Theme and visual style

Let’s look at these independent games.
They all “look good” even though they didn’t have dozens of people creating assets.

What are the distinctive visual elements?
What are the economic strategies in the production of assets?
How are the visuals related to the mechanics?

compare to Nidhogg 2



Most of the games above use a limited, non realistic, color palette.

Find a good color palette:
don’t pick colors at random
watch out for overtly saturated tones
try to limit your dominant colors.


Create a new based on common patterns  with Kuler
You can steal color palettes from here
You can randomize a color scheme with this app
Create one from a picture with this tool


Fernando Ramallo picks colors from pictures of sunsets. Some other designer (I don’t remember who) confessed to rip off colors from vintage polly pocket toys.

Color ramps

Mostly used in pixel art but can it be applied in illustration and anywhere. Mind that there is no fixed system to create ramps and palettes, but it’s a good idea to familiarize with the practice of hue shifting:

hue shifting
You can generate a color ramp one from a picture with this tool

Sometimes it makes sense to use a monochrome or analogous scheme…




But more often than not you will need to differentiate between objects and create different ramps for your main colors.

There are plenty of tutorials and debates on the internet on how to properly create color ramps but it’s a common practice to make sure the ramps are interlocking, so you can have more harmonious edges or colored outlines that work with different colors.


Figure out the dominant elements. The scheme above may not work well for a story that takes place in the high seas.

If you follow these principle too closely you may end up with a boring palette, eg your object will look washed out in the same yellow or purple light. The use of bold complementary or non analogous colors, especially for accents.

colour theory in screenshots hyper light drifter

Hyper light drifter looks unique also because it doesn’t really seem to follow most of pixel art rules


If you want to be a game artist, a graphic designer or an illustrator learn some color theory especially applied to the digital sphere.

For more complex/realistic illustrations like concept and background art it may make sense to paint in grayscale and colorize later.


Character Design

Typical character design turnaround, ok for anatomically accurate animations and comics, not so much for games
Test it in action
If you are planning on using close ups, make sure that your design allows the facial expression you need
Facial expressions are not the only way to convey emotions
Allow for consistency across characters (using a limited palette helps)
What are the features that makes your character instantly recognizable?

Realistic, Iconic or Abstract?

Narrative games aside, game characters are defined by their actions and states

How can your character communicate its state and features?
The proportions of the main character in Braid were dictated by the platforming gameplay. In cognitive terms, the player has less work to do to calculate the movements of a short squareish object.
Don’t let the technology dictate your expressive modes
Some of the best character design in contemporary games is iconic. Originally Mario’s distinctive big nose and mustache was a low-res necessity.

In short animations, characters may have specific built-in affordances. They are designed to perform certain actions:

This happens more frequently in videogames, where characters are defined by what they can do and the actions they perform are limited.

Character design as level design:

Game designers often need to communicate threats, goals and roles without going through narrative character establishments. To do so often “effectively” recur to problematic strategies such as stereotypes and stock characters: zombies, princesses in distress etc..

We’ll talk about the problem with women representation in games in a few weeks
On a sample of 20 recent FPS with “realistic” setting

Playable characters in games tend to be overwhelmingly white and male. When there’s “diversity” it reflects the overwhelmingly white male and conservative composition of the game industry today.
Ethnic and racial stereotypes are a common (lazy) characterization for fighting games.

Modern day Native American wearing feathers… Magic-Yoga-practicing, skull-wearing Indian… traditional-but-sexyfied chinese dress… evil Russian brute…

Transposing elements from existing cultures in fantasy settings can also be debatable. The Na’vi in Avatar are the ultimate embodiment of the Noble Savage. The struggle between good and civilized humans and vicious and primitive Horde in World of Warcraft has colonialist undertones. The Horde has totems, tents, face paint, Trolls even have a Jamaican accent.

Ms. Male Character

And other videos from the Tropes vs Videogames series

Tools and resources

Pixelart tutorial collection










Asset Forge


Check out studio Oleomingus’ work

Free stuff

And of course you can use free assets as references

Kenney (mostly models for 3d printing) (really busted stuff, needs sketchup) (mostly hi-res architectural 3ds)

Free materials and textures from the asset store
A good collection of shaders that can be used on material (also a good intro to the dark arts)

Theme and gameplay

Carcassonne hunters and gatherers

Ludonarrative dissonance by Clint Hocking
Other examples?

Flavor text in collectible card games
Freedom: the Underground Railroad – cards from the board game
The first activist game was designe more than 100 years ago by a. Quaker woman called Lizzie Magie (it was the first game that obtained a US patent).
She believed that the main cause of poverty was land monopoly and the way to solve it was to impose a single uniform tax that would discourage speculation. So she created a game to represent this conflict. Thirty years later a man called Charles Darrow patented a modification of the landlord’s game and turned into a “pro landlord” game. It would later become Monopoly.

Exercise 1: flavor change

Change the theme of this formal set of rules:

In an economy where 3 players try to accumulate resources:
3 Players start with 5 resources + 3 resources in the pool (center of the table)
Each turn players take a decision in Rock Paper Scissors style. Players can choose Action A (fist) or Action B (open hand).
There are 4 possible outcomes:
Outcome 1 – one player chooses Action A: this player takes 1 resource from each other player.
Outcome 2 – two players choose Action A: these players both give 1 resource to the third player.
Outcome 3 – three players choose Action A: all players put 1 resource in the pool
Outcome 4 – three players choose Action B: the player with most resources proposes once, without discussion nor barter, how to divide the pool. If at least one player agrees the decision becomes effective. Otherwise, nobody takes anything.
The game ends when the first player is out of resources the player with the most resources wins.

Exercise 2: find an alternate theme for your prototype

Mood / art direction

Find some potential soundtracks, play them alongside your game. Which ones work better?

Create a mood board and then challenge it
Look for concepts and words associated to the theme. Identify the tropes, colors, themes.
Don’t just google images. Search for sounds, animations, literature, architecture…

You can try to subvert some of the expectations, create your own twist and interpretations.
Slides from Ninja Theory’s Devil May Cry and Enslaved

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Two common scenarios and the reinterpretations by ninja theory.

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