Art Essay | History of the Borderlands Art

Throughout the years art has always been influenced by something that came before it. Whether it be something natural like Vincent Van Gogh looking up into the nights sky and seeing “Starry Night” or even artists seeing ever day things and wanting to put their own spin on it, much like Andy Warhol’s work, artists have always found inspirations for their art. Video games, being a modern expression of art, are no different in this aspect. In the first two BioShock games there are obvious references to the Art Deco movement in the city’s structure and the character’s clothing style and the atmospheric platformer Ori and the Blind Forest has similarities to the Studio Ghibli movies directed by Hayao Miyazaki.

Cel shading, also know as toon shading, is a type of rendering. It is used to make otherwise 3D objects look 2D and mimic the style of comics and cartoons. Although it reduces the realism of the content, it makes the edited object or footage look stylised which some people will find more appealing than others. Cel shading in animation and video games was first used in 1910 at John Bray studios by Earl Hurd in the form of cel animation.

The first time it was used in a game made to be sold and played on consoles was in Jet Set Radio, released in 2000 on the Dreamcast. Jet Set Radio is a Japanese video game developed by Smilebit. It focuses on a gang of youths who avoid authority figures while roaming around a city named Tokyo-to rollerblading and spraying grafitti. The cel shading used in this game was heavily inspired by the national popularity of anime and manga in Japan and, in my opinion, cel shading is perfect for a game focussed on deliquent youth.

Cel shading was also used in the popular Gearbox video game series Borderlands, the main game series I will be talking about in this essay, with the first game in the series being released in 2009 on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. Another art movement, which shares ties with cel shading due to them having close ties to comics, that reminds me of the Borderlands art is pop art. In particular, Roy Lichtenstein’s pop art. Roy Lichtenstein was a pop artist whose art featured people, primarily women in some state of distress, in a very comic book inspired fashion. Some of his most notable pieces of art are known as “Drowning Girl” and “Whaam!,” both created in 1963. He was active during the pop art period alongside notable artists like  Andy Warhol and Keith Haring and used mainly acrylic and oil paints on a canvas. The one similarity between Roy Lichtenstein’s work and the Borderlands art style is the bold, black outline that adds detailing to not only characters but the surroundings. Instead of adding subtle shading on the character’s faces to show where face features like the cheekbones and nose are, both Borderlands and Roy Lichtenstein add harsh black lines to add this kind of detailing. This makes the characters look kind of 2D because of the comic-like detailing and gives Borderlands a unique style that puts it apart from other action first person shooters.

A big inspiration for the Borderlands art style, which has been commented on by the CEO of Gearbox Randy Pitchford himself, is a short film produced in 2006 by Ben Hibon called Codehunters. In the short film you can see clear inspirations for the Borderlands art style in the the way the characters have been drawn and their clear outline which gives a cartoony feel. The environment in the short film, a kind of rural apocalyptic feeling place, is even similar to some locations shown in the Borderlands games. However, because of the countless similarities between Ben Hibon’s art style and the style of the Borderlands games many people have responded in anger accusing Borderlands of stealing Ben Hibon’ art style and not being genuine.

However, putting accusations aside, cel shading in Borderlands made it look like a completely different game. At the 2008 E3 conference Gearbox released their first gameplay footage of Borderlands: in the footage the game shown doesn’t resemble the fun shoot & loot I have grown to love but a generic post apocalyptic survival game. If I was watching this with no prior knowledge about the Borderlands games I would presume it was a dystopian survival horror game and, because of the generic, realistic art style I would not be as wanting to play it as I am with the current Borderlands art unless the story was exceptionally good. For me and many others, the story wasn’t the main selling point of Borderlands but its fun art style which stands out from the crowd in the modern day first person shooter genre.

Compared to the beta gameplay for Borderlands, the official release of the game has much brighter colours which make the game much easier to look at and understand. In many dark lit games I find myself confused about what is happening within the surroundings and generally less attracted to the game if the entirety of their colour palettes consist of browns, blacks and greys. While the first Borderlands game kept their colour scheme to favour dark colours, Borderlands 2 really adapted bright colours into the environments which made the game look more cartoony and take a step away from being like other popular first person shooter games and becoming more its own. While its predecessor only took a step away from the generic dystopian colour scheme, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel took leaps. While the first two Borderlands were set on the fictional planet of Pandora, the Pre-Sequel takes place on its moon, Elpis, and adds vibrant purples, pinks and blues into its colour scheme due to its unconventional setting.

The eccentric colours used in the Borderlands games reminds me very much of the colours the earlier mentioned Roy Lichtenstein used in his pop art portraits. Instead of giving his characters natural hair colours Lichtenstein opted to give his characters bright, unnatural hair colours like vibrant yellow, red and blue hair colours. While this can sometimes be overused in certain types of media and make the game, movie, or cartoon series look somewhat silly, I think with Borderland’s comical storylines it goes well and Borderlands certainly do not overuse it to the point of whether you have to guess if a character is meant to be human or some sort of alien human lookalike. An example of this in Borderlands is the characters Lilith and Maya, who appear in the first and second games as playable characters. While Lilith has bright red hair Maya has unconventional blue hair.

In conclusion, in 2009 when the very first Borderlands the creators dared to be different with their art style. Games that were being released at the time were big names like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Halo 3: O.D.S.T. and Left 4 Dead 2 which all aimed to make their games look as close to real life as possible. Instead of following this path, like what Gearbox had originally decided to do with the Borderland’s graphics, they opted for a less realistic but much more creative art style. I think many people can agree on the fact that if Borderlands had went for a realistic art style it would not give the same experience to it’s players as it currently does with its cell-shaded, comic book and pop art inspired look.



Cel Shading Wikipedia.

Cel Wikipedia.

Jet Set Radio Wikipedia.

The A.V. Club Article: “The flat 3D Look: A brief history of cel shading in video games.”

Roy Lichenstein Wikipedia.

Codehunters Wikipedia.

Codehunters short film.

Pop Matters Article: “The Style of Cel Shading.”

Borderlands E3 2008 Gameplay Footage.

Original Borderlands Trailer.






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