Cuphead: When games become art


writer icon Erik Kjær Andersen     Cuphead   |   Game Development     🕐 13. Feb. 2018

Cuphead is a game that has received much interest and attention in the gaming and game design community worldwide, even since before its release in September 2017. This is mainly because of its unique art style, which is identical to the 1930’s “Rubber Hose” style, seen in the old animated shows such “Silly Symphony” and “Betty Boop”. The Canadian based developer, Studio MDHR, produced a style very different from what is seen in the modern game aesthetics and ended up being praised for their take on retro game design.

About visual art in games
Cuphead helped take a big step towards games being recognized as an art form, instead of just a form of entertainment. With today’s technology, any form of visual art can be implemented into a digital game, and so that art becomes part of an interactive experience, made up of visual art, animation, sounds, music and storytelling. There are no longer any boundaries to game designers’ creativity and they can experiment with any form of art. So, is this is a new era for digital games?

Art has been in games almost since the beginning, ever since the digital interactions moved from light bulbs to the small computer screens and pixels became a word. The designers had very limited options for their game’s visuals, and the placement of one-coloured dots on a tiny screen, was all they could work with to visualise a world for the players. Still, they used what they had, and today, PAC-MAN, a flat yellow blob made up of 16x16 pixels, is still one of the most well-known video game characters. They managed to put soul and charm into something that simple. The creativity, of course followed technology, and today it is a quite different story on the 4K wide screens. With new and advanced tools, artists are working harder than ever before to make their ideas come to life, and the things that are being created can no longer be labelled simply as game graphics.

Cuphead is not a modern high-resolution 3D game, but that is actually one of the reasons it stands out as art, much more than many new games. Studio MDHR did not do the modern high-resolution graphics, they tried something different, and they got creative. They dug up an old style and gave new life to it. A style from long before digital games even existed.

Typical retro games today are games that imitate the old arcade classics, using the pixel art, beep sounds and gameplay they are known for. Cuphead does this as well, as seen in the gameplay, the genre and in the high level of difficulty (today’s games are usually more casual and forgiving than the old ones). Additionally, Cuphead has also lent retro from a completely different media: Animated shows. The sounds, the music and of course the art and animation, are all imitations of the 1930’s Rubber Hose cartoons. Even the production of the game was imitated to match the look perfectly: Everything is hand drawn on paper, the backgrounds are painted separately with watercolours and the music is recorded with a live jazz band. Studio MDHR has made an admirable tribute and has stayed completely faithful to the style.

Other games?
Cuphead indeed stands out with its unique art style, but Studio MDHR is not the only developer that lays focus on visual art. Games like “Journey” (2012) and “Limbo” (2010) have also gained much attention and praise for their visuals. These games show how simple graphics, combined with the right lighting, music and narrative, can create very emotional experiences. Cuphead is an action game, but with the rise of newer game genres such as “visual novels” and “atmospheric”, it’s obvious that many developers want to make games with focus on the visuals and the narrative. A great example of this is the self-biographic game “That Dragon, Cancer” (2016), which tells the story of two parents who lose their son to cancer. The game takes the player on an emotional rollercoaster with an interesting art style, a different gameplay and of course, a touching story.

Through the history of digital games, art in some form can be seen in most of them. It is actually hard to find the ones that are made purely for entertainment, without any thought to the visual, narrative or musical art. Today, art in games shows itself clearer than ever before, as artistic games keep showing up, in many remarkable, unique and new ways.

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