It takes a lot more than gripping gameplay and a fancy launch trailer to swing the majority vote in the awards these days. With triple-A’s constantly trying to one-up the next rival, it’s becoming more of a challenge trying to reel the player base in and hold the podium. Also, with the likes of stellar narratives and Hollywood voice casting, the bar only continues to be raised for each passing year. And yet, no game can really be considered perfect without an outstanding art design backing it.
Over the years, we have seen countless titles branch out and test the waters with brave new designs; some of which go on to amaze the audience, and others which sadly fall flat and become an eyesore. Of course, it’s finding that secret ingredient and balancing the palette which makes for a phenomenal piece of art. These five, unsurprisingly, have all earned the right to be commended for both impressive chemistry and art direction. And yes — we will definitely be coming back to throw another load onto the pile.
5. Ghost of Tsushima
When Assassin’s Creed passed up the opportunity to induct the renowned Samurai into their portfolio, Ghost of Tsushima sure managed to pick up the pieces and assemble a glass portrait fit for the Shogun himself. With an absolutely gorgeous landscape that lives, breathes and flows with your every movement; navigating the bitesize Japanese island becomes an experience in itself. As every meadow and village is so well equipped with individuality — no square mile ever feels monotonous or repetitive. Almost every piece of the world feels unique, and the violet creation surrounding you never fails to compliment the sunrise at your back. There’s a reason why Ghost of Tsushima won for best art direction at 2020’s Game Awards — and this was it. There is beauty in every corner — and enough sightseeing to last you a lifetime. Just try to leave room for the actual story.
Primarily focusing on a monochrome setting with splashes of blood red and wild yellows; Control narrows in on one palette and executes it wonderfully. With an impressive roster of characters that each represent much deeper stories than the average NPC, Control fills the playable world with intriguing lore and memorable encounters. The world flows effortlessly around you as you bend reality and make it your own, and every object as far as the eye can see can be manipulated in any way you see fit. Of course, this is nothing new when it comes to next-gen gaming, but Control manages to paint an incredible portrait that leaves your eyes forever wanting more.
3. Return of the Obra Dinn
Blending a 3-D two-tone art style with 1-bit graphics; Return of the Obra Dinn set out to achieve a minimalistic design with a combination of nailbiting plotlines and intriguing character development. Stemming from Lucas Pope, the one-man developer who produced 2013’s Papers, Please; Return of the Obra Dinn has just as much going for it as its sibling release. And, credit is definitely due to anyone who can deliver an award-winning masterpiece single-handedly. Even after four and a half years of development, Pope insisted on sticking to the same unique art concept and producing every element with his own two hands. Thankfully, it paid off when Return of the Obra Dinn won for best art direction in 2018.
2. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Apart from the visually stunning portrayal of Norse mythology; Senua’s Sacrifice ended up stealing the show on multiple fronts back in 2017. With a powerful yet incredibly tense narrative filled with cryptic messages and mind-bending paranoia, Hellblade turned out to be the physiological horror on most people’s bucket lists.
There is something deeply disturbing about the way the world whispers around you and keeps you from digging too deep. Every step feels a step too far, and every crooked branch or hanging silhouette idles like an army of stalking shadows. The world stands in anticipation of your every move, and it leaves us questioning the origins behind almost every object within reach. Of course, that’s the beauty of toying with psychological elements; they can leave us petrified if executed correctly. And, one thing’s for sure: Hellblade definitely leaves us terrified of our own shadows thanks to its persuasive design.
If you were to put a bunch of Willow Tree figurines in a shadowy pit and pull their strings — you’d pretty much have your own version of INSIDE. Although somewhat minimalistic in terms of colours, the Limbo brother manages to capture a beautiful essence of isolation with its variation of charcoal tones. With the protagonist backing a bold red tee and a canvas face, the hero is instantly recognisable and is quick to become renowned for his iconic appearance. But then, even with the centrepiece standing strong as the focal point to the indie-platformer, INSIDE still has some unique designs that, although rather similar in style — never feel overwhelmingly dull. Evidently, there is beauty behind the darkness, and INSIDE captures that in the most flawless degree.