Cel-shading, also known as ‘toon shading,’ is a non-photorealistic rendering technique used in computer graphics to create a 3D object or scene that appears flat and mimics the visual style of traditional animation or comic book art.

This method involves using fewer shading colours and bolder outlines, as opposed to the more detailed shading gradients and tints typically found in realistic 3D rendering techniques.

It distinguishes itself from other forms, such as traditional 3D rendering and hand-drawn 2D animation, by creating a unique visual style that combines elements of both worlds. While traditional 3D rendering aims to replicate the depth, lighting, and texture of real-world objects, cel-shading intentionally simplifies these elements to give a more stylized and cartoonish appearance.

Borderlands 2 Cel-shading
Distinctive cartoon-like outlines in Borderlands 2, Image credit: Gearbox Software

There is also a similar technique, called sof shading. While cel-shading uses distinct, flat colors to create a cartoon-like appearance, soft shading employs smooth gradients and transitions between colors to produce a more realistic and three-dimensional look.

The concept of this method can be traced back to the early days of computer graphics when artists and researchers explored non-photorealistic rendering ways to create more stylized visuals. However, the method gained mainstream attention and popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as video game developers began to experiment with the technique.

How Cel-Shading is Used

Cel-shading has been adopted across different media to create a unique, stylized appearance. It is commonly used in video games to give them a distinct, animated look, and has also been employed in animated films and television series to blend 3D and 2D animation.

Additionally, it can be found in motion graphics, advertisements, virtual and augmented reality experiences, digital comic books, graphic novels, concept art, and illustration, allowing creators to explore new ways of presenting their work while maintaining a visually consistent style.

Need for Speed Unbound
Cel-shading in NFS: Unbound, Image credit: Criterion Games

The advantages of cel-shading include a unique style that stands out from realistic rendering, often leading to memorable and eye-catching visuals. It can be less resource-intensive than realistic rendering, making it more accessible for smaller development teams or projects with limited budgets. Furthermore, this method can help to create a consistent visual style across various media formats.

Disadvantages of cel-shading involve potential limitations in audience appeal, as some individuals may prefer more realistic graphics. Additionally, the stylized nature of cel-shading might not suit all types of content, making it unsuitable for certain projects. Finally, this way could become repetitive if overused or not implemented with enough variation, leading to visual fatigue.

Thanks to this article, not only will you better understand what cell shading is, but you will also discover 5 great game titles that have applied this technique.

Persona 5

Release date:2022-10-21

Persona 5 is a captivating role-playing game that immerses players in a vivid and stylish world, taking them on a thrilling journey through the dark underbelly of Tokyo.

Players assume the role of a high school student who leads a group of vigilantes known as the Phantom Thieves, who work to change the hearts of corrupt individuals and expose their evil deeds.

With its innovative turn-based combat system, players strategically combine the abilities of their unique team members to overcome challenging battles and progress through the intricate storyline.

The game’s striking cel-shaded art style, infused with vibrant colors and bold outlines, perfectly complements its themes of rebellion and self-discovery.

Key features
  • Turn-based combat system
  • Ability to negotiate with and recruit demons
  • Deep and complex storyline
  • Social simulation gameplay that lets players build relationships with NPCs


Release date:2009-10-20 (First Instalment)
Developer:Gearbox Software

Borderlands is an FPS game that combines addictive loot-driven gameplay with a distinct cel-shaded graphics, transporting players to the dangerous yet fascinating world of Pandora.

Players earn experience by defeating foes and completing challenges, leveling up to allocate skill points in a tree with three unique specializations. Skill points can be redistributed for a small in-game fee, allowing flexibility in character development.

With a vast, open-world environment to explore and an unforgettable cast of characters to meet, Borderlands delivers an action-packed gaming experience that consistently entertains and surprises.

Key features
  • A darkly comedic story and characters with a distinct and memorable sense of humor
  • An open-world gameplay
  • FPS with emphasis on looting and RPG-style character progression
  • Cooperative multiplayer mode

Need for Speed Unbound

Release date:2022-12-02
Developer:Criterion Games

Need for Speed Unbound is a racing video game developed by Criterion Games, serving as the twenty-fifth installment in the iconic series.

It features a unique art style combining cel-shading and graffiti with realistic visuals, set in a fictional city inspired by Chicago called Lakeshore City.

The Player and their friend Yaz as they rise through the ranks of Lakeshore City’s street racing scene, eventually uncovering a larger conspiracy involving stolen cars and corrupt authority figures.

Along the way, the Player faces challenges, betrayal, and ultimately seeks revenge on those who wronged them. The gameplay involves open-world street racing, with a focus on police notoriety and vehicle customization.

Key features
  • Open-world environment set in Lakeshore City
  • Customizable vehicles with a wide range of body kits, splitters, and bumper options
  • Return of the “heat system” from Need for Speed Heat
  • Unique art style

Dragon Ball Fighterz

Release date:2018-01-26
Developer:Arc System Works

Dragon Ball Fighterz is a fighting game developed by Arc System Works and published by Bandai Namco Entertainment. It features a large roster of characters from the popular Dragon Ball series, including Goku, Vegeta, Frieza, and many others.

The story mode follows a new character named Android 21, a scientist who is a combination of Android 18 and Dr. Gero’s brain. Android 21 is struggling with her dual personality and must confront a new threat to the Dragon Ball universe.

Dragon Ball Fighterz is a must-play for fans of the series and those who love cel shaded games, with its beautiful visuals and fast-paced gameplay.

Key features
  • Three-on-three team battle system available
  • Cel-shaded graphics, which perfectly replicate the look and feel of the original Dragon Ball
  • A roster of characters from the Dragon Ball franchise
  • “Dragon Rush” mechanic that allows players to initiate a cinematic combo

Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom

Release date:2018-01-19

In Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom the plot follows a young king named Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum, who was usurped from his throne and sets out to build a new kingdom with the help of various allies.

The game takes place in a world where humans and magical creatures coexist, and players must navigate political intrigue and battle supernatural enemies to restore peace to the land.

One interesting aspect of the gameplay in Ni no Kuni II is the use of a kingdom-building system, where players must manage resources and make decisions to build and upgrade their own kingdom. This adds a unique strategic element to the game, and allows to customize and improve the adventure.

Key features
  • City-building mechanics
  • Engaging plot
  • Real-time combat system
  • Exploration

Cel-Shading’s Impact on Game Visual Style

By employing cel-shading, games can achieve a strong visual identity that instantly captures players’ attention and helps to evoke specific emotions or atmospheres

The technique’s bold outlines, vibrant colors, and simplified shading create a sense of depth while maintaining a flat, illustrative look. This stylized approach can enhance a narrative, character design, and environment, resulting in a cohesive and visually appealing experience.

Dragon Ball Fighterz
Dragon Ball Fighterz

Moreover, cel-shading can help to create a timeless aesthetic, as its distinct style does not rely heavily on cutting-edge graphics technology. This allows the games to age gracefully, maintaining their visual appeal even as technology advances.


In conclusion, cel-shading is a versatile and unique non-photorealistic rendering method that has been employed across various media formats to create stylized, visually engaging content. By simplifying shading and emphasizing bold outlines, the method successfully merges elements from traditional animation and comic book art with 3D computer graphics, resulting in a distinct aesthetic. This technique has been particularly popular in video games, animated films, and television series, but its applications extend to numerous other fields, including motion graphics and virtual reality experiences.

While cel-shading offers several advantages, such as memorable visuals and resource efficiency, it also has its drawbacks, such as potential limitations in audience appeal and suitability for certain projects.

Nevertheless, this technique can contribute to a strong visual identity, evoking emotions and atmospheres that enhance a project’s overall appeal. Additionally, the timeless nature of this method allows creations to maintain their visual appeal even as technology advances.

As the demand for diverse and unique visual styles continues to grow, cel-shading is likely to remain an important and influential way within the realms of computer graphics and animation. Its enduring appeal and adaptability across different media formats ensure that this style will continue to captivate audiences and inspire creators for years to come.