Why “Detailed” Art Is Often Less Detailed Than You Might Think

2017-artwork-why-can-art-look-more-detailed-than-it-actually-is

Although I’ve talked about how to make art look more detailed than it actually is before, I thought that I’d look at this subject from a slightly different perspective today. This is mainly because of the artwork in a really interesting free computer game called “The Last Night” that I reviewed yesterday.

If you haven’t played this game, then it uses 1980s-style “pixel art” graphics. What this means is that the individual pixels are large enough to be clearly visible. Given that the game itself is played within a small browser window – there are probably no more than 1000- 2000 pixels on screen at any one time. For comparison, the little sketch at the beginning of this article contains 145,800 pixels (albeit much smaller ones).

So, with a game like that, you would expect it to look fairly primitive and undetailed and, yet, it actually looks more detailed than you might expect. It certainly looks more detailed than the little sketch at the beginning of this article. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at this screenshot from the game:

This is a screenshot from "The Last Night" By Tim & Adrien Soret.

This is a screenshot from “The Last Night” By Tim & Adrien Soret.

So, how did they do this and – more importantly – what can this teach us about art in general ?

Even if you are creating photo-realistic art, then your art is going to be less detailed than real life. Even highly realistic paintings from the 16th-18th centuries are less detailed than real life. In fact, the true test of an artist is how they are able to visually represent things using less detail than can be found in real life. No piece of art (and not even an “ordinary” photograph) can be as detailed as real life.

But, although art is less detailed than real life, we still instinctively separate artwork into “detailed art” and “undetailed art”. Why do we do this?

Well, it all comes down to how much an artist tricks us into using our imaginations – regardless of whether we notice that we’re doing it or not. Although I haven’t studied the neuroscience of this in any huge level of detail, the human brain is the best image recognition system available to us. As soon as we know what something looks like, we can usually recognise it very quickly.

For example, here’s a blurry, slightly badly-drawn and very undetailed image that I made in MS Paint. Which famous landmark/capital city is it supposed to be?

You can probably guess what it's supposed to be.

You can probably guess what it’s supposed to be.

Even though it isn’t a very realistic image of the Eiffel Tower in Paris – you were probably be able to work out what it was fairly quickly. After all, even though the picture might not be a “perfect” image of the Eiffel Tower, it still looks similar enough for our brains to recognise it and “fill in the gaps” for us. Once we know what something looks like, then images of it – however realistic or unrealistic – are more like symbols than anything else.

Of course, whilst a truly lifelike image of the Eiffel Tower would be nearly impossible to replicate (unless you had an extremely high-resolution camera or made a very large painting) – an artist can make a slightly less detailed version of it that is still instantly recognisable as the Eiffel Tower.

If an “undetailed” image includes even a few extra “undetailed/unrealistic” details (eg: the trees surrounding the tower in the example are just green blobs etc..), then this gives the audience’s imaginations even more things to work with. So, the picture will appear to be more detailed – even though it isn’t.

So, by adding lots of these fairly “undetailed” details to a picture, it can quickly appear to be more detailed than it actually is. Going back to the game screenshot earlier in this article, the buildings in the background are just a collection of angular shapes and differently-coloured squares. Yet, because we all know what a building looks like – our brains automatically take those basic details and mentally add a lot of extra details that aren’t actually in the picture.

So, yes, this is why “detailed” art is often actually less detailed than you might think it is.

———-

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Review: “The Last Night” (Free Cyberpunk Computer Game)

2017-artwork-the-last-night-review-sketch

As regular readers of this site probably know, I’m a massive fan of the cyberpunk genre. To be more specific, I’m a massive fan of gloomy, rainy, neon-lit, film noir-inspired “Blade Runner“-style cyberpunk. This is, perhaps, the coolest genre ever invented and, yet, things in it can often be surprisingly difficult to find. Then again, we live in a strange world where radio stations play pop music instead of heavy metal music, so this probably shouldn’t surprise me.

So, whilst waiting for an interesting-looking indie cyberpunk game called “Technobabylon” to go on special offer, I decided to do yet another Google search for games in this genre. And, to my absolute delight, I stumbled across a free flash game called “The Last Night(note: the site will start playing music automatically once it’s loaded).

So, let’s take a look at “The Last Night”:

the-last-night-titlescreen

“The Last Night” is a game created by Tim & Adrien Soret for an event called “Cyberpunkjam” in 2014. This was one of those “game jam” events where people make games in a ridiculously short amount of time. In fact, this entire game was created in just six days! And, wow, it looks amazing!

Yes! This is the very beginning of the game and it looks AMAZING!!

Yes! This is the beginning of the game and it looks AMAZING!!

Seriously, why don't MORE games look like THIS?

Seriously, why don’t MORE games look like THIS?

Even though the pixel art graphics look fairly minimalist, they still seem impressively detailed and atmospheric (seriously, if you’ve ever even done research into how to make pixel art, you’ll understand how challenging making all of this detailed art must have been).

But, whilst I could probably spend several paragraphs talking about how astonishingly good this game looks and how it’s graphics put most large-budget games to shame, I should probably actually – you know – review the game.

Since it was only made in six days, this game is very short. It can be finished in three minutes or less. As befitting a game of this length, the story is fairly simple- you play as a nameless assassin who has been tasked with shooting someone.

Although this might sound like a ludicrously simplistic plot, it actually works really well since it sums up a lot of the gritty moral ambiguity that makes the cyberpunk genre so interesting. After all, one of the things that makes “Blade Runner” such a compelling film is the fact that Deckard probably isn’t the “hero” of the film. Likewise, the fact that we are told very little about both the assassin and his victim leave a lot of room for us to “fill in the gaps” with our imaginations.

Yes, in just a few seconds, this game manages to create a mysteriously compelling story. Now, THIS is good storytelling!

Yes, in just a few seconds, this game manages to create a mysteriously compelling story. Now, THIS is good storytelling!

In terms of the actual gameplay, it’s nothing spectacular. You walk around slightly slowly, you have to shoot flying robots before their searchlights touch you, you have to scare or kill (the graphics leave this fairly ambiguous) some guards by firing your gun near them and you have to carry out an assassination.

But, given the game’s tiny length, it doesn’t really have time for complex, detailed gameplay mechanics. So, the simple “walk around and shoot” gameplay actually works really well. In fact, it’s far more well-implemented than the clunky combat system in another cyberpunk game called “Gemini Rue” which is an actual commercial game!

 The gun fires surprisingly quickly and has suitably dramatic sound effects too.

The gun fires surprisingly quickly and has suitably dramatic sound effects too.

However, one interesting (albeit chilling) thing about the gameplay is probably the final scene of the game. Once you’ve shot the character that you’re supposed to shoot, he staggers off to a nearby balcony, where you have to shoot him again. This is in stark contrast to the “clean” violence found in most action games and – in this one little scene – the game is almost more “Blade Runner” than “Blade Runner”.

After all, one of the things that makes “Blade Runner” such a unique film is the fact that it isn’t an action movie. Whenever violence is shown, it is subtly shown to be an ugly, horrific, immoral thing rather than the kind of “heroic” violence that is common in Hollywood movies. This game is able to re-create this complex portrayal of violence in less than thirty seconds, using 1980s-style graphics. Now THAT is an achievement!

 Yes, I cannot praise the storytelling in this game highly enough!

Yes, I cannot praise the storytelling in this game highly enough!

As for the music and sound design, most of it is really good. All of the sound effects (eg: rain, gunfire etc..) are all suitably thunderous and dramatic.

Likewise, the game’s background music is the kind of ominously relaxing 1980s-style synth music that is pretty much synonymous with the cyberpunk genre. The only criticism I have of the music is the fact that the song that plays in the nightclub sounds a little bit too much like 1970s disco music.

Disco? In the cyberpunk genre?!?! Still, for something made in six days, the fact that they actually managed to get an actual song - with vocals - into the game is really cool.

Disco? In the cyberpunk genre?!?! Still, for something made in six days, the fact that they actually managed to get an actual song – with vocals – into the game is really cool.

All in all, despite a couple of really tiny flaws, this game is AMAZING! Seriously, in just three minutes of gameplay, it contains better graphics, more atmosphere and a more compelling storyline than many large-budget games probably have. It’s like “Blade Runner”, “Cowboy Bebop” and the Hong Kong level of “Deus Ex” all rolled into one game. And it was made in just six days! Seriously, play it! Right now!

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get six!