Do Games Have A Visual Language Problem?


It's right there in the name: video games are a hybrid medium that combines moving image and sound (video) with structured play (game). A lot of the discussion in games criticism focuses either on the systems that structure play, or on the narratives that video games communicate. There's less recognition of the visual language being used to communicate, and sound design is talked about even less.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at


I like to bring up the camerawork in most video games as just “existing” as in they ask someone to program a few random camera angles that they switch between for dialogue sections, or they just quickly place cameras for cutscenes to give a general idea of whats happening. You can see it especially in stuff like Mass Effect where its pretty obvious that the camera is pretty much just placed dead centre on every single shot, so everything’s fitting into frame, and then they move on to the next one. You can usually tell they haven’t bothered to storyboard their scenes because theres constant ignoring of basic cinematic language and it all feels like a bad student film. Some games also, for absolutely no reason, just have the camera move near-constantly, leading to me having to feel nauseous while some god-awful plot meanders through.

The other big problem games have is (surprise) color design. As someone who’s red-green colorblind I can’t even begin to talk about how awful 90% of the color design in video games is, how impossible it is to distinguish objects apart when they’re next to each other, how hard it is to see where you’re going, etc. etc.

There’s a few games like Killer7 that do a good job of focusing a good deal on a specific visual style, or Kojima who loves his movies and so understands a lot of cinematic language, and despite his budgetary misadventures Yoko Taro has been pretty consistently great at visuals.


still reading, but the story’s missing a link to:


I’m surprised that this doesn’t come up more often as well - I know that a lot of puzzle games (anymore) either have a colorblind mode or use special shapes for the pieces so people who are colorblind can still play, but this doesn’t come up as often on other games. This is something I didn’t really think that much about until I started listening to podcasts that Jeff & Vinny were on (first at Gamespot, and now at Giant Bomb), as both are colorblind. It got me paying a lot more attention to the use of color in games.


Just having color-keyed stuff be of different tones – for example dark red / medium green / pale blue – would help in many cases. And yet not only is this not thought of, but some egregious cases of bad UI design rely on the player to distinguish hues that are so close together (bluish green and greenish blue, for instance, or pinkish purple and purplish pink), even someone with full color vision would probably still have trouble.

Regarding the first linked piece, I will point out that many AAA games I would not even consider to have an actual art style. I speak of that big pile which all falls within a certain limited range of “realistic-ish 3D, apparently defined primarily by technical requirements”, with some palette swaps at best.


I agree with @Lilly that games must figure out the basic elements of film if they want to have images that are worth seeing.

Going beyond this I wonder if it is possible for games to develop their own distinct visual language apart from film and other visual arts?

Echcohrome suggests it is possible. In the game the player experiments with Escher-esque environments by moving the camera which allows an NPC to traverse the environment. The creators understood images well enough to make manipulating them the focus of their game. I would argue that it is an experience that cannot be replicated in any other visual medium.

Are there other games that succeed in the same way as Echochrome? What things can games learn from art installations?


Stewart’s piece gets really close, but doesn’t quite touch on the issue of composition of the image in games. Outside of cutscenes, it’s immensely difficult to be evocative with imagery while placing full camera control in the hands of the player. If we’re talking cutscenes, the manual labor that Stewart refers to does then indeed become a significant issue. For everyone but the largest studios, doing camera work in games is usually painstaking and extremely limited out of the box, either leaving devs to spend time creating better solutions or being okay with “good enough.”

Being evocative and coherent with visual language during gameplay is a whole other kettle of fish. I’d argue that the problem that games have with visual language is inherently kinesis. Any camera that moves reasonably fast for player interaction is not the kind of camera that is useful for the vast majority of the storytelling. Cameras in games are function first, because they can mar the player experience so badly when they aren’t.

There’s a reason why early RE games and Silent Hill get so much praise for how evocative they are. There’s that common idea that the limited camera in those games is frustrating but part of the experience, and I think you can extrapolate that in reverse to say that freely player operated cameras are the antithesis of being evocative in the way those games are. You can design as much as you want for the player to look where you want them to, but I think asking players to be cinematographers as part of their experience is a bridge too far for most.

Maybe that reads as pessimistic, but I think I arrive at a similar place as Stewart does, in that games need to embrace their gamey-ness to be visually successful. We can learn lessons from what other mediums do, but so much of that goes out the window even when we consider what types of cameras are deemed conventional depending on genre of game.


Part of the problem, in my mind, is that film might not the best medium to look to for possible solutions for visual language in 3D games. Film is a 2D medium, and while non-VR 3D games are a 2D image being displayed, it is a 3D environment being simulated, so it would probably do developers more good to study sculpture and other 3D art forms instead. Visual language isn’t only about shot composition. With film (and photography etc.) you have only one position it can be observed from, the one that was fixed when the work was created. 3D art has to account for the possibility that it can be viewed from any angle and any distance, and so do 3D games. The visual language needs to incorporate the player’s agency as part of the emotional experience the game is trying to impart on the player.

Shadow of the Colossus does this extremely well. Climbing up that first Colossus and looking around at the scenery as you hang onto its back for dear life really hammers home how small you are in this world, the enormity of this creature that you are about to murder.

Metal Gear Solid 2 gave the player less agency over the camera, but the climax of the Tanker mission, when you get into the room with hundreds of Marines and you have to move through the crawlspace below them, the visuals of moving under Marine after Marine after Marine enhance the sense that things will go very bad for you if you screw up even once.

I’d also submit any racing game that looks very fast (looking at you, F-Zero GX) is achieving that through visual language.


I wouldn’t say that kinesis is the problem, but rather that game designers don’t know what to do with 3D environments to compensate for a non-fixed perspective. Museum curation takes a lot of time to focus the viewer on a specific thing by directing the gallery in singular directions via architecture and then placing higher- and lower-priority paintings accordingly, so that moving through spaces you’re not only directed by the start to end path but also by using doorways and openings to highlight certain things over others. The Mona Lisa is on a pedestal in the middle of a room because they need to compensate for the fact it’s the single most famous painting in the world, for example.

Video games have a big problem with details, where they’ll laser focus on shit like rewarding players for “exploration” and “environmental storytelling” by hiding three skulls in a bucket with a pocket knife or whatever, but the actual path they want you to take is uninteresting and bland because it exists as a straight corridor from one place to another. Wolfenstein has this problem I’ve noticed, where the path ahead is poorly signposted or in places you wouldn’t think to look or aren’t being drawn towards. It’s easier to do when you fix the camera because you can work on making a single image more evocative, but in the realms of 3D space game creators still treat it like it’s a Where’s The Hidden Goodies puzzle rather than a thing to pull people through a narrative.


@Lilly I totally agree with all this, and I feel like I should have been more clear in saying that my feelings about Stewart’s piece have more to do with the way that it looks at games in the frame of “image.” I guess what I was trying to get at is that I don’t think that it’s necessarily the most constructive direction to couch the visual identity of games within the medium of images because they’re so unlike them for the purposes of narrative and evocation.

In my experience, it’s much more successful when the visual direction of a game stems from the form of interaction that the game takes, which can then in turn influence that interaction. Similar to how architecture can define spaces for people to be in but people also influence how that space is used.