Drawing the Line

I’ve always been a fan of such aesthetics that rely heavily on thick outlines and strong contrasts like, for instance, so-called street art and graffiti in particular. The latter ones especially are often based on the use of outlines with variable thickness to accomplish visuals that have the ability to catch the viewer’s eye from a distance and in an instant, which is indeed the whole point of the exercise.

The other medium that is known for outline-based visuals is, of course, comics and graphic novels. The reason for such a visual device, I presume, must have originally got to do with the early printing technologies that lacked fidelity to reproduce sophisticated shading, and later on, the style has remained merely as a visual language of the graphic novel. Or, perhaps drawing with outlines is just dramatically faster and thus makes economically more sense (think of traditional animation). And it looks cool.

In any case, the whole concept of outline is fascinating to me since it’s, in a way, a pure abstraction of solid matter with no real world counterpart in contrast to other graphical phenomena like, say, silhouette. Nevertheless, we decode such lines as solid objects with relative ease, and in some cases, even more so, which is why technical manuals are more often than not illustrated with line drawings instead of realistic renditions.

What’s even more interesting is the fact that small children tend to draw objects as outlines, not as solid objects as they appear in the real world. One would think that a child would lack such a cognitive function that reduces the phenomenal world to mere lines, but it seems that the reality is quite the opposite: we have to actively learn not to draw everything as outlines and meticulously train how to depict the world through shading and texturing without the lines.

So, as said, outlines are indeed a result of human creativity and ability to abstract, not something we encounter in the natural world, which is, in fact, the core problem when trying to simulate such imagery within the realm of computer graphics. The challenge is that mathematical algorithms can deal with natural phenomena, such as physics or light, rather straightforwardly, but not quite so when it comes to simulating artistic sensibilities. Creativity seems to be solely a domain of the human mind and we are yet to see an algorithm to produce something even comparable to genuine imagination, even when looking into the near future.

However, a rendering technique that traces the edges of 3D geometry, popularly known as Cell-shading, is one endeavor in trying to mimic human ingenuity that is the comic book/graffiti aesthetics, one of the most iconic use-cases being Jet Set Radio (2000). The results still vary and even the best Cell-shading algorithms cannot produce completely error-free outlining or, let alone, artistically interesting line variations and nuances. We are getting closer and closer, though, with landmark titles like Street Fighter IV (2008) or Madworld (2009) who combined beautiful Cell-shading outlining with highly stylized texturing, especially the latter one.

Speaking of stylized texturing, what Telltale Games’ celebrated The Walking Dead (2012) did with its art direction must have been one of the cleverest things yet in the company’s history. The thing is, Telltale’s games have been generally sub-par in terms of technology, especially when it comes to the mere visual surface. However, The Walking Dead concealed that deficiency by adhering to a highly stylistic, “low-end” visual scheme (the comic book look) that, paradoxically, elevated the visuals to a whole new level. The Walking Dead wasn’t indeed so much of a compromise anymore like the earlier titles using the same tech, but a competent piece of real-time imagery within that particular visual, not technological, framework.

What saddens and frustrates me, though, is the fact that Telltale didn’t go all the way through with the visual scheme. The genius and the tragedy of The Walking Dead is that they only stylized the textures in order to create an appearance of a comic book, which, I’d assume, required only a few, if any, modification on the graphics engine. Indeed, I would’ve loved to see some kind of Cell-shading technology in place in addition to the stylized textures (see Borderlands, 2009), which would’ve made the graphics that more authentic and visually complete.

Games like The Walking Dead are a testament for how thoroughly technological the real-time medium is by nature in that it can take an appearance of something completely novel and unprecedented, but also, something familiar and established. To me, it’s indeed the simulation of style that oftentimes makes the largest impact, not necessarily strive for realism.