As my column has no doubt indicated, I am not only a passionate defender of videogames, but I wholeheartedly believe in their place in the artistic canon. The medium is ever evolving and changing, becoming more and more formally complex, telling richer stories, and creating richer environments. But, like any medium, videogames do not exist without faults. Today, I want to talk about one of them.
What in the world is going on with cover art?
How could it be that for decades at this point, companies haven’t changed the basic formula for game cover art? See if you can guess the formula from this selection:
Okay, sure, you can read the title. But look at what I mean! These four games were released between 2013 and 2018, and they all follow the same basic principle. There are some outliers: Overwatch has a woman with a gun and NieR has people with swords. But at the core, the tenets are the same—person at rest with weapon. These four games are so vastly different from one another, how could it be that their cover art is so similar. And it’s not just these four. Look at any game store. Check Amazon, if you don’t believe me. They’re all the same. Across time and genre and console, all cover art follows these guiding principles. So why did this trend start in the first place? Market research from the early 2000s era showed that, especially in America, consumers reacted most to close ups of important characters in posters. You can see this trend in movie posters, a trend that continues today. And the videogame industry simply followed suit.
For the life of me, I can’t understand why. Especially when some games have stellar art, hidden behind the bland cover art that is on display for the customer.
Why isn’t this stuff on display? These tell a much better story, are far more eye catching, and most importantly, they’re all wildly different. NieR’s art is desolate and lonely, feelings the game very much evoke in the player. Bioshock’s looks like a poster for a movie in the 1950’s—the period linked to the game’s aesthetic. Breath of the Wild’s reverse art shows Link exploring a vast wilderness and climbing a large peak, key components to its game play. Persona 5’s introduces you to the phantom thieves and the film noir style the game is universally applauded for. You instantly get the sense of what these games are about and what they might be dealing with. Most importantly though, these examples of cover art convey to the consumer the uniqueness of each individual game. In some ways the covers work; they’re simple, eye catching, and utilize recurring characters to entice players of established franchises and new players because of the association they have with the character on the cover. The cover of Overwatch is a testament to this phenomenon. Even if you don’t play Overwatch, if you’re at all interested, you’ve heard the name Tracer, and probably seen her image in commercials or other marketing. So it only makes sense then that of the dozens of playable characters Tracer ends up on the cover of the game. Games use easily identifiable characters to market themselves on shelves to shoppers. They need to sell themselves in one image and convey as much of the game as possible in a single glance. I get the reasons behind it, I do. But it’s such a disservice to not only the consumers, but to all of the dedicated artists that create these games and characters. Just look at the reverse cover art in the above picture. It’s such an amazing use of space. They ooze life, style, and voice, even! These alternate arts really speak to you as someone who is going to live in these worlds.
The prevalence of these reversible cover-arts is a great sign for the industry breaking from this mold. I think more developers and publishers need to take risks with their box art. Videogames are an adult medium. They’re beautifully, hand-crafted pieces of art. And while yes, consumerism and profit margins are needed to keep pushing the industry forward, there is something to be said for a different approach, for companies to be daring, to be brave enough to give these deeply artistic forms an equally artistic facade.