painters of skill from pre-digital times

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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Bioshock & Tamara De Lempicka


Burial At Sea

Announcements for the sequel to the popular Rapture-centric DLC to Bioshock Infinite are making the rounds again, including the key visual painting from the first instalment. I felt this is a good occasion to talk to you about Tamara de Lempicka and her influence on the Bioshock series.

Lempicka is a painter from the Art Deco era. She was born in 1889 and her body of work is a rich and authentic time capsule for the aesthetics, architecture, fashion and style of the the early 1900s.

This makes her paintings an invaluable resource for anybody trying to channel Art Deco in their work or for anyone aiming to make period pieces set in the early 20th century. Bioshock’s Rature setting – as found in the first two instalments of the series and revisited in the Burial At Sea DLCs for Bioshock Infinite – is just doing that. A bloody Art Deco theme park, well researched and with more than one nod to Lempicka’s iconic work.


Tamara de Lempicka at work and one of her various portrait paintings, showing the Duchess de la Salle, 1925.

Her Work

Lempicka’s paintings are rather distinct in their execution, their style and subject matter. Most of her work consists of nudes and portrait work. Her portraits show men and women – mostly rich men and women – in the styling and fashion of the times, all presented with a grandios film star flair.


Her painting style is graphic but still sculptural. She defines 2D shapes with clear contours and then proceeds to shade the shapes individually, while staying within their contours. She prefers to use one dominant light source coming from the left or right, bright flats and dark shadows. A distinct handwriting in oil.


The way she paints creates a form language for her nudes and portraits similar to sculptures of the Art Deco era. This gets especially obvious, when her work is compared to relief sculptures of famous Art Deco architecture, like the Rockefella Center in New York.


tamara lempicka rockafella center and bioshock

A nude painting by Lempicka and the entrance to the GE building at the Rockefella Center NY. Both turned to greyscale and adjusted for contrast.

Even when looking at what is behind and around the human figures she paints, we find Art Deco iconography. Her paintings are stuffed with floral decors, patterns, print design, architecture, and other images typical for the period.


Left a section of a typical Lempicka and right we have a section of the original movie poster for the french release of Metropolis.

Lempicka In Bioshock

When it comes to the references for the design team behind Bioshock’s Rapture, Lempicka is just one of many sources getting channeled in the many rich designs of the games. But she also get’s quoted from time to time. For example in the theme park ride sequence in Bioshock 2.

Once we reach the diorama regarding the arts, we see that the paintings on the easels are an homage to Lempicka’s work. Her work was chosen to represent what “art” is by Andrew Ryan.





The key visual for Burial At Sea directly mimics her painting style for the portrait of Elisabeth. The part with Booker however is something else. The loud colors, the graffiti edges and splatters are not part of Lempicka’s handwriting.


The illustrator put a lot of effort into making it look traditionally painted, adding textures and smears.




… Lempicka’s work is now featured as cover art for modern volumes of several Ayn Rand novels, published by Penguin books. Lempicka’s connection to the era is deep. She lived it, performed it, documented it in paint and helped define it through her creative vision.


I recommend doing an image search on her or checking out some book collection of her work, if you are at all interested in the Art Deco period as found in Bioshock’s underwater utopia.


Today (11.feb.2014) a post by tumblr user cassidymandel came my way, pointing me to where Booker’s red paint appearance and the overall composition of the piece was channeled from. I know it’s a bit of a tangent, but here is a comparison to the french poster for a noir movie:


This Gun For Hire belongs to Paramount Pictures, imdb page.

I googled for the english title and found “This Gun For Hire” from 1942. It’s interesting to see how the artists used Lempicka for the feminine side of the poster and went straight to pulp/film noir references for booker. A nice amalgam. I added some alternative posters from the movie, for further comparison, showing that elements from other posters of the same movie have been channeled and remixed with Lempicka’s painting style:



Even for Elizabeth’s portrait, elements from the movie posters have been adapted. (mirrored for direct comparison)

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