Sunday, December 18, 2011

Best of 2011 - art direction.

Art direction is a wonderful equalizer. We can be stunned by the lowliest of downloadable games, and discover we care a lot less about shoddy overall presentation when a game is regularly surprising, creative and seductive with its scenery, characters and even clothing. In the best examples, though, technology and art operate hand-in hand - offering awe-inspiring sights we could have never imagined without the guiding hand of the artist.

These are the most beautiful games of 2011.


Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet.
Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception
Batman: Arkham City
inFamous 2

honorable mentions

Alice is never less than a feast for the eyes - splashed with primary color and constantly thrilling.

From your weird weapons to the phantasmagoric foes you wield them against, this game is a never-ending assault of wild imagination, loosed from its chains and set free. The environments are constantly gorgeous and dense with detail, skylines are dappled with beautiful, inventive touches - and you find one of the things you're most looking forward to as you enter a new world of Wonderland is what insanely dramatic, conservatively-cut dress Alice will be sporting this time.

Dead Space 2 offers a science fiction world that's at once entirely unique and eerily familiar. Echoes of cinema sci-fi horror are everywhere, and subtle nods to Alien, Blade Runner and Event Horizon offer both a comfortable palette to draw from and subconscious whispers of terrors to come.

As in Dead Space, one of the most compelling characters in the game is the world itself - a living, moving, thrashing, glistening, glowing and occasionally, disturbingly peaceful vision of what may have been a very bright future, before someone hit the lights.


It's rare that a game manages to be aesthetically beautiful while courting a kind of realism, and only the best of the best pull it off. Skyrim is a sterling example of a title that posits an immersive, fleshed-out reality that is at once familiar and otherworldly.

So much of Skyrim is grounded in a natural, organic realism that its regular flourishes of fantasy pop with infinitely more immersion and substance. When you look up at a thousand-foot mountain, roiling mist clinging to its jagged edges, it's almost impossible not to accept this world on an unconscious level. It is packed tight with items, enemies and animals that sell its reality - which allows you to maintain a beautiful suspension of disbelief when a dragon smacks into the ground in front of you, or you pick up a sword forged of green glass, or you find yourself creeping through an ancient, abandoned subterranean metropolis.

Those mountains exist. Those butterflies fly just like ones I've seen with my own eyes. If those mountains and those butterflies exist, this three-eyed frost troll must exist too. Combine this with Skyrim's ridiculous amount of content and the remarkable variety of natural beauty and fantasy architecture you find yourself wandering through, and Bethesda's latest magnum opus is almost peerless.


best art direction

of 2011

Dark Souls has the best art direction of 2011 - not simply due to its exemplary visual design, but thanks to the incredible effect it has on the player.

Unconstrained by a Bethesda-like attempt at a visual recreation of reality, it achieves a similar sense of believability through the startling, weighty physicality of the player's character, and the weirdly authentic physics that govern its melee combat. Having settled that, From Software were able to get down to the business of rendering a remarkable vision of sweeping, dark fantasy.

If Skyrim creates a world designed to look both real and fantastical - a comfortable place for a generation of adult gamers who enjoyed Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings and G.R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones - Dark Souls concerns itself more with an intangible feeling you won't recognize until you find yourself subjected to it.

The game is regularly beautiful, not due to technical wizardry (Uncharted 3) or occasional near photo-realism (Skyrim), but thanks to developers who were able to bend their reasonable but unremarkable mastery of current-gen consoles to a focused, precise vision of gothic fantasy that gets right under your skin.

Here, the artists were free to let their imaginations roam to a dark world that echoes the fantasy landscapes we only ever saw in our dreams as children, while our parents read us stories of brave knights, evil monsters, ancient ruins and insane cities. As whippersnappers, we lived in those worlds, curled up on couches or safe in bed, regularly drifting from rapt attention to that ethereal, barely-conscious place that loomed before the sandman took us away - so we could continue exploring in our dreams.

The fantasy worlds we wandered in our larval forms were never crystal-clear - they were swirling miasmas of details we were sure of, and an eerie fog obscuring the minutiae beyond - breeding a feeling of joyous discovery and uneasy trepidation of what unimaginable things lay in wait, just past the doors of our understanding.

That is what Dark Souls feels like, thanks in large part to its spectacular, inventive and strangely familiar visual design.

There is a curious romance permeating Dark Souls. Where it's not overgrown by ancient flora, the world is almost entirely dead or dying - making occasional encounters with living human beings all the more startling. Instead of being dense with detail, Lordran is painted in broad strokes. Gaps in narrative and visual explanation abound, and nothing can fill them save the player's imagination.

The ancient kingdom of Lordran is populated almost entirely with nightmare creatures - from standard, easily-digestible skeletal warriors to mind-flaying creations that seem to have clawed their way through from R'lyeh. Its architecture is both classic European gothic and a confident, inspired exploration of what could be - what, in fact, existed beyond that obscuring haze we viewed these worlds through as children.

The enemies, the characters, the world, the lighting... Dark Souls is a visual masterwork. It begins with the simple, the understandable - a castle populated with undead soldiers - and as you walk its dim halls, the layers are slowly peeled back until you find yourself comfortably negotiating a knee-deep swamp (which is slowly poisoning you) a mile beneath the long-lifeless urban sprawl of a forgotten city, thick with shit monsters, giant leeches and infuriating mosquitoes, slogging your way towards the domain of a chaos witch whose torso grows from the head of a colossal, lava-belching demon spider.

Just another day in Lordran. Best art direction of the year.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful. I have to agree with your picks - some excellent art direction on display in this year's top titles. This and storytelling are the areas where games will continue make great strides in the near future.