Almost a decade after Rockstar Games' L.A. Noire became the first video game to be honoured at New York's highly-regarded Tribeca Film Festival, the inaugural Tribeca Games Awards were held in June this year.
The awards endeavour to place games and the people that build them at "the forefront of mainstream and artistic culture alongside film, TV and VR/AR" according to Tribeca Enterprises and Tribeca Festival co-founder and CEO Jane Rosenthal. Certainly, Tribeca succeeded in spotlighting some remarkable creations.
The eight nominees for the event between them showcased an impressive diversity of aesthetics -- reflecting something of a trend for the broader medium. While artful titles that bring distinct visual approaches are far from a new phenomenon, in recent years they have found themselves ever more present in the mainstream of gaming. As the medium has matured and further cemented its status within popular culture, games have been given the breathing room to explore more varied styles without such a risk to their commercial potential.
Over at the Tribeca Games Awards nominees list, the vast majority of the eight titles selected were built using Unity. The game engine, of course, has carried an association with highly creative works since its early days -- but to have been fuel in the tank of so many Tribeca nominees can still be seen as a significant contribution.
Unity itself has focused over the years on providing artist tools that are both user friendly and technologically muscular. Products like Cinemachine and Timeline have been built to give artists the freedom to work within their own style and even process, while empowering them to create assets that capably couple with the wider Unity ecosystem, and studio's own pipelines and tech platforms.
That's evident in this year's Tribeca games nominees Sable, Harold Halibut and the awards' ultimate winner, NORCO -- all of which use Unity's artist tools, and all of which present notably different aesthetics.
Painting the Future
The studio Geography of Robots, creators of NORCO, joke that they have sometimes referred to their project as a "janky pixel game", but that tongue-in-cheek description vastly undersells this seriously beautiful creation. Offering a highly atmospheric pixel art aesthetic, the point-and-click adventure's screens are remarkably rich in detail, bringing their own painterly charisma.
"I always felt like the unique landscapes of South Louisiana could put you in a kind of trance if you let them," offers Geography of Robot's developer and artist Yuts - one of a team that tackle several forms aside from games. "The way heavy industry, disappearing swamps and sprawling suburbs blur together into this chaotic mosaic. I was determined to capture that in some way. These landscapes are probably the most important feature of the game. We explore them in all kinds of ways. We also just brought on Jesse Jacobi, who handpainted the key art for the game, to help out with some of the pixeling. His pixel art is as maze-like and beautiful as his oil paintings. With his help, the final release will have a more evolved aesthetic than the demo."
"Having [Timeline and Cinemachine] available from the very beginning of meant we could spend our time focusing on gameplay and developing the visual aesthetic"
Gregorios Kythreotis, Shedworks
That gives you a taste of the effort that goes into establishing the aesthetic of a Tribeca-winning game. And the mention of oil painting highlights an important point too. Many of the new wave of studios establishing vivid and unusual aesthetics bring together creatives from beyond games, be they cinematographers, architectects, authors or traditional painters. But what of the technological process? Firstly, the NORCO team employed Cinemachine, Unity's modular suite of camera tools that strives to bring triple-A quality control to every camera in your project.
"We use Cinemachine all the time," enthuses Yuts. "Just recently we put together this little geospatial puzzle where you're moving 'drones' -- represented as small icons -- around on a map display. We use virtual cameras to emulate the kind of behavior you might see in a browser-based web map. When you click on a parcel, it pans and zooms to the location. Cinemachine makes it all very seamless. In several places, we also use vcams to make dialogue with characters more animated and illustrative. In some cases, you'll be talking to a character, and a virtual camera will spin you over to another location in the scene where an animated cutscene will unfold."
Clearly, for Yuts and team, Cinemachine engendered a great deal more potential than you might expect from a camera suite. But that is the very point of Cinemachine's offering - it is a tool that provides the flexibility to let artists use it in myriad ways, rather than forcing a particular approach. It is equally defined by ease of use, letting artists compose beautiful shots without getting bogged down in technical processes. That's a strength amplified by the fact that Cinemachine can dynamically adjust to help creators achieve the best shots while reducing the need to write code and scripts.
The team at Sable studio Shedworks enjoyed similar benefits when shaping their game, which endeavours to inspire a sense of the excitement of finally sating wanderlust. In building the captivating open-world desert exploration game, Shedworks used a combination of Cinemachine and Timeline.
Timeline is a Unity feature that takes a form that will be familiar to anybody who has spent time with conventional video editing and music production software. Timeline itself enables creators to visually edit music, play animations, show and hide objects, control particles and so on by linking them to points along a time axis. That model let Shedworks use it in combination with Cinemachine to build beguiling cutscenes that unfold with elegantly orchestrated and nuanced timing.
"The cutscenes in the game are all built with Timeline, and we use Cinemachine for both cutscene and gameplay cameras," confirms Shedwork's Creative Director Gregorios Kythreotis. "Having these systems available from the very beginning of the project meant we could spend our time focusing on gameplay ideas and developing the visual aesthetic, instead of pouring months of development into building tools before we even knew what the game was."
Tools like Timeline and Cinemachine also turn out to be suitable for development teams that take a wildly different approach to building a visual style. Take the example of Slow Bros, the team behind the Tribeca-nominated adventure Harold Halibut, which is a game idea that first emerged in a conversation over dinner about a shared love for stop-frame animation and narrative games. That ultimately led to the team hand-building mesmerising sets, characters and more as physical models, before scanning them into the game engine to exist as 3D models.
"The initial idea for this grew out of an inability to realise the game's story in any other way; we didn't have anyone in our team that was capable of producing 3D art assets or drawings at the time," reveals Slow Bros' co-founder and CEO Onat Hekimoglu. "But as we continued to experiment with this technique we came to appreciate that it provides a unique kind of immersion. Something about the recognizably 'real world' building blocks in this digitally interactive environment creates a bridge to players. Others have since pointed out to us that it makes for a peculiar kind of- but very effective - suspense of disbelief."
To build their game from real-world models, Slow Bros turned to Timeline and Cinemachine.
"Coming from a film-background, one of the key aspects of our game has always been a cinematic presentation," Hekimoglu continues. "This involves realistic lighting which was enabled through Unity's HDRP. Timeline and Cinemachine gave me easy to use tools that resemble my prior work in film to create stunning cinematics as well as interactive scripted content.
"Timeline and Cinemachine gave me easy to use tools that resemble my prior work in film to create stunning cinematics"
Onat Hekimoglu, Slow Bros
"Having tools that are familiar from other content creation software makes it really easy to achieve our creative vision. One key advantage of Unity being a game engine lies in the fact that a lot of things can be customised and extended through simple scripts to automatise a lot of things. It's this combination of familiar tools and endless possibilities that makes it so powerful."
Beyond the Photoreal
Clearly, the likes of Timeline and Cinemachine empower game artists and their colleagues to build distinct, visually enchanting worlds. They do so by presenting workflows and functionality that bring in techniques and systems seen in realms like filmmaking, music production and animation, while simultaneously having the flexibility to let individual artists work in their own way. Unity's art tools should and do provide artists with a space in which to work, rather than dictating how they should work. It is that - the ability to support different kinds of artistic approaches and creative processes - that allows different visual styles to emerge and flourish. The artist-focused Unity products and features also do a great deal to welcome creatives from other fields to the realm of game making.
The artists themselves deserve the credit for what the dazzling worlds they have spun together, of course. But as seen in the number of Tribeca-nominated games that used Unity, it is apparent the engine has numerous strengths when it comes to the pursuit of doing things differently. And those strengths continue to grow, as the Unity team works to add more artist-centric functionality, through additions such as VFX Graph, Shader Graph, and most recently Visual Scripting.
Looking across the contemporary gaming landscape, it's also noteworthy that visually distinct styles can be critically acclaimed and bankable. While lifelike visuals remain very much possible with Unity -- as seen in Blackbird Interactive's remarkable game Hardspace: Shipbreaker -- long gone are the days of an industry obsessed with the photoreal, where pursuit of a lifelike aesthetic was seen as singularly defining of what triple-A was.
Of course, games that pursue the photoreal still jostle for space near the top of the charts, but with increasing frequency, they also rub shoulders with titles that bring far more distinct looks to the mainstream, as a wave of unique looking games -- often made by multidisciplinary teams with backgrounds in different art forms -- enjoy tremendous success. And looking at the Tribeca Games Awards nominee list, it is clear we are now in an era where the likes of 'polish' 'detail', and even 'AAA' are much broader terms than they ever were before.
What does all this mean for what we understand to be 'next-gen graphics'? That future is looking broader, increasingly diverse and more exciting than ever before.