Graphic Style Analysis – Part I

Discussions on the Internet about differences of graphic styles made me pondering. How can graphic styles be distinguished from each other? The answer to this question is simple: Definition. First we have to define what graphic styles are and what they are made of to understand their differences. I’m going to describe the most important parts of graphic styles in video games here. Well, as far as I can judge it ūüėČ

The Battle Between 2D and 3D

Separating graphic styles just into 2D and 3D does not work. Pure 2D styles were commonly used for old games like Pac Man, Tetris or Super Mario Bros. These examples completely lack a third dimension, visually as well as interactively. Full 3D is used in modern blockbuster games like Fallout 3, Assassins Creed 2 or Crysis 2 (BTW: did you notice the sequel virus?).

Harder to categorize are games like¬†Head over Heals¬†or Super Mario RPG which use navigation and interaction in three dimensions but don’t use real 3D graphics. They fake it. How do we call these games then? Isometric? Pseudo-3D? What about games which use a pure 2D navigation scheme but use flat rendered 3D assets like Donkey Kong Country? What about Mortal Kombat? It has character sprites taken from real world (3D) people while fighting takes place in a 2D plane.

In my opinion it is not a question about graphics but navigation and interaction. When the player can interact with all three dimensions it is a 3D game. Everything else is 2D. Somebody may notice that the fourth dimension is used in some games as well. Braid is the best example here, a 2D platformer with time handling. 2 + 1 = 3 dimensions. Ok, it starts to become complex here. Let’s restrict the definition to the three dimensions of space without touching time.

I’m wondering if anybody can come up with a 1D game?

Discrete vs. Continuous

The chapter title uses two fancy words from mathematics. They can simply be translated to rasterized (discrete) and vectorized (continuous). The common opinion about these two categories is:

2D is raster, 3D is vector

Most Flash games use vector graphics in 2D. This is well known and kills the statement immediately. Examples for the opposite, namely 3D rasters, are rare. They use the almost forgotten voxel technology. In the advent of rendering 3D models to screen some games were made using voxel engines. The computational advantages of vector mathematics as well as the chunky aesthetics of voxel models kicked the voxel approach out of the 3D race. Finally textures, shadowmaps, heightmaps and similar rasterized data form discrete assets in mesh-driven games. That makes modern game engines hybrid solutions. Do you know any pure 3D vector engines?

Realism vs. Abstraction

This aspect of graphic style has a large spectrum. Realism, or better photo-realism in video games, is just one part. Others are:

In my opinion this is the essence of the whole graphic style discussion. It can make a unique selling point to.

End of Part I

I’m going to stop here because I don’t want to pack all my thoughts about graphic styles into one blog post. I will continue this in the next post. So, stay tuned and drop me a comment if you like.



  1. Thomas, thanks for sharing, I am a graphic designer and I love videogames! I love artwork from both advertising and an in game perspective.

  2. Avatar Sun-Wukong
    August 16, 2014 at 19:43 //

    Sequel virus? You have to be joking. Pac-Man, Tetris and Super Mario Bros. all had multiple sequels. And Pac-Man 2 was garbage, as opposed to Assassins Creed 2, Crysis 2 and Fallout 3, which are all at least decent if not great.

    And yes, I know this comment is four years late.

  3. Avatar hermitC Author
    August 18, 2014 at 17:00 //


    I wanted to point out that sequels became more common in the blockbuster industry. They are less risky than new brands, therefore investors prefer them. On the contrary, there is a higher chance of creating a genre king in uncharted waters:

    The “sequel virus” comment was a side note and wasn’t meant to say that older games did not have sequels. Mario, Street Fighter or Final Fantasy may be the best examples for brand exploits. And all of them come from the 80’s. Nevertheless, rising costs boost the sequel virus.

    I should have made the background for the comment clear. My bad.

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