Gothic horror, fiction and architecture as well as the neo gothic in games.

Read the Gothic Horror post for a quick introduction.

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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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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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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Frankenstein’s Monster Concept Walkthrough

concept art tutorial for character design

Here is a break down of the character design walkthrough I had with my film art students today. Research, thumbnails, surfacing, color. Step by step.

Concept art smarts used:

  • Photo based surfacing concept.
  • Silhouette bashing for character ideation.
  • Line work and coloring for quick definition.
  • Custom brushes to add chains.

The Task

For exercises like this I generally prefer to redesign or reinterpret a widely known character. Classic characters like Dracula, Werwolves or Jekyll&Hyde are especially neat, because they do not have one specific look to them. They have been designed and interpreted many many times over and have been explored from a lot of different angles.

This serves as a huge library of tropes and inspirational sources but also is open enough to not guide my students to a specific design. For today I chose to do a Frankenstein’s monster session.

Every student was charged with finding an individual way to approach the creature for an imaginary game or film project.

Feedback Loop

When working in teams or generally working with others or looking for feedback… keeping your feedback loops short can be super helpful and a real time saver. Part of this exercise therefore was not only to design something but also make sure, that the individual stages of the design process would all be reviewable.

Making your research, silhouettes, greyscale thumbnails, surfacing and color sketch all reviewable individually allows for others to comment on each of these stages, which makes for short feedback loops if needed.

character design walkthrough

Creating a pinterest board like this allows us to share our research findings. When doing research, look for contemporary pop culture, history, literature, browse various media and also gather references from reality.


When doing silhouette sketches I recommend starting with a very basic anatomy sketch and then creating derivatives of that and then derivatives of the derivates and so forth. With every new generation you add a little something (or a lot of something) so your design mutates. You can also combine elements from previous generation, effectively creating a child. All your previous generations stay untouched as you always work with copies, so you can always return to a previous state and mutate into another direction. You do all this until you have a big family tree of designs sketches to choose from.

character concept art tutorial

The grey silhouettes are based on a body type, which did not click with me today. Though when working for a client, I would have offered this take as well.

Detailed Thumb

After making sure your selected thumbnails are polished enough, you separate them onto individual concept sheets, reduce the layer opacity to roughly 70% and start adding more detail into the silhouette.

When adding black I bounce between drawing outlines and adding shadows, trending more towards adding shadows. I do not need to draw outlines around the silhouette as the silhouette is already painted with a readable clear contour. The white paint is used for shiny or very light elements only. At this stage I do not try to get great values, just want to scratch in some detail.

Based on the selected silhouette I could of course explore different designs in this stage as well, but we focused on pushing one design through instead of gathering variants, since time was limited.

character concept art tutorial

The silhouette from the previous session was already clean and detailed enough, that I did not need to polish it further before beginning with the detailing.

Surfacing Roughs

Next up is planning how to color and surface the greyscale thumbnail sketch. For this I search for reference photographs and crop them, so that the focus is on the material, not the shape or composition. After that I play around with color tweaks, texture overlays and rough overpaintings to customize my references in a way, that they represent what kind of surfaces I’m planning to illustrate.

This step can be done as a family tree as well, exploring various surface ideas and combinations thereof.

character concept art tutorial

tailcoat via Note how I added pinstripes and a muddy texture to the tailcoat in addition to tweaking the base color.


The surfacing roughs serve as color palette and I can extract the colors I wanna use with the color picker. I reduce the layer visibility of the thumbnails sketch to roughly 80% after upscaling the image. Now all deep black elements are a dark grey and therefore can absorb the color information I’m adding on a layer above, which is set to overlay. After adding the color I start painting in some finer detail, using the color picker and a fine brush.

character concept art tutorial

In the final step, I also painted with white on the top layer to sharpen the contour of the head.

With the surfacing cluster next to it, this concept now gives a very good idea of how the character would look, considering the time spent on it. Sure, we still don’t know how the character looks from behind and there is some serious detailing missing, but the essence of the design is now fully readable and can be reviewed.

character design concept art tutorial

With a little more time, I would have tweaked a few more details, maybe adding more asymmetrical elements.

I hope this was a nice insight again, check out the process tag for more like this, and if you got questions, please hit the comment section.

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