10 examples of iconic design in movies and video games
Who says those week-long video game marathons were a waste of time?
Despite the near-universal objections from parents, a lot of the time we spent in front of the TV as youngsters – PlayStation controller in hand or not – was spent building valuable knowledge and honing our thinking skills.
Iconic design in movies and video games
Wired’s 2006 article on the management virtues of online games brought a new educational phenomenon to the front of minds: the idea that games and interactive media could actually help people learn. Schools started listening to uninterested youngsters, parents encouraged kids to bury their heads in the Xbox or a DVD, and endless movie marathons moved from a distraction into something that schools actively focused on.
But there’s one area of interactive media that hasn’t been touched on: the iconic design that it’s produced. We’ve looked at the most popular movies and video games of the last five decades – art covering almost every genre and style – and found ten that we think display all the characteristics of truly iconic design.
Whether you’re a film buff, avid online gamer, or business-focused designer, sit back and draw inspiration from ten of the most impressive, iconic, and influential video games, films, and interactive media pieces around.
1. Portal, 2007
While the Half Life series may receive the largest dose of critical acclaim, it’s Valve’s puzzle title Portal that’s caused the biggest change in video game design. The puzzle-based first-person game takes a minimalist approach to in-game models and textures, reducing most environments to their most simple form and limiting the amount of distractions that appear on-screen.
While Portal’s focus is on making puzzles more visible and environments easier to navigate, its design has been picked up and used in a variety of other first-person action titles. Expect to see more games with a focus on simplicity in the coming years – Portal seems to have inspired game designers across the world to cut out those deep textures and focus on a simple experience.
2. System Shock, 1994
System Shock was a coup for the PC gaming industry. While most gamers were obsessed with Doom 2, Looking Glass Technologies managed to release a title that delivered more than just 3D gore – full-on 3D immersion and absolute gaming terror. System Shock was outsold by most big titles in the year of its release, but it’s remembered amongst gamers as one of the most revolutionary 3D titles of the early 1990s.
While most remember System Shock as a thrilling sci-fi game, designers look at it as a piece of digital art. The game introduced 3D wireframes as a game design feature – its ‘cyberspace’ levels were bleak and minimalist – causing game designers to rethink the way they created digital environments.
3. Schindler’s List, 1993
Steven Spielberg took a different approach to Schindler’s List. Instead of his usual ultra-high budget and stunning effects, the legendary director decided to minimize his use of technology and shoot the film as if it were a documentary. The sparse use of color and the minimal effects make Schindler’s List one of the few 1990s films not bogged down with CGI or cluttered with mass action.
It’s a lesson that’s been applied to numerous online designs over the years. With the internet packed with clutter, a minimalist approach with very little reliance on technology can occasional be just what’s needed to stand out. If your website needs to make a statement, cutting down on technology and distractions could be the ideal strategy.
4. LSD: Dream Emulator, 1998
LSD is considered one of the strangest games ever developed. The Playstation title came out in the late 1990s, and set the bar for sheer weirdness in gaming. The creative work of an Asmik Ace Entertainment staff member, LSD was designed by working through the notes of a year-long dream journal.
That means it’s packed with bright, open imagery, full of strange and disturbing environments, and devoid of the bland textures that appear in almost every other video game. While LSD isn’t a great playing experience, its innovative design set the stage for many future video games and pieces of interactive art.
5. Fargo, 1996
Few films reach the same level of cult appreciation as the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski. However, it’s their 1996 thriller Fargo that’s received acclaim from critics, filmmakers, and designers alike. Released at a time when black was very much the cinematography color of choice (anyone remember Se7en?) Fargo used white as a filler color, filling frames with bright white snowy scenery.
Just as minimalist design took over the internet in response to clutter, Fargo’s success as a film was in its response to ultra-produced dark thriller films. The ‘home-spun’ thriller didn’t feel like a big budget film, primarily because it wasn’t, allowing audiences to appreciate the plot without the endless distraction of polished graphics or dark environments.
6. XIII, 2003
XIII wasn’t a huge commercial success, nor was it a particularly revolutionary shooter game. However, this innovative title brought cell shading – previously thought of as a ‘kiddy’ art style – to the masses. The product of French game development company Ubisoft France and the creative result of Belgian comic series XIII, this title made cartoon graphics something that could effectively be used for serious content.
While XIII failed to move more than a few units, other cel shaded video game titles cemented the graphical style as a winner. 2003’s Zelda: The Wind Waker was one of the most popular titles on Nintendo’s Gamecube, and lead to a range of other cel-shaded video game titles.
7. Blade Runner, 1982
If ‘development hell’ has a film industry counterpart, it was certainly present during the production of Ridley Scott’s 1982 science fiction film Blade Runner. This cult classic has been through several revisions and rereleases, each with their fair share of different plot points and presentation styles.
However, the film’s greatest quality – its amazing set design – remained unchanged. Blade Runner served as the inspiration for a range of dark and eerie films throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and revolutionized the stale film noir genre. Look at any science fiction film, video game, or comic book and you’ll see traces of Blade Runner’s unique environments and too-slick-to-be-human characters.
8. Ico, 2001
Ico was a piece of art, an influential game, and a complete commercial failure. One of the Playstation 2’s early titles, Ico was developed with minimal attention to dialog, sparse and limited plot explanation, and environments completely unseen in gaming. While very few copies of the game made it into homes, Ico is considered one of the most influential PS2 titles available.
Why? Because not only did its minimal dialog approach quickly spread into other gaming titles, its bloom-style lighting and dynamic environments became a standard feature in other games. More often regarded as a piece of revolutionary art than a video game, Ico raised the bar for innovation and pure design in entertainment.
9. 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968
Today, 2001: A Space Odyssey is best known as an exploration of human evolution, life’s challenges, alien life, and artificial intelligence. When it came out in 1968, few saw it as anything more than a special effects showcase – a film so surreal and bizarre that it couldn’t possibly be any good.
Evidently, public opinion has shifted over the years. While 2001 remains an enduring special effects display and one of the most visually influential movies created, it’s now viewed as a masterpiece of pacing and storytelling too. From a design perspective, the film is quite a work – its portrayal of space, technology, and future environments mirror those seen in design workbooks, industrial design collections, and the occasional space-style product.
10. Psycho, 1960
Psycho came out at an unusual time for the film industry. Viewers didn’t appreciate lengthy thriller films – they wanted something they could walk into at any point and enjoy. Alfred Hitchcock ensured that wasn’t possible with the release of Psycho by forcing cinemas to play by his rules – viewers weren’t to be admitted once the film had started, and the press was kept in the dark until Psycho’s wide release.
Hitchcock also took an interesting creative liberty – sacrificing colour film to shoot Psycho in chilling black and white. While it seems unusual to compare a film from 1960 with some of today’s design principles, Psycho certainly shows potential. Not only does its limited colour approach mirror that on some of today’s most popular websites, its entire design was built around black and white contrast – an essential iconic design element in online and offline design.