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Weekend Hot Topic, part 1: the best art design in video games

Readers discuss the games with the most distinctive and interesting graphics, from Ōkami to killer7.

The subject for this week’s Hot Topic was suggested by reader Purple Ranger, and asked how important a game’s art style is to you and whether it alone is enough to get you interested in a game – or put you off one.

Despite a high number of entries some familiar names came up again and again, with Dishonored, Zelda: The Wind Waker, and Ōkami all lauded for their timeless visuals.

Respected at last
For me, this is a bit of a no-brainer. The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker.

The marvellous cel-shaded visuals caused a ruction at the time of the game’s release, by virtue of not being the realistic looking game that fans wanted and looking like a child’s cartoon; not realising that was exactly what Nintendo wanted, and you wanted it too, but they were too early to market. A bit like when Ultimate Play The Game held Knight Lore back in the ZX Spectrum days because the market wasn’t ready for it.

Nowadays, resplendent in its Wii U high definition visuals, it is acknowledged, rightfully, as the design classic it should always have been. The animation, character design and game world still look stunning, even today, and, whilst the gameplay may have some faults, I defy anyone to not sit down and marvel at something that even Disney would be jealous of.

As a piece of art, it is superb and it’s quite telling that its nearest competitor, Ōkami, fearlessly copies the design, and is also all the more wonderful for it.

Artistic priorities
Little Nightmares 2 immediately springs to mind when I think of impressive art design. Yes, it wears some of its influences on its sleeve (cinematic cues from Delicatessen/City of Lost Children and a slight whiff of Limbo/Inside) but the aesthetic is still so confident and cohesive: texture work, lighting, character design… all exceptional. It creates a real sense of place – claustrophobic, eerie, intriguing (Also: Bloodborne. Such a powerful vision).

Although I’ve always considered myself a bit of a purist in terms of the importance of gameplay versus any artistic/visual merit, as I’ve got older I’ve become more concerned with the atmosphere a game evokes. When I saw the first trailer for Deathloop I loathed the art direction: it just didn’t resonate like Dishonored did. Regardless of the depth of its gameplay and design, that’s an issue for me these days. I’ve got to want to be there.

Post-apocalyptic detail
I know opinions are divided on the gameplay but the Fallout series just does it for me in general (including 76), in particular the art style. Surely anyone, including haters, can give the art dept. kudos for their work? There is so much detail put into each game that it is just staggering to me.

I also want to include Half-Life: Alyx as my also ran for my top spot. Recently finished and miss the beauty of the world so much I’m starting on the mods and full replay on harder difficulty.

Great read every day as always, thanks GC.
PS: Separate subject but while I’m here, any news on Playdate release or is it in COVID limbo?

GC: It does seem to be. The last major update was in October but the Twitter account suggests everything is ticking along.

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Work of art
The art design of Dishonored really added to the atmosphere of the world you were sneaking or murdering your way through! Although I didn’t care much for the character designs, they were generally a bit weird looking and ugly!

Although not original (Ōkami did it first!) the idea of having a lack of colour in the world of The Saboteur, again, really added to the atmosphere. You could really feel the oppression in the areas that you hadn’t yet managed to inspire the people to fight back in.

Lastly, I’ve been playing some older games recently and I really admire all the work that has gone into the environments of the first Devil May Cry and Resident Evil 4.

All of Devil May Cry’s island has such personality, certainly so much more than the frankly dull environments from Devil May Cry 5!

I’m in the castle at the moment in Resident Evil 4 and despite the fact I’ve played this game so many times it still blows me away, not with just the brilliant gameplay but with how great art design again adds such atmosphere and personality! So much work has gone into the environments, some of them you’re not even in for long, like the lava room with those mechanical dragon contraptions that breathe fire at you!

Uniquely different
Ecco The Dolphin on the Mega Drive had a unique and interesting game world; the original Abe’s Odyssey on PS1 had beautiful atmospheric hand-drawn backgrounds, that drew you completely into the world.

Killer7, Ico, Shadow Of The Colossus, The Last Of Us, Limbo, The Last Guardian, Horizon Zero Dawn, God Of War, there are so many great games out there with fantastic art design.

GC: Abe’s Odyssey’s backgrounds were pre-rendered. Killer7 is a good call though.

Characterful world
Good Hot Topic. Art design is, in my opinion, one of the most important aspects in video game development. You know when it’s good, because the world/level becomes a character in its own right.

Dark Souls is a fantastic example. Lordran feels like it’s slowly dying, there’s an oppressive atmosphere throughout, and then surprising moments that take your breath away, such as Ash Lake.

I also really liked Metroid Prime’s art design. Tallon IV was a joy to explore. In fact, Super Metroid had me feeling the same way. If we’re thinking back to SNES games, then I always admired Super Castlevania 4 for both the art design and the score.

I’m sure Bioshock will receive numerous mentions, and rightly so. I’ll also highlight Firewatch. More recently, Zelda: Breath Of The Wild has stood out to me as having fantastic art design.

Celestial brushstrokes
In my mind, the game that best encapsulates this week’s Hot Topic is the beautiful design of Ōkami. The distinctive sumi-e style, linear ink brush quality featuring in all aspects of the environmental and character design really added to the immersive feel of the mythology and wider world of the game itself. The way the in-game brush mechanics cleverly tied into this style (albeit frustratingly for some) helped to make the style of the game greater than just an aesthetic choice, it became a key part of the gameplay experience.

I feel there is also a timelessness to the style, that belies the technical limitations of the time of its release, allowing it to still feel impressive and visually distinctive when compared to some of the games from the modern era. The visual quality of the game certainly piqued my interest before I had even seen the game in action and solidified the title as an eager must-have.

I think visual distinctiveness plays a hugely important role in the extent to which I might form an initial interest in a game. Perhaps I’m more vulnerable to the visual sparkle of this distinctiveness, as someone working within the creative sector, constantly scanning for the next quirky and unique thing to inspire my own work. Or perhaps it’s born out of the excitement that other choices exist outside of the (mostly), green, grey and brown colour palettes that used to monopolise game design.

Whatever, it is certainly key to my decision making, sometimes even over gameplay concerns. Disco Elysium would be a good, recent example of this. It was a game I was really excited to experience because of its strong, visual aesthetic, without really considering if it would be the kind of game I might enjoy or not (sadly, not, as it happened!). But the visuals were certainly very cool!

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The small print
New Inbox updates appear every weekday morning, with special Hot Topic Inboxes at the weekend. Readers’ letters are used on merit and may be edited for length and content.

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