Understanding Composition - How it Turns Mediocre Game Levels into Masterpieces.
7 min read

Understanding Composition - How it Turns Mediocre Game Levels into Masterpieces.

Disclaimer: None of the examples below are mediocre, partly because they have great art in them, but mostly because their composition is brilliant. By the end of this article, you should have a good understanding of the reason why.
Understanding Composition - How it Turns Mediocre Game Levels into Masterpieces.
Cover for this amazing video

A few days ago, a video came to my inbox. This is not your normal level fly-around. This video contains work from 100 different artists, all surrounding one single animation.

Today, I want to analyze it and explain why its shots work so well.

There are many rules that you can read about composition. I’m not going to re-invent the wheel here, so to understand its basic rules, I’ll leave some essential resources you can explore at the end of the article, but before starting, I quote the following text and images, which describe some techniques used for shot compositing:

“80 years ago, an Artist named Edgar Payne wrote a book called ‘Composition of Outdoor Painting. ‘ It is still regarded as one of the most important books on composition out there…

… In this book, Payne expounds on a LOT of compositional theory and surmises that most compositions can be categorized into one of 15 compositional archetypes. Even though these compositions are landscape focused, the principles still apply well to all types of art.”  —  From the blog MuddyColors.com

Examples of shape-based compositions by Edgar Payne

If you want a deeper explanation of these techniques, please refer to the post below:

15 Types of Composition
One of the first rules of art is “there are no rules”. And it’s true, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ art is totally subjective, and you should simply do whatever works best for you! So then why even attempt to learn all the “art rules” and guidelines we all hear about in the first place? I believe there is s

After a brief introduction to some of the different compositions we can use in our levels, let’s move on to the main content of this post.

First, let's watch the video. For the purpose of this article, I’ll grab one piece of it and analyze it. Together with the previous examples, you will understand why it works.

This is my favorite scene in the entire video. It takes every rule we will discuss and turn it into the perfect example of why it works.

Shot by Klay Abele

Before delving into compositional elements, let’s take a moment to discuss the importance of color in our scenes.

When looking for a good composition, one of the first things we need to keep in mind is what we are trying to achieve with our shot.

If I had to take a guess, it is clear that the artist wanted us to notice the guy pushing the cart. Quite obvious on this one anyways, but the execution is perfect.

Take a look at the grayscale version of this image.

A Grayscale Version of the Shot.

The first thing you can notice is the richness of the grayscale values this image has.

In the foreground, dark colors. The mid-distance areas use lighter colors, and the background lightens even more to achieve a good atmospheric effect. In between, a lot of variation in grey values helps distinguish one element from another.

Notice brighter colors on this image are reserved for lighting and specularity.

If the artist had used very similar grayscale values, his image would lose a huge amount of detail, even if the hues and color saturations differed.

Since each of these shots is about 5 seconds long, you, as the viewer, wouldn’t have such an easy time separating the different elements that compose the image.

Also, if we blurred the image, you would still be able to see what is directly in front of you, and what is far away. This is a great example of why values matter.

After all this, add the colors in, and you have an image that drives the eye where the artist wants it to be and allows the viewer to explore it with ease.

The second big reason for this shot to be close to perfection is its use of parallax. I’ll leave a quote to explain what this is if anyone is not familiar with the concept.

“Parallax is a displacement or difference in the apparent position of an object viewed along two different lines of sight…

… as the viewpoint moves side to side, the objects in the distance appear to move more slowly than the objects close to the camera.”

This is a crucial effect when it comes to a good composition. Many of us are used to seeing still images with great composition, so yes, it is possible to get good results without it, but since we are discussing art for games, which in essence are almost constantly showing movement, it is a factor we need to keep in mind.

I’ll post the image again so that you don’t have to scroll up. This time, a grayscale version to leave any distraction out of the way and focus on the movement only.

Shot by Klay Abele - Edited by Me

The effect is quite obvious. What is closer moves faster, and further objects seem not to move at all. I can’t describe how much richness this adds to the shot.

In VR, for example, parallax effects are vital to bringing a level to life. If you are unsure of how to do this properly, the rules are simple:

  • Grab the piece you want the viewer to pay attention to and center it on your screen, independently of the distance. Just don’t place it far enough so that it looks tiny. Mid-distance usually works best.
  • Place some elements in the background, like a sky, some mountains, etc. Generally, you don’t want to add a tremendous amount of detail to your background as it might add a lot of noise to the result.
  • You will also need different levels of background. In the shot above, we have different forests at different distances, for example. This enriches the shot even more.
  • For the foreground, choose objects with a very understandable silhouette. With your eyes half-closed, you should be able to identify what those elements are, as they will probably be blurry or move fast.
  • As an extra, you want to introduce less important points of interest, like the people in the house, it will add more areas to look at in your scene, but make sure they don’t steal protagonism from the main focus point. These can also be called secondary compositions or micro-compositions, like the house with the couple on the porch in our reference. More on this on the bookmarks at the end of the art

As a recap, you want well-detailed silhouettes on your foreground, great overall detail on your focus point (mid-distance in the example of this article), and bigger understandable shapes in your background.

With the above ruleset, I’ve mostly explained what composition is about, managing your resources so that you can direct the viewer’s eye to where you want them to look.

Something I use to do to get good results is starting with big shapes and frame the elements in your scene with them, similar to a Steelyard composition.

All in all, there are no set rules of what works and what doesn’t. Composing a scene is a multi-factor task and doesn’t depend only on a set of guidelines. It’s all about experimenting and feeling good about your work.

Coming back to the title of this post, how does composition bring a level from mediocre to masterpiece?

I think we just have to take one of these drawings below and understand that even a 5-year-old has the skills to draw something like this, but only a master can make a child’s drawing into something that has a clear purpose, playing with your point of focus to pick your interest.

There are many rules that you can read about other than the ones I listed. If a further read is interesting for you, I attached some articles that will help you understand the subject better.

How to Improve Your Photos Using Micro-Composition
One of the most fundamental elements of photography is that of composition, or how your subject, foreground, background, light, and other elements work together to produce a complete picture. While understanding how this works is fundamental to mastering the art of photography, the underlying princi…
9 Top Photography Composition Rules You Need To Know
Take better photos by following these basic photography rules. Read about them, go out and practise them then share your amazing results with ePHOTOzine!
The 8 Elements of Composition in Art
An easy-to-understand explanation of what is meant by the elements of composition in a painting or artwork, with examples of each.
Composition in Photography: A Complete (and Modern) Guide
Want to master composition in photography? Discover everything you need to know about composition in this comprehensive guide!

As always, if there’s anything you might want to share, leave a comment or contact me directly!