Game Graphics: Cel-shading

A common media stereotype is that gamers are obsessed with the graphics of their games and systems. There’s an element of truth to this, but usually with good reason. This media portrayal can just happen because graphical improvements are the easiest way to demonstrate that one game/system is newer or more advanced than another, and also the most obvious difference to explain when talking about consoles to a non-gamer.

I don’t normally put too much attention on a game’s graphics – as long as they aren’t incredibly bad or otherwise distracting, I won’t think too much about them. However, one way to instantly get me interested in a game is to tell me it’s cel-shaded.

Cel-shading is a relatively recent animation technique that renders 3D objects in a 2D way. A cel-shaded work usually has flat textures  and colours, with sharp separations between light and dark areas, like in a cartoon or comic book. It’s also known as “toon shading”, due to its cartoon-like appearance. However, the term cel-shading refers to a lighting system rather than just a graphical style: a game with the visual appearance of a comic, but lit and shaded in a realistic way, would not be cel-shaded.

Sonic Shuffle demonstrates the common bright and colourful use of cel-shading.

While there have been some cel-shaded tv programs; the majority of works using it are videogames. CS in games is usually associated with optimistic or utopian fantasy worlds, a great use of its ability to handle bright, contrasting colours (such as in Jet Set Radio or Sonic Shuffle). Paradoxically, CS also works well in some violent and dark games. Its stylised nature means scenes that would have been censored if shown realistically can be shown uncensored e.g. in MadWorld or Killer is Dead.

Killer Is Dead shows how heavily stylised violent scenes can seem less real.

The first console game to use CS was Jet Set Radio, released for the Dreamcast in 1999. Arguably, Fear Effect (2000) went into development first. However, although Fear Effect looks cel-shaded, it’s lighting system technically prevents it being truly cel-shaded. Also, as many CS techniques were invented by JSR’s development team, to me Jet Set Radio wins.

JSR was given the HD remake treatment and released on the Xbox Live Arcade in 2012, which is where I picked it up. While I’m not very good at the gameplay, so haven’t progressed far yet, I really like the overall game environment, especially its music and graphics. It’s visually unique, and probably didn’t even need to be made HD in order to stand the test of time.

Here is the same level, in the original JSR (right) and the HD remake (left). After 13 years, there isn’t a dramatic difference between them: the HD remake has improved contrast and greater detail, but it’s still clear they are the same level, and the original game still looks pretty good.

When you compare this to the progress of games with realistic graphics since 1999, cel-shading has aged much more gracefully. Below is a comparison of Silent Hill (1999), and Silent Hill: Downpour (2012). In this case, the difference is stark.

Non-photorealistic methods like cel-shading can help maintain a game’s long-term playability (for those focused on graphical capability), as the game will take a lot longer to look dated. It is also useful for quirkier games which aim to create a unique universe for their characters (such as Okami or Crackdown).

Games using CS or pseudo-CS have increased in popularity in the last few years. My theory is that this rise could be connected to the increasing popularity of superheroes and superhero-related media. Cel-shading can represent cartoon or comic styles incredibly well, making it one of the best aesthetics for superhero media, especially combined with the utopian/fantasy atmosphere I mentioned earlier.

Cel-shading can also be used to port a realistically-styled game across to a lower-powered system without sacrificing major parts of the game. Rockstar did this in Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars for the Nintendo DS, while Activision did this for the early Tony Hawk games. I think that the proliferation of mid-size gaming devices such as 5-inch phones and 7-inch tablets, coupled with a growing interest in porting and re-releasing older major games, may increase the popularity of cel-shaded ports.

Some of the media attention for CS may also be from the controversy generated by The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. TWW is visually interesting, as it combines cel-shaded characters and foreground elements with dynamic lighting and depth of field effects in the background. While technically impressive, many people felt it was too cartoonish and childlike, so the next Zelda game, Twilight Princess, returned to a more realistic style.

Nintendo didn’t fare very well with their cel-shading, unlike Gearbox Software’s Borderlands series – one example of a pseudo-CS game with both critical and commercial success. The Borderlands games have taken advantage of the increases in computing power since CS was first developed, using this power to create a hybrid design – a  realistically-shaded 3D engine overlaid with thicker character and object outlines (to create a comic-book effect), and CS-style textures.

Borderlands 2 demonstrates the series’ distinctive outlining style.

This hybrid design means that Borderlands 2 runs two lighting styles and engines at once, looking graphically and technically impressive at the cost of high GPU and CPU load. For the curious, or those with computers that struggle to display Borderlands 2 in high detail, a minor modification to the .ini files will remove the CS overlay. This gives Borderlands 2 a more realistic appearance and decreases its required processing power. (For information on this process, look here).

You can see why I find cel-shading so interesting now. I think this is partly because I find games using brightly-coloured landscapes and maps easier to navigate, so can normally remember my way around a cel-shaded game but get lost in realistically-shaded games; and partly because I tend to like quirky games with funny atmospheres, which is something cel-shading does really well. However, because cel-shading, while increasingly popular, is still only used in a small percentage of games, I’ve never really played many games using it.

For this reason, I’m going to be looking for other cel-shaded games. I’ve already got a few to look at:

  • The Wolf Among Us
  • Crackdown
  • Borderlands/ Borderlands 2

After I’ve finished these, I’ll be looking out for others. If you know of any I might find entertaining, please let me know.

P.S. While I was writing this post, I discovered this trailer on YouTube for a 1997 Goosebumps PC game which appears to be cel-shaded. Without more information on the engine used, I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt for now and proclaiming it to be the first CS game.

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