is it realistic?


Some will say yes, because of the real photos used to build that illustration. Others say no, because no real person looks like that. Maybe the question is not getting us anywhere. If we ask for consensus on if an image is realistic or not – or stylized or not – we wont get it.

It’s important to understand realism and stylization as two opposite ends on a scale and not two opposite sides of border.

Older instances of stylized realism.

Finding older examples for stylized realism in video games is pretty hard. Stylized realism can only happen if technology allows for some degree of realism, but as an artistic decision, the creators added stylization. Much of older game art is not stylized. It’s often created with the ambition to be as realistic as possible and any deviation from realism is simply a product of technical limitations. Or it’s stylized but then simply wants to be cartoony.

As a rule of thumb, it’s worth comparing the ingame graphics of any game with what the studio released as promo art, box art and how cut scenes are looking. Using this tactic, you can spot many games “intended” look , compared to what was possible with real-time graphics technology at that time.

Below, Tomb Raider is the one, which was intended as stylized realism, while Max Payne and Resident Evil aimed a photorealism.


There are clean examples however. Like Tomb Raider above. But they are rare. In fact, the further we go back in time, the harder it gets to find those games.


The production of semi-realistic graphics is dependent on graphics tech. If I had to make a cut, I’d say that stylized realism goes no further back than to the 16bit era, where we still find examples of pre-rendered 3D sprites and digitized photos as well as claymation.

Stylized realism examples:

This gallery includes games, animation films and even at least one toy company who made it their signature style to simulate realistic materials.

adjacent genres / subgenres

Stylized Realism shares borders with these genres:

  • Cel Shading
  • Traditional Animation
  • Ligne Claire
  • Saturday Morning Cartoon
  • Us Comic
  • Comic Noir
  • Anime
  • Manga
  • stop motion
  • claymation

Disagree with some of my picks for the samples gallery or when and were I claimed stylized realism began? Good. Your idea of where realism ends and where stylization begins and how much overlap there is, is up to you. Just know that these tools are available to you.

Thanks to tumblr user Pizzaback for suggesting “Stylized Realism” as a name for this visual style.

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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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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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Gothic Horror

gothic horror in video games

Gothic Horror (often referred to as gothic fiction) is a western writing genre, originating in the late 18th century, which had a profound impact on popculture.

Gothic horror explores themes of death, the supernatural, crime, horror and romance, usually set in locations with gothic/medieval architecture (or modern architecture in a gothic style), which is where the term for the genre gets the “Gothic” from. Gothic Horror is a sub-genre of romanticism.

key ideas/tropes of Gothic Horror

  • horror, as in themes of death, suffering, gore, the grotesk, body horror, murder
  • locations are defined by gothic architecture, other medieval architecture or architecture in a gothic/medieval style
  • western locations, such as Europe and the USA
  • christian religious themes and iconography

Gothic Horror Today

Due to the fact that this kind of novel became rather popular during their time and the fact that the characters and stories of those novels are in the public domain, they frequently find their way into modern media. Popular characters who originated in gothic horror novels include Victor Frankenstein and his Monster, Count Dracula, Nosferatu (a reworking of Dracula to avoid copyright problems), Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and others.

For modern popculture those characters have been popularized in big parts by the early 20th century monster movie craze, mainly circling around the Universal Monster movies, German Expressionism, as well as through pulp fiction novels, which have been the hotbed for the modern superhero genre.

joker is gothic horror character

The gothic horror genre goes beyond written works, as film, comic, game and tv constantly expand on the roaster of characters and creatures interacting with the public domain characters of the novels and the related archetypes and themes from gothic fiction writing.

The Gothic aesthetic – as found in Halloween decoration, goth youth culture, goth rock – derived from Gothic Horror based popculture is also a big factor why this kind of fiction stays relevant and keeps on expanding.

Gothic Versus Neo-Gothic Architecture

As mentioned, having the horror play out in front of western medieval scenery is a key characteristic of Gothic Horror. But we are no limited to telling stories only in medieval times. Depending on when and where the story takes place, we might set the scenes up in medieval buildings which endured over centuries or just the ruins of them.

And we might see locations based on so called neo-gothic architecture (also called gothic revival) where the style of medieval architecture is imitated and remixed in later centuries or even in modern times. …or even in the distant future, which is referred to as Gothic Sci-Fi.

caspar david friedrich ruins

Gothic Horror in Games

The landscape of Gothic Fiction in games is vast. Medieval buildings filled with disturbing creatures and characters are quite popular, and so are games based on the related public domain figures. Here is a sampling:

adjacent genres / subgenres

Gothic Horror is part of the following genre families:

  • lovecraftian horror
  • survival horror
  • noir
  • german expressionism
  • masked vigilante
  • low fantasy
  • gothic sci-fi
  • surrealism
  • western folklore
  • romanticism
  • christian mythology and iconography

Additional reading:

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Orwellian Images


First, let’s start with a handy explanation of “orwellian” from wikipedia:

“Orwellian” is an adjective describing a situation, idea, or societal condition that George Orwell identified as being destructive to the welfare of a free and open society. It denotes an attitude and a brutal policy of draconian control by propaganda, surveillance, misinformation, denial of truth, and manipulation of the past… …practised by modern repressive governments.

George Orwell is a political writer, most known for his dystopian sci-fi novel “1984”, which managed to remains a frequently referenced piece of work in academia, politic discourse and popculture. To label something as “orwellian” is basically an indictment of the oppressive methods of the respective real or fictional government. Orwellian imagery therefore often has overlap with facist imagery, while usually not being as militaristic.

It is frequently used in popculture to establish an oppressive government for the protagonist to rebel against – usually with the twist that the protagonists themselves and the citizens around them have yet to realize that they are being oppressed, since Orwellian tactics are much about the control of informations and opinions. It creates a fertile environment for anti-heroes and vigilantes – popular protagonists in action driven games – since the “system” can no longer be trusted.

Frequent themes are secret agencies, abuse of information technology, spies, propaganda, corrupt media, secret and militarized police, mind control. Often combined with fascist military imagery, consumerism, classism and capitalism, as well as street art and underground culture – often youth culture – to fight those systems.

key ideas/tropes of Orweillian Fiction

  • governments oppressing their own citizens, with many citizens accepting it
  • brutal and militarized, often secret police, security forces and agencies
  • abuse of information technology, surveillance, broadcasting, print and public surfaces
  • control of public opinions through political propaganda, manipulated information, silencing of dissent and the constant threat or surveillance and punishment
  • suppression of free thinking and individualism
  • individual citizens rebelling in public or via underground movements
  • street art and vandalism in opposition to government controlled media

Examples of media with heavy use of Orwellian imagery and themes:

adjacent genres / subgenres

  • masked vigilante
  • fascist aesthetics
  • consumerism
  • super cop
  • cyberpunk
  • propaganda
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