If you have followed my blog for any amount of time, you have probably picked up on the fact that I love art in games. That’s because, depending on the game, it’s like you are playing through a painting. You are fully immersing yourself in someone else’s artwork and seeing how it intertwines with the themes and gameplay is a joy to see.
Having recently played through Sable again, I couldn’t help but marvel at how much the art style does to make that game continue to be engaging throughout the player’s expedition through its sandy planet.
That’s when I got to thinking what other games where the art was just as important to me. What art styles made me stop and say “whoa, this is magnificent.” So I made a list of the ones that have stuck in my mind over the years. Come with me and let’s peruse some of the best art styles in gaming today.
I’ve talked about it profusely but the art in Sable is phenomenal. The world was created to be explored and making it something reminiscent of French artist Jean Giraud’s (Moebius) artwork is just a perfect pairing. Giraud imbues his work with surreal otherworldly images that once you see them, feel right at home on a planet exploring adventure.
Sable uses the aesthetic and even some direct examples of his work to create its scenes. There is a prominent mask statue that shows up periodically throughout the game and this is directly from a Moebius scene.
It makes this journey feel all the more memorable to the player too. Choosing a more mainstream art style like realism might have made this game feel bland and forgettable in the long run. By choosing to use Giraud’s work as inspiration, the developers were not only using it as a jumping-off point for their themes but creating a more memorable experience for the player.
Noir uses light and shadow to emphasize the dynamics between good, evil, and the conflict of both within characters. The developers of Genesis Noir wanted to create a space noir story based off of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics. However, they chose to wrap these elements around an internet video by Buck called “Umbro Blackout.”
The piece uses a lot of the techniques that the final game of Genesis Noir will use such as the smooth transitions to new scenes, white lines to create the objects in a black space, and using direct scenes as inspiration.
All of these elements combine together to create a very unique experience that, while not the most entertaining game, is one of the best visually and thematically.
I was blown away by Cuphead’s animation reveal. It was using an art and animation style that was reminiscent of the original Disney cartoons with stuff like ‘Steam Boat Willy.”
This combined with its watercolor aesthetic makes it a very unique-looking game. The bombastic animation helps to translate to some very expressive characters that make them feel like they have more personality than the typical side scroller with text-based cut scenes.
The game centers around boss fights, so there isn’t a lot of exposition or exploring the worlds. Cuphead’s world is expressed through its art, and Cuphead nails the presentation here. Seeing the bosses in all their fiery is so entertaining with this art style, and it makes me wish that we were able to see more of this kind of aesthetic, but I understand that it takes an incredible amount of time to get it done correctly.
Limbo was a standout back in the days of Summer of Arcade on the Xbox 360. These were the days where indie games were just beginning to shine on a console marketplace, and Limbo immediately garnered headlines due to its unique art style.
The game uses shadow to accentuate the isolation of the boy as he wanders through the dark settings. The dark silhouettes of the enemies, objects of interest, and landmarks give everything an extra eerie feel and make it seem like you are struggling to see in the dark.
I say struggling because, once you understand the next objective, it becomes obvious where everything is. Like the box that needs to be moved. You might think that it isn’t important that blocky black space, but then you notice you need to progress by finding a boost up, and it becomes clear.
Okami is inspired by traditional Japanese watercolor and wood carving art called Ukiyo-e. As this is an Eastern game that deals with the themes and traditions of that region, it’s very appropriate. Okami uses a bunch of Japanese mythologies to fill its world, so it’s more than appropriate that such a traditional style would be used for its visuals.
It’s almost a celebration of the traditions, and the developers went as far as to allow the player to participate in the art creation themselves by allowing the player to make ink wash art through the combat and puzzles.
While this style has been used in a few other games, the style is most appropriately used in Okami and makes it feel like it’s trying to at least make the player appreciation the traditions rather than making it just window washing.
Journey’s art style isn’t as easy to pin down because what it does best is how it chooses to emphasize the light. The entire point of Journey is to cross a desert and climb a mountain for the end of the adventure.
The light that spills through ruined pillars and over sand dunes helps to show the beauty of this desolate land. You are living for these moments in this cross country expedition, and they help to stick specific moments in the player’s mind when they finally do reach the end.
I still think back to the moment when I was sliding down the sand in some ruins, a stranger had joined in, and we were zig-zagging between one another as the light spilled across us. Making each of us pronounced as we zigged and zagged. It‘s nothing mind-blowing, but it made the moment extra special that I still remember it all these years later and wonder how that stranger is doing.
For me, a world needs to be interesting for me to want to explore it thoroughly, especially if that world is difficult to traverse. Hollow Knight managed to keep me in its clutches until I was able to master its mechanics because of how beautiful it was.
The melancholy feeling of the lost kingdom of Hollownest has a tragic beauty to it. From the rainy steps to the entrance of the kingdom to the darkest depths of the nest, there is just so much to see and experience.
I fought not to liberate the Hollow Knight but to feast my eyes on everything that Hollownest had to offer me. That may not be the noblest answer, but I saved the knight eventually, so I think it all works out. Hollow Knight could also feel like a Studio Ghibli movie at times with an emphasis on nature and secret worlds. Just my kind of final aesthetic.
Ori and the Blind Forest
Ori and the Blind Forest left me with my jaw on the table throughout most of the gameplay. Ori prances through the forests so quickly and efficiently, and you would think that the background might be simple to match the speed.
No. They are beautiful and almost make you want to stop to soak them all in, but the game says, “no, you need to keep going.” Some of the most beautiful scenes in the game won’t let stand still for a second, like in the Ginso Tree escape.
Here, the tree is beginning to flood with water, so Ori needs to hightail it to the top to escape, but the water effects juxtaposed with the moss of the tree just looks so good. I think this does play back into the themes of Ori, though. It’s about returning to the original state of nature, and nature doesn’t care if you want to gaze at it or not. It’s going to live as violently as it pleases, and you better not get in its way.
Everyone talks about Psychonauts for its level design, themes, and characters, but I feel like we don’t appreciate the art itself nearly as much as we should. The style itself is like if Tim Burton made a children’s movie, especially in the first entry in the series. Assets use odd angles and asymmetry to give characters and environments a stranger appearance.
The second game retains this overall aesthetic but begins to implement additional styles on top of them like 60s hippie rock, Las Vegas casinos, and even a dash of Disney. It’s a fulfilling experience to play through these games, and everyone should give at least one of them a chance. I would actually love to see Tim Burton-directed Psychonauts film (with Tim Schafer involved, of course).
The Legend of Zelda: Wind waker
The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker initially came as a great disappointment to players when it was finally shown off. The “kiddy” graphics that people saw with its cel-shaded environments and childlike appearances of the characters made it come off like it was made for children.
Which, of course, it was, but people had been wanting a more realistic Zelda for years and had hoped this would finally be it. Ironically, Wind Waker had continued to gain in popularity post-launch and has aged extremely well due to the artistic style that the developers chose to develop the game in.
The cell-shaded style proves to hold up generation after generation compared to a more realistic style like Twilight Princess tried to do. Zelda is a franchise that is revisited frequently by its fans, so having a style that can stand the test of time is appropriate for such a timeless franchise.
2 thoughts on “Top Ten Art Styles in Gaming”
Some great picks! Another one you might enjoy is Gris, which has a stunning art style and colour palette.
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Gris is beautiful. I’d love to see more done with its style actually
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