The RPG Scrollbars: Artbooks Of Adventure

I’m a big fan of artbooks, which is quite lucky since not only are there plenty of them around right now, the quality of them has never been better. Forget the scrappy little affairs that used to be used to bolster out the Collector’s Editions of games, much as concept art used to fill in for interesting secrets to unlock. Today’s artbooks are typically huge, prestigious affairs, that come hardbound and printed on excellent quality paper. You might not put them on your coffee table, but they certainly look great on the shelf. This week, I thought we’d take a look at a few of the RPG ones that have found their way to mine – not all the recent ones by any stretch, but a few.

Of course, not everybody gets the point of them. After all, if you’ve got the game, you’ve seen it all, right? To some extent, yes. I think there’s a bit more to it than simply enjoying the pretty pictures though, including seeing unseen parts of your favourite games (though typically they don’t show that much in the way of failed concepts and cut content, which is certainly something I’d like more of). In particular, there’s an appeal in simply pausing to appreciate the work and depth that goes into creating a modern game. It’s never been easier to be blase about that, writing off worlds as complex and gorgeously rendered as, say, Dishonored for looking a bit like Half-Life 2, or a traditional RPG for ‘just’ being several other games thrown in some magic blender.

Even in those cases there’s always almost always more going on than there appears. Plus in general, it’s hard to appreciate art. We’re not only surrounded by so much of it and at such high fidelity that we shrug off modern wonders like the creation of cities with ‘yeah, seen it’, the games themselves rarely want you hanging around and smelling the roses. Even something as arguably over-designed as Deus Ex: Mankind Divided quickly fades into the background as it whooshes past and gets excited about conspiracies and guns and whatever. Seeing things from a different angle is the only real way to appreciate it to its full, as in in Andy Kelly’s Other Places series, or in text form in Keza MacDonald and Jason Killingsworth’s You Died.

Here’s a few of the ones that I’ve collected. Just to quickly clarify, I only tend to bother with books of games that I like/play or find fascinating, so the absence of, say, Eve: Universe or The Art of League of Legends mostly just means ‘I don’t play them’. It’s not a knock on the books or the art – though in the case of League of Legends, it’s definitely linked to that price. $75?! Christ… Also, if you’re shopping on Amazon, most feature a handy comment somewhere where a reader has shot video of themselves flicking through the pages. This is a good way of seeing what the book’s focus is – just the art, more of a guide through the world, or something thrown together without very much actual meat on its bones. That’s fairly rare these days, but it does happen. And conveniently enough, the four I thought I’d talk about offer quite a good demonstration of the kind of spread you can expect. Funny how that works out!

The Art Of World of Warcraft

The Art of World of Warcraft for instance is all about concept art, which is great if you want to admire the detail of Blizzard’s work and probably a few Hearthstone cards to be, but you’re not going to get much beyond that, or how a gorgeous painting of the flying city of Dalaran above the clouds ended up being translated into WoW’s low-polygon style. Words are kept to the absolute minimum and only occasionally drop an interesting bit of behind-the-scenes information like the Vrykul originally being vampiric or the origin of the Gilnean crest. The few words you do get are things like ‘Cataclysm opened up the desert realm of Uldum – a land of ancient, long-buried secrets’, or a quick paragraph praising the artists for upgrading Deathwing’s appearance from a simple dragon recolour in the original Warcraft games to his appearance as big baddy in Cataclysm. Each chapter is devoted to one of the expansions, through to Warlords of Draenor, with a more or less random collection of artworks drawn for it, including character portraits and up close versions of faction symbols.

For me, that’s all okay, but it fails to truly represent World of Warcraft as a game or as a world. As beautiful as Warcraft’s vistas are, it’s the character of it that’s the real draw, and most of the images are either empty or just hero shots of particular people. Even in those cases, the description goes little beyond the obvious and without any real digging deeper. Talking about the creation of female pandaren for instance, I kinda want to know about the artist who was told to bring the concept to life and thought “Princess Leia’s slave bikini!” There has to be a story there, right? Or an apology?

Blizzard’s own website media and Hearthstone cards show that it has some really awesome, active pictures of this world that speak to what a crazy and interesting place it is for adventuring, and that’s what I wanted to see in this. Weirdly, one of the best examples – if not one of the best pictures – is when you flick to the end, where two ladies are in pitched combat as a kind of throwaway sepia splash page. Where were the pictures like that throughout this book? Gorgeous as much of it is on a technical level, it’s raw craft more than Warcraft, and its charm killed by being pinned to the page.

The World Of The Witcher

The World of the Witcher meanwhile takes a completely different slant. It’s a gorgeous companion book to the series rather than an artbook per se, but you certainly get your money’s worth in terms of pictures. Instead of being about the games as games though, it presents itself as an in-universe text that combines them with vast amounts of text going into the different monster types, the nature of sorceresses, how Witchers train and so on, with varying levels of seriousness, and supposedly written by Geralt’s bard friend Dandelion and occasional guest authors like Vesemir. The writers don’t always seem to remember that, but it adds a fun spice to the prose when they do (“Vampires. Most of the traits commonly ascribed to these creatures are bollocks.”)

If you’ve played the games then you’ll know most of it already, but it’s a great way of dipping back into the world and filling in gaps that you’d only really know from reading the books. Chapter V for instance is an abridged version of both Geralt and Ciri’s backstories, and then a very potted version of the trilogy. It’s a great celebration of a fantastic series that keeps up the kayfabe right up to the point of advertising a spin-off game at the end, and a book I can easily imagine reading instead of embarking on some 200 hours of RPG when I want to fondly remember Geralt’s adventures.

The Art of Deus Ex Universe

By god, there’s a lot in this book. The recent Deus Ex games have to be second only to Bioshock Infinite in terms of being ‘designed’ worlds, and this newest addition to my collection just blows that right open. Sadly, its definition of ‘universe’ doesn’t include either the original or Invisible War, but jumps straight into Adam Jensen smoking in his chair and pondering just how much he did not ask for this. Unlike most of these books though, it’s only another page before it shows off a set of designs described as, I quote, “Douchebag Adam”. Literally the art designer admits to getting: ‘stuck in a phase where we tried to make him look too tough, too badass. It had the effect of making Adam look like a bouncer or a biker, or as we liked to say at the time, a douchebag.”

I liked this book immediately.

Honestly, I’m finding Deus Ex: Mankind Divided something of a slog as a game, but I found this artbook fascinating. It’s full of not only concept art, but the artists talking in some detail about the goals and subtleties of characters – David Sarif for instance needing to represent the cyber-renaissance look, with an augmented arm that he probably keeps up to date to market to clients, and how characters like Pritchard had to stand out by not buying into the overblown style. One of the most fascinating of the Human Revolution characters, to try and avoid spoilers, is the design of Eliza Cassan, the holographic newsreader that nobody is meant to know is an AI. Her colour scheme is designed to subtly reinforce this by using colours that aren’t used in the rest of the game – pinks, purples, violets, standing out as dischordant in a world of oranges, yellows, golds and blacks. Not everyone has some little snippet of that ilk, but the overall feel is that you’re reading a book by a team that’s both proud of its work and interested in talking about it. As usual, it would be good to have some nicely shot versions of how a lot of it appeared in the actual game rather than just the painted perfection of concept art, but more than most games it’s the ideas on display here rather than the implementations. It’s a gorgeous book that more than most leaves you with a better understanding of the work rather than just appreciation.

The Art of the Mass Effect Universe

I adore Mass Effect. I love its universe and characters. I can’t wait for Andromeda. For that reason, I liked this tour of its art, but it’s not the easiest to actually recommend. Big, impressive pictures are fairly rare, with most of it being focused on fairly small variants of characters and equipment that got rejected, and whipping through at such a pace that nothing gets time to breathe. It’s like being led around by a tour guide who just wants to have his lunch. Quick! You want to see the Normandy? Here’s a couple of pictures of the Normandy! Quick, here’s Samara! We spent ages working out how to justify ‘mystic warrior’ translating to ‘boobs hanging out’ and decided it was her armour’s… invisible kinectic barrier… or whatever! Hey, you think that’s bad, check out this early concept art of Miranda! Yeah, watch that spine snap so we can show you her butt.

It’s so frustrating. When the art’s interesting, it’s typically too small to see, while each planet gets so little that even key locations like the Citadel are blink-and-you’ll-miss them. There should be whole chapters on these places, not just a couple of pages per game and the occasional bonus pic later on. Then, the pictures you do get aren’t the most exciting. Shots of a couple of the Wards, a little deserted? Cool. But do we really need three grey pictures of shipyards? Mass Effect has so many gorgeous locations that it’s genuinely strange to sift through a book that doesn’t get what it’s got to play with, and lots of rejected designs that aren’t typically so different from the finished one to tell interesting stories of what could have been. The result is a book that feels oddly technical for a celebration of the art. “We made over 200 helmets” for instance is an interesting bit of trivia, but then seeing 40 of them still feels like overkill.

In short, I was very disappointed by this book. It doesn’t have the meat to let you crawl deeper into the universe, nor the pretty art to simply bask in. For what should be one of my favourites, it ended up a coffee table book in the sense that I wouldn’t be all that upset if someone put their coffee on it. And if it’s not clear I’m speaking as a fan of the series even after That Ending, I own a £70 Tali’Zorah figure. (Oh, for the whole set. Or the disposable income to casually pick up a £279 Mordin on a whim…)

Anyway. Are there any artbooks that you’ve acquired and been particularly taken by, or series that you wish would have them? Increasingly it seems that big franchises are spawning one along with the hideous Funko Pop statues – Fallout 4, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Dark Souls, Tomb Raider, Destiny, Uncharted, Doom, XCOM 2, Assassin’s Creed… Hell, in a sad turn of events, you can get an artbook for Fable Legends, despite it having been cancelled. The audience for them can’t be that big, but I’m glad it’s big enough to take these releases seriously – to celebrate just how good we’ve got it these days, and better appreciate worlds that deserve to be seen as well as experienced.

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  1. Rath says:

    I quite liked the concept art of Saren Arterius in robes;

    link to

    Thought it was a shame they didn’t have him begin that way in game and then throw off the robes later to reveal just how much Sovereign had ‘upgraded’ him. Oh well. Maybe someone could mod it in, given that Mass Effect remasters look unlikely according to recent statements.

  2. Comco says:

    Another fan of “Art of…” books here. Recently picked up the Art of the Mass Effect Universe” – awesome book. Can loose a few hours looking at some of those concept drawing.

    Also just got my copy of Star Citizen’s Jump Point Volume 2 the other day – which is basically a bound copy of the “making of” Jump Point pdf magazines they release every month to backers. They go in depth into how they’re making the game. Massive amount of insight into the design process – interviews with concept artists, level designers, modellers, riggers etc as well as some great concept art. Great stuff.

  3. c-Row says:

    Fell in love with artbooks after picking up Half-Life 2’s “Raising The Bar” which included an alternate opening and some interesting but equally unused maps and enemies (some of which later appeared in Episode 2). To this day I enjoy reading not only about the things I have encountered in the game but also those that were cut from the final product as well.

  4. Rizlar says:

    Interesting Bioware character concept post you have probably seen before: link to

    Don’t own any physical art books but these days lots of games seem to include a digital version. The Witcher 3’s is very good, exploring the identity of areas and the real world references used.

  5. Rao Dao Zao says:

    Yeah, I pre-ordered Human Revolution (sigh, yes) and it came with an ‘art book’ (more like FART book, lolllz), which mostly consisted of concept art of bins and crates. I think the Mass Effect 2 one was quite similar.

    Speaking of cut content and changed directions, I’ve been loving the deluxe remasters of all A-ha’s albums of late. The second discs contain demo versions of all the album songs and some are very strikingly different, while others contain bits that you can hear were recycled in different songs later on. I wonder if there’s a market for remastering (pre-)alpha versions of games as historical curiosities too? The Warcraft III alpha looked pretty crazily different, and Unreal II supposedly lost four missions from its final roster…

  6. Maxheadroom says:

    Art books, making of featurettes, Soundtracks.

    All things I typically scoff at in Collectors Editions as they are just thrown together with little thought or effort using the assets left over from making the game.

    Or, (as you mentioned at the start) that used to be the case. I like the Witcher one in particular. Reminds me of the book that came with Alan Wake that contained several (pretty good actually) short stories ‘written’ by Alan Wake and a dossier of case notes by the FBI guy chasing him.

    Still plenty of naff jpeg collections and soundtracks passing themselves off as Deluxe Editions though too.

  7. malkav11 says:

    I still pretty much tend to get them as part of Collector’s Editions (mainly Blizzard, since theirs are generally well put together and -don’t- include statuettes and things that I don’t want and dramatically bulk up the price – Overwatch CE aside, which I skipped. And I can rely on their games being worth paying the extra, which is not necessarily the case elsewhere.). Lots of pretty stuff in the Legion CE, for example.

    The one I really wanted but could never quite justify was the Guild Wars artbook. ArenaNet’s artists are phenomenal, quite possibly the best in the business, and their concept art in particular is stunning. But they only sold it directly, and being based in Europe that made the price rather prohibitive (since I live in America and the shipping and currency conversion were not in my favor -and- it was quite expensive to begin with).

  8. SMGreer says:

    The art books that came with the Witcher 2 & 3’s collector’s editions are wonderful and gives you a real peak under the hood. They’re also proper hundred page art books, not those flimsy little things they tend to stuff in these collector’s editions as an after thought.

    There are loads of great ones though. The one for The Last of Us is great, shows so many of the iterations that lead to the eventual designs. The end results speak for themselves but it’s interesting to see how much more “videogamey” it all looked to start with. All the Bioshock artbooks are also a great treat for those interested in “What could have been…”. And the art book for the first Mass Effect is ace and a lot better than the one discussed above sounds.

    My favourites though are the Design Works books for Dark Souls. The games are visual treats anyway, stuffed as they are with detail, imagination and a heavy dose of symbolism. It’s the interviews at the end of the books with the art team that shed a lot of light on their process. Their creativity is obvious but the restraint they have is what sets Dark Souls apart from so many of its fantasy peers.

    They’ve done Design Works for the first and second game(which covers all the DLC areas too) so I hope we see another one for the third game, after all the DLC is done for that.

  9. Fnord73 says:

    With regards to the Pandera bikini: Yes, there is a story there and No, you cannot follow it unless you want to be part of the Pc Police that is ultimately to blame for Donald Trump.

  10. TheAngriestHobo says:

    I have the art book from Guild Wars: Nightfall kicking around somewhere, and it’s just fantastic. GW tends to actually make use of its concept art during loading screens, so many players are probably familiar with the style, which tends towards hazy dreamscapes full of alien geometries and other weirdness. It’s wonderful, though unfortunately there isn’t much in the way of text to flesh the book out.

  11. lucasdigital says:

    Fallout 4’s Art book is recent highlight, for me. It’s massive, every page is stuffed with great art and ideas. Witcher 3’s book is also fantastic, but it’s more a world guide with more history and exposition than purely artwork. Alien Isolation’s art book is also brilliant. Now, lets see if I can get that Deus Ex Universe book without my wife finding out…

  12. jomurph86 says:

    Interesting analysis! Instantly brought Youtube’s Bardic Broadcast to mind.

    He reviews the Witcher 3 art book at 8:35

    link to

  13. Grim Rainbow says:

    Morrowind. I never owned the art book but have always loved it’s art, in game and concept.

    I love the way the art makes sense too. Floating Netches look cool but they are harvested for their leather. Native guards bone helms made from fallen Stiltstriders, a creature used for transportation. And the limited vision of those bone helms may be less for combat or menace sake and more for protecting the eyes from potential sandstorms.

  14. Zekiel says:

    Fantastic article! Thanks.

    One quibble Richard: you say “One of the most fascinating of the Human Revolution characters, to try and avoid spoilers…” and then go on to immediately drop a spoiler. Wut?

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