Three Totally Rad Things That Artists Can Learn From 1990s Computer Games


Whilst procrastinating by playing “Doom II” WADs and watching video reviews of modern 1990s-style games on Youtube, I suddenly thought “It’s been a while since I last wrote a 1990s-themed article.” Since I didn’t have any better ideas, I decided to run with it.

So, here are a few of the interesting things that artists can learn from 1990s computer games:

1) High-contrast lighting: Due to the rapid development of game technology in the 1990s, one area that game developers focused on a lot was realistic lighting. Whether it was the gloomy corridors in 1993’s “Doom” or the glowing projectiles and ambient lighting in countless games from the late 1990s/very early 2000s, lighting was a big deal in old computer games.

And, because of this, they can teach us a lot about how to include interesting lighting in our artwork. For example, these games often included gloomier locations purely because it makes the lighting stand out more. The darker your locations are, the more interesting things you can do with the lighting. If you ever want to include cool-looking lighting in your art, this is something that is worth bearing in mind.

Likewise, the lighting in these games often followed relatively simple “rules”, which can be useful when you’re learning how to paint realistic lighting. In other words, either an area around the light would be lit up. Or, in more advanced games, the colour/brightness of anything near the light would be changed.

Studying these kind of things can help you include interesting lighting in your art, like this:

"9:34 PM" By C. A. Brown

“9:34 PM” By C. A. Brown

2) Visual storytelling: One cool thing about gaming in the 1990s was the fact that, in many games, the emphasis was firmly on the actual gameplay. These were games that were designed to be played, not watched.

As such, storytelling was something of a secondary consideration in many games from the 90s. Sometimes, you’d get some text about the game’s story in the manual, or you might get the occasional animated scene or in-game document. But, with the exception of “point and click” and role-playing games, most 1990s games didn’t really care that much about storytelling

And, yet, they often included more storytelling than you might think. It’s just that they were subtle about how they included it. Often, details about the game’s world or story would be shown through background objects, character actions/character design etc…. Rather than telling a story, they’d sometimes just show you a few things that hint at it and let you fill in the details yourself.

When you’re making art, you only have a single static image in which to tell a story. Likewise, your primary concern should be making cool-looking art – but this doesn’t mean that you can’t use the background details, character actions etc… to hint at a larger story – like this:

"Cafe Cyberpunk" By C. A. Brown

“Cafe Cyberpunk” By C. A. Brown

3) Humour: Finally, one thing that sets 1990s games apart from many modern games is the fact that they didn’t usually take themselves entirely seriously. There are too many examples to list here but, in everything from FPS games to “point and click” games, you could often find all sorts of subtle jokes scattered throughout a game.

This is one of the things that makes 1990s games such a joy to play – they know that they’re meant to be entertaining. They aren’t afraid to be slightly silly. And they’re a lot more enjoyable as a result.

So, don’t be afraid to add some subtle humour to some of your art. Yes, it doesn’t have to be laugh-out-loud funny, but adding a bit of visual humour, written humour etc… to some of your artwork can instantly make it more visually interesting (as well as rewarding people who want to take a closer look). Like this:

"Cyberpunkwharf" By C. A. Brown

“Cyberpunkwharf” By C. A. Brown


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂


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