Not necessarily to be confused with graphics or overall production values. For example...
Nobody could accuse Lollipop Chainsaw of advancing the industry's visual tech - in fact, most of the time, this game is downright ugly - but it's also a title so punctuated by moments, screens, images of inspired visual design I would be loath to ignore it, here.
From the simple, iconic cheerleader silhouette of Juliet herself to the poppy menu designs to the gleeful grin on her face as she obliterates the living dead, Lollipop Chainsaw may falter in the broad strokes, but it gets the details so right - all coming to a head when Juliet lands one of her trademark chainsaw blows, and the world explodes into fireworks and hot pink neon hearts.
Origins' phenomenal production values - slickly animated, gorgeously detailed sprites bouncing around lushly hand-drawn environments - combined with its manic creativity make it a visual treat on all levels. It's a constantly-rotating roster of inventive visual delights, boasting scale, grandeur, humor and excessive cuteness - and I must admit, those fairies are hot.
As a general rule, my hat is never tipped towards the art direction of a game that takes place in a real or familiar-looking world - unless it was developed by Naughty Dog - but Io Interactive's 2012 return to what they do best is a wonderful exception to the rule.
With some of the slickest production values of the year, Hitman: Absolution is a merry-go-round of stunningly detailed, picturesque environments - always designed with the most dramatic lighting and the punchiest colors - brought to life with the developer's sweet new engine.
For a game set in the real-world to get a nod in this category, you've got to have something quite special - and Hitman's got it in spades. It's gorgeous.
Lately it feels like games all too rarely allow us the opportunity to explore an original, detailed world - but Dishonored goes a long way to sating the gamer's desire to sniff out every nook and cranny. The plague-ridden metropolis of Dunwall feels like the dirty and distressed illegitimate child Thief's steampunk city had with Rapture, hiding characters and side stories in the minutae while offering grand, striking vistas and cool creativity in the details.
A society's industrial revolution entirely supported by the heavily volatile oil of weird whiskered whales... I only wish there'd been more of it to see.
Honestly - no one else was disappointed we never got to see one of those whales up close?
ThatGameCompany's Journey is 2012's second-best example of a game that achieves a lot with very little, in the visuals. The game's evolving color palette and repeated use of dense, almost cell-shaded tones allow the entire game to look less like a game than an animated piece of concept art. I'm no huge fan of Journey's gameplay, but it's hard to knock its presentation - Journey's music and art direction handily set it apart.
You'll just have to take my word that Gravity Rush's art direction, which sees distant landscapes rendered in breezy line art with deeper tones for closer objects and finally textures on nearby buildings and civilians - made it the most-gawked-at game on the Vita in 2012. Even more than the graphical powerhouse of Uncharted: Golden Abyss or the deliriously delicious sprites of Rayman, Gravity Rush is the one Vita game I never tire of marveling at, as it flies past at terminal velocity.
Mark of the Ninja is a visual powerhouse in all the ways you expect from the folks who made Shank and Shank 2, but one that ups the ante across the board and brings my expectations of the developer to a whole new level.
Yes, the game is constructed entirely with hand-painted backgrounds, awash with cool lighting and atmospheric effects:
Yes, the sprites are gorgeous - and gorgeously, liquidly animated:
And yes, a game that's simply 2D and gorgeous is cause for celebration. Mark of the Ninja goes a step beyond Klei's other works with dutiful attention paid to all aspects of its presentation, from the ultra-slick animations of your hero to the beautiful hand-drawn vistas that make up the level select.
Beyond that, its visuals - and little touches like a blurred fog of war when your line of sight is broken - are directly tied to the game's super-sexy stealth mechanics.
Light and dark, sight and sound, Mark of the Ninja is a gorgeous 2D stealth-platformer that manages in both form and function to look unlike anything else you've ever seen, while maintaining a level of accessibility and intuitive understanding that many games abandon, when attempting a striking art style.
Gorgeous from the first lush frame to the ultimate stark finale, Mark of the Ninja is a uniquely beautiful game where part of the beauty is directly responsible for some of the best gameplay of the year.
Can't really ask for more than that. Unless...
best art direction
Fortunately, Ōkami HD did come out in 2012, and it hands-down represents the best art direction of the year. Above, I've mentioned games that do a wonderful job of world-building. Games that do a great deal visually with very little in terms of processing power. Games with lush animation and jazzy character designs, bursting at the seams with color.
Ōkami HD does all of that in a fashion that is best described as inspired.
Ōkami HD takes place in a chibi version of Japan, stuffed full of characters and stories drawn from Shinto folk tales. Back in the olden days - back when these tales were first being told, when the Shinto religion was taking shape - popular art was made available through the use of wood block prints or custom ink wash paintings.
...so they made the entire game look like a living wood block print. Mmm. A moving sumi-e painting.
It's all bold, thick, heavy lines and dreamy forest-scapes. It's all swooping calligraphy lines, gentle breezes drawn through the frame, carrying cherry blossom petals along for the ride.
In Ōkami HD, your shadow is a single, chunky blot of ink. First the world informs the art style, then the art style informs the game's mechanics.
|One of several boss designs. This one is a crazy hands-spider-lady-thing with a thorax that looks like a giant flower.|
Cause, y'know. Japan.
Ōkami HD solves the classic Zelda-like game conundrum of managing a growing inventory of puzzle-solving abilities in suitably brilliant fashion - your magical powers in the game are performed using the Celestial Brush - a mechanic which sees you freezing the 3D world on display and viewing it as a 2D block print, before painting your will into the world.
A horizontal slash for a brutal cut. A circle in the sky calls out the Sun, while a crescent brings nightfall and a sharp moon. You can call lightning, you can summon fire, you can freeze time - all with a few quick strokes of a virtual calligraphy brush. If an NPC is giving you guff, just splatter them with ink to ruin their day.
Like Mark of the Ninja, Ōkami HD's mechanics are directly tied to the game's artistic choices, but here the effect of the visuals is so far-reaching and so broad that it permeates the experience with a certain je ne sais quoi that's rather unmatched, elsewhere.
The entire game ends up feeling both like a breezy, cheerful fairy tale and its dark cousin. It's stuffed full of charming characters, grand vistas, explosions of color and thoughtful little touches - setting a tone that permeates the gamer's experience with... optimism.
"There's so much heart in it, so much loving attention, so much life. It captures everything I want in an adventure title, and offers touches I never would have thought to request.
Video games can be regarded as a meditation on the subject matter. You are what you think, and more often than not, games require you to think on violence or evil or darkness for a few hours. Ōkami, in contrast, is unabashedly optimistic, and it's a welcome refreshment to sit down and think on goodness, for goodness' sake."
-from the review (of Ōkami's PS2 version)-
Ōkami HD's art direction - blooming as it does from the game's narrative, tied so closely to its inspiration, informing the very mechanics of the game itself - is utterly remarkable, in this year or any other.
It is constantly, breathtakingly beautiful - besting any full-release triple-A game in 2012 for pure, stunning gorgeousness - and constantly surprising, constantly inventive over its thirty-hour running time.
Artistically, visually, creatively, effectively - Ōkami HD is in a class by itself. In 2012 or any other year.