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Outlandish Adventures

Game:Outland Release: Apr 2011 Platform: XBLA / PSN Developer:Housemarque

In recent years, the digitally distributed and indie scene has become an increasingly reliable source of sharp, stylish, and altogether artistically cohesive games. Titles like Limbo, Braid, N+, Inferno, Space Invaders Infinity Gene, Every Extend Extra Extreme, Arkedo Jump!, Geometry Wars 2 and countless others have really brought the kind of graphic design sense that was only previously seen in the occasional European-developed title. While the divide between “art” and “graphic design” is often viewed as a deep and impossibly wide chasm (you don’t really see the great logos of the 20th century hanging in museums), titles like the above narrow that divide considerably, and in the case of Outland by developer Housemarque it makes the difference seem a little blurry.

Outland – Area 1 Boss

The art style in Outland has its roots in shadow puppetry, a method of theater dating back to the 2nd century B.C. in China during the Han Dynasty. In shadow plays, actors manipulate intricately designed and crafted puppets of leather or paper against a lit backdrop; this produces a stark black silhouette (the “shadow”) animated against the bright light.

Chinese Shadow Puppets (circa 1780 A.D.) Chinese Shadow Puppets (detail)

The idea behind the silhouette or “shadow” is replicated in modern graphic design. Many logos, icons, emblems, and designs use both positive (where the shape exists) and negative (where the shape does not exist) space to produce an effect. For example in the above image, we can discern the features of the left puppets face: the dark shapes his eyes, nose, and mouth; against his face or skin itself: the “white” or empty area around these shapes. Similarly, as an example, the graphics and images seen below utilize a similar idea:

Carrefour Logo – “C” in negative space FedEx logo – arrow shape in negative space WWF wallpaper – pandas in negative space

The roundabout circuit I’m taking here is that Outland owes as much to the ancient art of shadow play as it does to modern digital artistry. In the ensuing years since digital technology has afforded the population at large the ability to become artists and designers, a particular style has become more prominent: that of projecting silhouetted shapes against a brightly colored background. It is not, I think, too much to suggest that the availability and relative ease that software like Adobe Illustrator provides in creating these graphics is the cause of this art style gaining popularity.

Examples of silhouette art

I can never be certain in claiming these things played a factor in the creation of Outland‘s sharp art direction, but I can offer that at almost every turn, the game offers moments of artistic beauty. It is probably near impossible to take a static shot of this game and not have it look like an accomplished work of art from a talented designer. Very few games achieve this level of artistry, and when they do it really feels like the hand of a graphic designer touched it at some point. There’s a level of appreciation for the static image contained in Outland. This appreciation does not always make its way into gaming; a medium of movement and interaction.

The Adventures…

One thing that is certain however is the strong visual heritage of the game’s aesthetic and the 1926 film The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed). The film’s director and chief animator Lotte Reiniger was herself interested in the shadow puppetry of ancient Chinese tradition and pioneered a method of “silhouette animation” for use in motion pictures. Where the shadow plays of antiquity involved puppets moved in real-time, Reiniger’s films were hand manipulated frame-by-frame. In the case Prince Achmed this process lasted nearly 3 years.

The Star of Bethlehem (1956) Jack and the Beanstalk (1955)

While Reiniger’s later films (above) projected the silhouettes against more detailed and accurately rendered drawings and backdrops, her earlier works were closer in style (black against white) of the shadow plays that influenced her work. Prince Achmed however contained the color tints seen in the below video and stills in its original form. It’s fairly clear, in my mind, to see the similarity between the film’s crafted shadow characters and bold colors and Outland‘s lavishly detailed and layered shadow environments.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) Outland (2011)
Gallery of The Adventures of Prince Achmed and Outland

In this context, Outland is a relative pinnacle of the silhouette style. However the legacy of both shadow puppetry and Reiniger’s work can be seen in everything from the title screen of Braid, to the entirety of Limbo, and even the stylish end credits sequence from 300.

Braid title screen 300 film – End credits Limbo – in game screenshot

If there’s anything in this world I take more seriously than video games, its graphic design. I had seen stills and movies of the Outland in action before its release, but upon first loading the game and really “seeing” what was going on with the art, I was overjoyed. It felt like years of my championing graphic design as a legitimate art form to colleagues, co-workers, friends, family, and total strangers had paid off yet again. Outlandis a shining example of a game that melds the worlds of fantastic world and character design with a smart and stylish graphic sense.

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Posted in Art & Design, Character Design, Color Theory, Outland
One comment on “Outlandish Adventures
  1. Ned says:

    Great article ,images and films as well

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