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Strategy Gamers and Art (Not About Ebert)

May 1st, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 5 Comments · Design, Indie Games

Ancient Trader is a beautiful game. Tom Chick calls it one of the most beautiful games of the year and he’s probably right.

The gracefully sepia-toned map and Gorey-esque characters are unforgettable. But the map isn’t just a static screen. It breathes. Clouds gently waft over undiscovered territory. Ships and sea monsters bob gently. Waves break in the ocean. Look, a dolphin leaps here! A whale breaches there! It’s all ink and vellum and cursive script and layers of lovingly drawn facades drawn on plywood and stacked up for a 19th Century stage production. It’s positively Gilliam.

I am easily seduced by a novel artistic style and clever use of color. I might have liked Birth of America less if the units and map weren’t so appropriate to the theme. One of the main appeals of the Tin Soldiers games was the miniature art.

Strategy games are one of the few major genres where pseudo-realism in graphics never really made inroads. RPGs, shooters, sims, sports games…all have either dabbled with or jumped whole hog into a quest for a look that mimicked the real world in important ways. The subject matter, of course, doesn’t really lend itself to that kind of appearance. Except for a few wargames that focus on small scale combat (Combat Mission: Shock Force, Theatre of War, Achtung Panzer), strategy gaming works on a larger stage and a more abstracted level. The Total War games are a hyrbid, of course, with real-ish looking battles and an abstracted map.

This means that strategy game designers are freer to work with different art styles and even reach back into the past for a theme that is appropriate to the subject matter. So we get the pastel maps of Imperialism evoking washed out atlases and the bright colors of Dawn of Discovery enticing you into a world of adventure and profit and the medieval woodcut echoes in Solium Infernum.

The problem with really good and really original art is that it can seduce even us jaded strategy gamers that think they know better than to be tricked by graphics. Ancient Trader is a very attractive game, but is ultimately a shallow trifle. There is little enjoyment in the trading game, so the combat is the thing. The combat is a rock/paper/scissors affair with three colors that each trump another except for when upgraded values come into play. If you can win the first round of combat then you are very safe for the next two rounds since you can see the value of your opponent’s cards and rely on trump colors. The game goal (buy three artifacts and then slay a monster) is neither compelling nor that different from anything else you do in the course of play.

That’s OK because this is a light game – very light. I can see kids or casual gamers really getting into this over XBLA, and it plays fast enough that you don’t feel like you’ve wasted your time.

I just wish the amazing art was in service to a better game. Tom is right that so much of the beauty in Ancient Trader is in the superfluous detail. It’s the kind of game you can look at or take screenshots of to serve as wallpaper. But, unless I’m missing something, the game has no staying power for me.


5 Comments so far ↓

  • Primemover

    Speaking from an artistic point of view, the initial video and screen shots give it a very retro feel, which is always a nice “alternative” for the age of high end graphics (which is really a misnomer, because the perpetual goal will be to always better the “high end graphics” that have proceeded!). Too bad its gameplay depth appears to be as thin as the “vellum” it is laid out on.

  • Quinten

    I thought the art style was cool, but between the price and the gameplay, I couldn’t quite get myself to buy it. I think artsy graphics for certain games would be nice: like it Colonization looked sort of like this, instead of the Civ4 3d. I will say there is something about the pixely hand drawn Close Combat maps that I enjoy. It is unfortunate graphics are probably the most expensive and important thing in a game (in terms of selling it to a wide audience).

  • Thomas Kiley

    I disagree that strategy games have largely avoided the quest for realism. The equivalent in strategy games is that phase where they would claim to model everything such as Hearts of Iron. Granted, the series is hardly a blockbuster, even in the world of strategy games. However, I feel it is only recently (past 2 years?) that strategy games are ditching the arms race of how much complexity can you include and instead focusing on streamlined mechanics and key decisions.

    In this respect, I think strategy games are just a bit more developed when compared with the rest of the games industry (Chess is, after all, a very old game). We have emerged from the other side, having realised realism isn’t the be all and end all of game design.

  • Troy

    I meant graphical realism – not realistic statistical detail. Will clarify.

  • LintMan

    Anyone know if this game will be made available on Impulse or Steam? I really hate the thought of adding third downloadable software store/manager to my system.