Like many people at the moment, I am completely smitten with Child of Light. There’s just so much to like about this game. From the gentle fairy-tale sensibility, to the simple yet exciting traditional turn-based combat, and the game’s stirring melancholic score, it is one of the few games that uses its’ art direction to fully drive the experience.
Most modern video games use their art direction for some certain purpose. For instance, many modern games have art designed to bring a more gritty or realistic appeal to them, hence the earth-toned style of many of them. However, on the opposite end of the spectrum, you have some games that are brimming with an artistic look, almost as if the designers are aspiring to be the Leonardo Da Vinci of game development. As technology has rapidly advanced, there’s been a never-ending discussion amongst gamers as to whether game developers should aspire to make games look as realistic as possible, or should be focusing their art direction on bringing something more unique to the medium. Either way, the art direction in many modern video games is chosen but not given much time to grow. Thus it often comes secondary to the rest of the game’s development.
Yet when we reflect upon the history of video games, most of us immediately mention some of the fantastical worlds that games have taken us to visit. The land of Hyrule, the Mushroom Kingdom, Pandora, The Worlds of Balance and Ruin, Rapture, and the Orwellian sci-fi setting of City 17. All of these games achieved greatness by crafting universes with a highly creative approach, in order to give gamers an experience neither real-life, nor any other medium, can provide.
This is where Child of Light succeeds beautifully, on par with some of the greatest. From the minute you step into Lemuria, the game uses its art direction to make you feel like you are playing an interactive children’s illustration. When in motion, the game resembles a moving illustration drawn by Rebecca Guay (a famous professional painter on many video games, children’s books and graphic novels). What is most interesting is that Child of Light achieves this by not focusing on an art style influenced by graphical hardware. Rather, the look of the game was clearly used to establish a unique look and feel to the project.
How does Child of Light achieve this?
In order to create immersion, the visual style of Child of Light focuses on the smaller touches. For instance, when Aurora, the game’s protagonist, is wandering around areas such as forests and caves, or when she is soaring through the sky, the backgrounds have a jagged, almost sketchy, appearance. Some of the watercolour painting is out of line, and some of the various objects, such as trees and rocks, look unfinished. Almost as if a child was painting a scrapbook. These little touches help make the game’s fairy-tale universe all the more compelling. The game feels like a world that could exist in a dream; almost like you’ve stumbled into a picture-book. In all of the game’s environments, from twisted forests to vine-coloured ruins and idyllic countryside villages, the style of Child of Light feels vibrant and alive, whilst still keeping with the fairy-tale/storybook motif.
Considering that the visuals alone are beautiful enough to hold your attention, it’s clear what art styles Child of Light was influenced by: much of Child of Light’s look pays direct homage to The Golden Age of Illustration. This was a period of unprecedented excellence in magazine and book illustration in the first half of the twentieth century. A lot of the various locations in the game especially bear a striking resemblance to illustrators of the early 1920’s, such as Arthur Rackham, Kay Neilsen and John Beaur. Usually, a video game emulating a certain style would be not much to discuss, but in the case of Child of Light, it’s a major part of why the game’s art direction is so strong.
With Child of Light, the entire team clearly spent a lot of time collaborating altogether, in order to also create a style that reinforced the main theme of the game’s story – growing up. Like most of the fairy-tales penned by Hans Christian Andersen, the game is about Aurora maturing. She evolves from a vulnerable, frightened young girl in a strange, unfamiliar world, into a queen who has found true strength and courage.
The art style of Child of Light reaches record highs in being conducive to the story because it ultimately reflects that development of Aurora as a character. At the beginning of the game, the colours are muted, suggesting that Aurora is not yet aware of the dangers present in the world. However, halfway through the game, the colours become brighter, as Aurora begins to accept responsibility on her journey. By the end, Aurora is soaring through the brilliant Lemurian skies, as she has finally become independent and achieved her freedom.
In thinking about this, I realized that the greatest strength of quality art direction in a video game is the ability to encourage players to interpret the world, story and characters in their own imaginations. And this is exactly why the painterly world of Child of Light leaves such a lasting impression. Every part of the game, such as the music, writing, and sound design, were all combined to create an experience that was coherent and consistent with the game’s vision: that of a playable bedtime story. The style makes Child of Light feel much more timeless, as a fairy-tale should be.
Due to the increasing reliance of realism in video games, the industry has struggled to find a balance between games that have a realistic graphical style, or colourful art styles of a more whimsical nature. Games like Child of Light remind us that there is room for both. For no matter how richly detailed and textured shooters and action games may look, few of them look a fraction as distinctive. It is games that use original art style, combined together with score, sound and gameplay to form one coherent vision, which will remain enjoyable for years to come.
It’s a shame that Child of Light doesn’t achieve every aspect of the fairy-tale vibe successfully. The rhyming, whilst charming and sweet at first, soon becomes grating, as it is stretched out to fill the script of a twelve-hour adventure. It lacks any real sense of challenge, and the game stumbles a little when trying to incorporate a classic formula with the beautiful art and modern sensibilities. But Child of Light deftly succeeds in reminding us why art direction is so important, as it plays such a pivotal role in crafting this world that gamers will want to explore time and time again.
Enchanting, albeit flawed, Child of Light makes Lemuria an ambient, atmospheric place full of peril and danger at every turn, and yet also a welcoming warmth, all at the same time.