The art direction in games has waxed and waned in importance over the years. Some games attract a lot of interest based, initially, almost entirely on their art style. Some games have basic, yet serviceable art styles and are lauded on their gameplay alone. In recent years there has been a massive rise in the retro-pixel art style, for better or for worse. I don’t see the attraction of it, myself, but it is not usually a barrier to entry for me.
Here I want to highlight some of the most intriguing and distinctive art styles that I have run across. Most of these I haven’t even played, but the art is what caught my eye, and has driven my interest in (eventually) playing them. Note that my choices do not reflect my opinion on the gameplay or story, just the art direction. I tried ranking my list, but as it is so subjective I couldn’t decide, here are some of my favourites in alphabetical order…
The Banner Saga
The art direction in The Banner Saga take me back to the cartoon heyday of the ’80’s, with animation and colour palettes inspired by the likes of He-Man. The thing that hooked me, though, was the epic feel of the journey portions of the game, where you lead your families ever onward, trudging through beautifully drawn landscapes. It really captured the mythology of the game, I thought.
Braid has a lush, painterly style that feels like you could take screenshots and make it into a children’s book from the early 20th century. I love the backgrounds, and the character and environmental designs evoke a sense of childlike wonder in me.
Another hand-drawn art style, I just love the Escher inspiration here. It makes the game feel more…artistic, I think, which adds to the enjoyment of an otherwise straightforward puzzler.
Initially I dismissed this game, but since it has exploded in popularity in this corner of the blogosphere, and I have seen many more screenshots and videos, I have come to be convinced that Darkest Dungeon is going to be a source of great enjoyment for me. The art style was the only thing that struck me intially, and as I have become more exposed to its dark, gritty, graphic novel atmosphere, I have warmed to it even more.
The most relaxing RTS you will ever play. A large part of this is due to the minimalist art style, with its soft colours and lack of clutter. This is not a busy game, visually. It is a soft, comforting, virtual eye massage.
The lack of colour in this game, along with the soft backlighting, is surprisingly effective in setting and maintaining the bleak ambience that pervades Limbo. It makes you constantly aware that this is a place you are not supposed to be, that finding your way out is a matter of necessity on some deep, primal level.
The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom
Another black and white game, this one manages to convey a markedly different vibe, through the use of early silver screen imagery, combined with late 19th/early 20th century comic influences. I love the way it channels a cross between Mary Poppins and Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton.
Rock of Ages
I guess it was bound to happen eventually, but I am glad that when a game finally used the Monty Python method of classical art animation, they did it as thoroughly, as faithfully, and as creatively as they did in Rock of Ages. The art direction really emphasizes the fun and silliness of the game, and I don’t think I would have enjoyed it nearly as much with a more “traditional” graphic style.
I will give a shout out to this game’s precursor, Bastion, for they share a lot in the art department. But I think Transistor has the more interesting style, with a subtle anime influence and a dark, cyberpunk atmosphere.
Which games have hooked you with their art direction, either because it stood out as different or because it was so well executed?