This particular post is inspired by two YouTubers. Videogamedunkey and JakeyNakey respectively. Both of their video essays on box art made me to take a closer look at it. The subject of video game box art of course, as it has similarities to the movie box art. You see, I come from that world. I know that world (the movie world) and to be honest, things are not looking so good there. But is it really dying (or at the very least in bad shape) as both of them are suggesting? Let’s find out.
Although the gaming industry is different from the film industry, I believe the goal of their visual presentation (through posters, trailers, promo stills) is pretty much the same. To get you to spend money and buy the product that they’re selling. Movies, games it doesn’t matter. So, a good box art really should do a good job at that. But what else?
The Intent Of Box Art
Well for starters to get you invested in the game in question. To make you care about it, even before you decide to buy it. It’s not exactly making you judge a book by its cover per se, but the intent it’s not exactly that innocent either. You see, before it convinces you to buy the game in question, a good cover art should lure you and tell you a story about that game. It should tell you the story of the game before you actually come home and play it.
What’s the game about? What can you expect from it? Maybe even present the main character of the game? Or perhaps a certain scene from the game that’s worth bragging about? However, there’s a growing consensus (and the aforementioned YouTubers would agree) that the late ’80s and the first half of the ’90s were actually the golden age of the great box art. And yes, those are the years from the second and third generations of home consoles. Games that had both 2D and 3D graphics in their composition, but relied heavily on mostly hand-drawn box art covers. Those days are long gone now, but can you find decent box art nowadays? Well, let’s find out, shall we?
Copy And Paste In Box Art
First and foremost, I must emphasize that not all of them were original works of art even back then. The box art examples of the 80’s and 90’s I mean. Far from it. But they were interesting, intriguing, colorful and attention-grabbing nonetheless. Case in point, the first Metal Gear game. It had Michael “Corporal Hicks” Biehn on the cover, and straight from a scene in the Terminator movie.On the other hand, the Contra game had Arnold Schwarzenegger from the Predator on the cover. Hardly an original idea right? Yes, I agree. But they made the best of it with what they had.
But in more ways than I can elaborate here, the greatness of the box art was born out of necessity. Before the companies had entire departments devoted to making great box art, the work was outsourced in most cases. It was reduced to the talent of a single man or a woman and even the big companies like Konami followed that trend. For instance, Tom DuBois did incredible box art covers for Konami. There’s even a great mini-documentary on YouTube about him and his work. It’s worth checking out if you’re interested, and i’ll share it below. But he wasn’t alone in this. There were plenty of other artists like him in the ’80s and the ’90s.
How Did Box Art Evolve?
Well, with the development of technology, there was a shift in the box art development too. If you take a closer look at the early days of the gaming industry, you’ll see a lot of hand-rendered covers. Especially in the 1982-1992 era as well. Most of the covers were photographic (though some are drawn from photographs). And almost all of them had original pieces of artwork rather than replications of movie posters. With notable exceptions mentioned earlier in this post. Bob Wakelin was an incredibly prolific pioneer in this era, and so was David Rowe, and Roger Tissyman. Steve Hendrickson for instance was responsible for several great covers from the Atari 2600’s golden age. Covers for Defender, Othello and Night Driver and so many others..
But as plenty of gamers would point out, the PlayStation 1 and PlayStation 2 games from the 90’s excelled in fantastic box art as well. However, a lot of the experts agree that with the rise of the 3D games, the technology changed the box art for the worse. Sure there are some great exceptions from this, but yeah. Most of the art went downhill. The positive examples (and admittedly most known examples) of this are some of the Final Fantasy games and the GTA games. The iconic tiled style and the bold color palette of the GTA games is still iconic and incredible to look at. But yeah. The arrival of 3D technology did not help the box art when it comes to the actual art. I hope that makes sense.
The Good The Bad And The Ugly
The growing opinion among the gaming community is that the 3D technology really made the companies lazy and unimaginative when it comes the box art. With notable exceptions, most of them abused the 3D technology and used it mercilessly in the box art as well. Case in point, the cover box art for the Metal Gear Solid 4. The boring and unimaginative box art really left a bad taste in plenty of the fan’s mouth. The harshest critics would say that the soul of the box art is gone, thanks to the lazy 3D imagery, and they would be right in most of the cases. Take the backlash for the box art on Bioshock: Infinite, for instance.
The plain, generic look the cover really pissed the gaming community. And plenty of media outlets openly criticized it for the cliché portrayal of the main character, and for Elizabeth’s no show on the cover itself.But which are the good box art covers? The ones that stood the test of time and the covers that are referenced to this day by the fans? Well, back in the early days, those were the Super Mario covers, then there was the Doom box art cover, and the minimalist Halo 2, Legend Of Zelda and Mortal Kombat covers. Those are from the ’90s of course but look fantastic to this day.
And How Are Things Right Now
Modern box arts (around 2005-onward) especially in the West tend to be a far more collaborative affair. With a team of concept artists and marketing design studios involved in the making of the box art. Indeed, the original concept artist/s will take the credit in this instance, but the joint nature of the collaboration did not improve things. Well, that’s according to the fans anyway, and thus the cliché covers were born.
And to be honest, that has been the status quo for quite some time. There are certain molds in which the box art is presented and pretty much all of the games adhere to them. For instance, a character from the game in question, is facing the front of the cover, with a menacing look, while making a menacing pose? Usually with a gun in their hands? The Assassin’s Creed, Battlefield, and Call of Duty franchises are guilty for using for this cliché as well.
Cliche Doesn’t Always Fit
Or does it? Back facing characters, again with a gun in their hand? Yup. Dead Rising 3, Tom Clancy’s: The Division, and plenty of others have embraced this cliché too. Or the ever-present close up of a character in the game? Check. They’re ubiquitous and ever present, but do they get the job done? Yes, they do, because they’re practically the norm now. They are the visual cues for the games, and main selling forces. With the lack of a better option, they will have to do. And for the most part, yes, they get the job done. Regardless of how cliche, bland or un-inspired they are.
But again… There are few notable exceptions even now that do the games some justice. And of course, still make you wanna buy the actual game with all their artistic glory. Firstly there’s the iconic Borderlands 2 game cover. It’s beautiful and it prepares you for the game itself, without giving away too much from the premise.
How about a game that’s a decade old? Heavy Rain anyone? Just take a look at the cover, and especially the European edition of the game. It has an air of mystery, but it also gives you hints as to what to expect. It’s minimalist, yet dark in tone and it’s poignant as well. It tells you enough about the game, but not too much to go into spoiler territory.
And how about the cover for Resistance 3? Also drawn and pretty minimalist in tone and style. It’s so good. Frankly, it’s one of Olly Moss’s finest work, and he did it when he was in his early 20’s. I am a huge fan of Moss, as you can see. This was a birthday present in fact (from several years ago), and I love it to this day. But on this note, I also love the cover art for Bethesda’s Fallout 4. Scary, dark, ominous much like the game series.
Hope For Better Days In Box Art Cover
But yeah. You can still find good, original and non-generic box art in modern-day games, but you have to do some digging now. The over-use of Photoshop has really taken the soul out of the covers, and the lack of creativity is staggering. But here’s the hope of course. There’s always hope indeed. PlayStation 5 is on its way, and here’s hoping that the box art will be better.