This is an excerpt from Heterotopias 003, the third issue of the game and architecture zine, which is now available to purchase for $6. To read the rest of the article, which further analyzes the techniques used in Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, go grab your copy over on itch.io.
In Joni Kittaka and I’s eight-plus hour game Even the Ocean, I spent days fixing the animations of a mole that walks along tunnels in a single area, rather than replacing the mole with something less animation-heavy. This level of detail applied to every aspect of the game—such as cutscenes, art style revisions, and level design—contributed to the development time of three-and-a-half years.
For a long time I believed the only way to reduce the costs of content-heavy games with high-fidelity art was to make them smaller. But, recently, I’ve found another and perhaps better solution to reduce the traditional quality of the art. What stopped me from this discovery before was the prevalent attitude towards what are deemed ‘lo-fi graphics’—a widely-held view is that they are inherently bad. But this shouldn’t be the case. They are not always a rush job or a mistake. They have, in recent years, even emerged as an art style in their own right. We can and should do more than dismiss lo-fi graphics as a historical stepping stone, inferior to photorealistic or HD art styles.
Consider games before 2010 with total or partial lo-fi art styles. Some of these older games aspired towards photorealism while lacking the hardware to do so effectively. Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (hereon Nocturne) is a visually striking game, despite its ‘old’ graphics. First released in Japan in early 2003, it is a monster-collecting JRPG set in post-apocalyptic Tokyo. It had a team of about 15 artists, as opposed to the roughly 500 (counting contractors) artists that worked on Final Fantasy XV.
Nocturne is full of ‘low-quality’ textures, objects, and spaces, yet its art style conjures an atmosphere more thematically dense and memorable than many contemporary games. Interrogating the art style shows Nocturne achieves this atmosphere through abstraction-based techniques for visual and spatial design. What is exciting about these techniques is that some of them do not require years of technical training in programming or visual arts, and thus, these techniques are easy for game developers to use to create new forms of visual expression in their games.
In Nocturne, Tokyo has just gone through a nuclear apocalypse, and so it has the player travel the city in order to decide how to rebuild it. Nocturne makes no attempt to create a realistic Tokyo, instead, it focuses on abstractions of public and commercial spaces like subways and malls, occasionally with more directly referenced real-world spaces, such as Shibuya Crossing.
While the artists aimed to dress the game’s spaces in realistic textures, the art direction is ethereal—this is accomplished through the eerie lack of human presence, a refusal to make accurate recreations of Tokyo spaces, and the use of unrealistic lighting. The latter is especially captivating, as it sees ambient lighting illuminate empty rooms in bizarre shades of purple or blue, lights cast in impractical ways, and shadows appearing without visible light sources.
Post-apocalypse Shinjuku Medical Center
Blurriness, sharpness, and immersion
Without actively looking, it’s harder to notice the lack of photorealism in the floor tiles of Nocturne’s subways than it is to notice it in a poster on the wall. Advertisements, printed materials, and commercial items like clothing appear throughout Nocturne, all of which invite players to parse them for written or visual information. But these objects aren’t suited to that type of inspection and only cause the fidelity of the game to fracture. Posters and ads appear too blurry or too sharp; a stack of newspapers resembles a cube rather than individual sheets, making it clear these were objects placed as atmospheric shorthands rather than sources of information.
These types of objects act strangely in games. Look at the “Yushima Station: Safety Message” picture. If the object is blurry, like the station exit diagram on the left, it immediately separates the player’s reality from the game’s should they attempt to read it. There also exists a problem when the object is clear and readable, like the warning sign on the right, as this isn’t a game about obeying train signs, and its sharpness makes it weirdly readable when almost everything else around it is hazy. The artist who placed this sign probably wanted it to stand as a nod to the pre-apocalyptic history of the station platform, as a way to ground it in a reality closer to the player’s, but its inconsistency with the textures around it pull it more towards achieving the opposite.
One solution to this would be to remove all the posters and signs, but that may make Tokyo strangely bare. Whereas rendering the posters blurry makes them too obviously fake, having them sharp enough to read causes them to stand out too much in this indistinct world. It is better to view these ‘problems’ as a technique that can, like the train station signs, be utilized to carefully place references to reality into a less realistic space.
Yushima Station: Safety Message and Station Exit Map
To read the rest of this article purchase Heterotopias 003 over on itch.io.
Sean Han Tani is a developer of Anodyne (2013), Even the Ocean (2016), and currently, All Our Asias. He also lectures about game design and game music production at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.