Game art is normally pretty… conventional. Figures, in action, intending to draw the reader/viewer into the action and to place their own character/self into the action. It’s meant to excite and engage but it does tend to mean that however talented the artist, unless they have a particularly distinctive style it can all look much of a muchness.
I don’t think it has to be that way, necessarily. Photographic art has never really worked, even in LARP books it just ends up looking faintly ridiculous, though Bradstreet did well enough with augmented and altered photo-tracing. Science Fiction art went through a period of abstract and pop art covers from the 60s to the 80s and a few efforts in gaming seem to have worked. My own Agents of SWING consciously mimicked pop art on the cover and used silhouettes throughout the interior for most of the art – which went over well.
There have been less… successful experiments as well. Perhaps most memorable was the utter disaster of ‘Barbiepunk’ (Cyberpunk 3.0) which whatever its problems and successes in its text, nobody could take seriously because of the dolls used to illustrate it. Pretty cool in their own light, as objects, they just didn’t really work as illustrations and led to a great deal of mockery and scorn. I thought it was pretty brave, but being brave isn’t always enough and sometimes it is a horrible mistake. Like pushing any limit, sometimes there’s pushback and the gaming audience can be quite conservative in a lot of ways. It’s a shame, but it’s something we all have to deal with – it’s why we see so many different takes on the standard fantasy tropes, and why they continue to do OK to well, while other genres have a harder struggle.
Working with the fetish artist Michael Manning on Gor has been a bit of an eye opener. The art is conventional in some ways, but the style and approach is something new and different. It has a very distinctive style and was a conscious decision to go for black and white as a stylistic choice, rather than simply by the necessity of budget and printing costs. Its striking, minimalist in some ways, fascinatingly detailed in others and it’s going to make the Gor RPG books into something truly unique.
This experience has me thinking of other possibilities, more experimental art, but it’s hard to gauge what people’s reaction might be, what the right projects to experiment with might be.
One artist I recently found is Selkirk, whose art is a kind of grotesque, muscle-bound, physical extremism, like Peter Chung (Aeon Flux) on steroids. Its fetishistic, though not one I happen to share, but also kinetic, exuberant, different. Its the sort of thing I’d love to use for a barbarian fantasy type project, but would people go for it? I don’t know. It’d be a hard thing to find out without taking a big risk – or doing a crowdfunder. Would the art still be as effective if it were tone down a little? It’s hard – again – to know. Crowdfunding would take some of the risk out of it, but a failed crowdfunder still takes time, effort and energy to run and promote.
Another possibility is to take a cue from those pop-art and abstract covers from 3/4 of the way through last century. What would people make of abstract, geometric or mathematical art in game books? What if one were to illustrate in an Islamic/Arabic, non representational style using tiles, patterns or representations like tangrams? Would people be forgiving of that? Would they accept such an artistic style choice?
Hexagonal tiles could be interesting, given the love of hex-maps in gaming circles. Would that work, to echo that pattern throughout a game book? What about illustrating with words rather than pictures? Box-out sections the size of art inserts, but words, descriptions of characters, places or things.
Interesting things to think about, lots of possibilities to weigh up.