VGC Day 23: But Is It Art?

Welcome back to our 30 day video game challenge! If you’d like to catch up with the other days, click here.


For too long, video games have been seen as a plaything, a toy, for children or child-like adults. But video games offer content that is culturally and socially relevant, like other art media. Furthermore…

I’m kidding. That’s a topic for an entirely different day. Today’s question asks:

Day 23: What game has the best graphics or art style?

Oh boy. I could talk for a long time about how different types of graphics lend themselves to different play styles, and discuss the problems that can come from trying to be “realistic” and missing the mark. What would follow would be a fun discussion of the “uncanny valley,” but I’ll save all that for a different day. Also for another day is the whole “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” discussion, especially when talking about artistic styles.

Image result for beauty in the eye of the beholder

I think this question was intended at face value: what game do you like looking because your eyeballs (and visual cortex…) enjoy it?

What Does It Mean to Have “Good Graphics” or a Nice “Art Style”?

I couldn’t stay away. For me, “good graphics” goes beyond how many pixels per inch and frame rates and all other things that I sound like a complete n00b when I’m forced to talk about them because of my complete disinterest. For me, the graphics or “art” of a game – which I’m frankly surprised were lumped together since I think in usual video game parlance they refer to different things – refers to the way the “stage is set” for the story. How does the artwork convey the feeling of the game? Does it portray the scene well? Does it help build or enrich the world we are asked to inhabit?

By looking beyond the numbers behind “good” graphics, this question is opened up to earlier games or games with less graphic capabilities.

Take Castlevania, for instance. This 8-bit classic has a great art style. The primary colors the artists used convey the starkness of the landscape. At the same time, the color schemes used make Simon, the main character, really pop out from the rest of the scenery. Considering the limitations of the NES, Castlevania does a great job using its graphics to not only convey a particular environment, but to also keep the blob of orange-ish pixels the most visible and eye-catching thing on the screen.

Image result for castlevania nes

Or, take a game like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I’m thinking of the translucency of the Spiritual Stones. They weren’t transparent and they weren’t opaque. You could see the gold through the stone, and even the scenery distorted through it. And this was done on a Nintendo 64.

Skip to around 4:20-ish

Courtesy iamiamkayla

Now I’m thinking about Zelda, so what about Wind Waker? The cartoonish graphics allowed link to be the most expressive he’s ever been, because it fit the style. Or my favorite, Twilight Princess, which had a darker art style, fit for the “shadow” themes within it?

Of course, as we get into later generations, we start seeing games like Okami, which is just a joy to look at and has one of the most unique art styles I’ve seen in a game. Additionally, the art is incorporated throughout the game, so the entire game is stylistically similar to the art style used, complementing the game’s world building and establishing the culture of the game. Plus, it’s just so pretty to look at.

Related image

Of course, once we get into games that are just nice to look at, we start getting to games like Breath of the Wild, which has a way of making the usually-powerful hero feel small and insignificant next to the wide world around him…

Image result for breath of the wild

…or Horizon: Zero Dawn, with its use of vibrant colors and up-to-date graphics to create a living, breathing world that is still just this side of the uncanny valley of realism…

Horizon Zero Dawn™_20170504205102

And then we have games like Mass Effect: Andromeda that, even after some rough starts with facial animations, still managed to give players an overall gorgeous experience…

Mass Effect™: Andromeda_20170412034727

Even a game like Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor uses colors and shadows to convey the darkness of war and death surrounding Middle Earth, and begins to hint at realism while still maintaining a feeling of Tolkien-esque fantasy.

Image result for shadow of mordor

There are so many different games that have great styles, so I’ll throw the question to you:

What does it mean to have good graphics or a good art style? Are they the same thing? What game do you think has the best graphics or art style? Let me know in the comments!

Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!
~ Athena


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22 comments

  1. The game that blew me away the most in terms of graphics was The Last Of Us; maybe an obvious choice. Not in terms of character animation – I actually kind of hate motion-capture in video games – but the environments in that game are jaw-dropping. I would spend half my time just panning the camera to soak in the broken down buildings and overgrown streets. I think that’s the best example of realistic graphics really hitting the mark.

    Before that, I think Jak & Daxter stands out (I don’t work for Naughty Dog, I promise) – their colour palette was so rich and vibrant, and it looked better than anything else at the time.

    Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on video game realism and the uncanny valley at some point in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve seen screenshots from The Last of Us, and they really are gorgeous! Like you alluded to, there are a lot of ways for games to have a nice art style and to “look nice,” even if the graphics aren’t completely realistic.

      And thanks! It’s in the works 🙂

      Like

  2. It’s quite subjective, but something that’s in keeping with the games tone and world are key. I could argue that Inside has poor graphics, but the art style is fantastic. The occasional splashes of colour pop when they’re on screen and the animations sell every single movement.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I definitely agree, and Inside is a great example of this.It doesn’t have the fanciest graphics, but the art style captures the mood of the game and the little color there is is that much more eye-catching and better able to highlight contrasts in the game.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. There’s definitely a difference between realistic graphics (like photo/video) and art style. Personally I’m crazy for all sorts of styles. To name a few I really enjoy visually of recent (to me) are Diary of a Spaceport Janitor, Rain World and Night in the Woods. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Okay, I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought lumping the two terms together was strange…

      I haven’t played those titles, but they look really cool. I like that they get away from some of the realism of the more recent AAA styles. There’s something to be said for experimenting with art styles, as they can each convey something different to a player.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. There was a tiny indie game called Unloop that I played recently. It was made by a team of 3 people in 10 days for a contest. I was astonished by how weird and wonderful the art style was, considering the limitations. It was set in a bleak darkened lab area, but the red lighting effects really popped out at me. The characters looked kind of Minecraft-Lego-ly, but it was so neat. So yeah, It’s hard to describe but I liked it, haha.

    I loved the look of the Spiritual Stones and the shiny Temple Medallions in Ocarina of Time! I was initially worried when I heard Wind Waker was going cartoony, but they did an amazing job with that style. And Horizon and Breath of the Wild are just wow! Most games are beautiful to watch these days, but I still enjoy the retro game look too. Graphics should never be more important than story/gameplay, but it’s nice when a developer hits a home run with everything 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve heard of Unloop but I haven’t seen too much about it. It sounds pretty cool though. It’s nice when the style matches or enhances gameplay. I think iplayedthegame wrote something up about it in March, too.

      Yeah technology has come a long way! But I figure it gives more options to devs because they have so many tools at their disposal. Hyper-realism is an option, but so is 8-bit, cell-shading, and so much more.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. When I first saw the graphics for Wind Waker, I was less than impressed, but now that I’m a bit older, I can understand why that aesthetic choice was made. The question of graphics doesn’t have a simple answer. I love what classic games did with their limited resources, and there are fond feelings for those simple pixels. Now that games can have lush, atmospheric backgrounds, I think a lot of game makers believe that can be a substitute for a good story/game, but I think that’s another conversation. Some of the best games have graphics that perfectly fit with what they’re going for. Zelda has always been stellar with matching the graphic/art style to what they’re trying to say. I’d say for this reason, there’s no way for me to name a game with the best graphics, because so many have the best graphics for what they’re doing, but I do love the aesthetic in Child of Light!

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  6. I think the both go hand in hand. Although I value art over the graphics, I think the graphics technology in the right hands make the art stand out way more. Look at Super Mario 3D World. At first glance, it’s a very simplistic looking game graphically. But combine it with full 1080p graphics, super crisp textures, super smooth looking character models and amazing use of colour, you have something that artistically looks great, but at the same time is pretty high tech I think.

    There’s a ton of games that take me visually, Mass Effect when it first came out, Super Metroid from back in the day. As you mentioned Okami. Wind Waker was especially impressive, given the controversy of the shift to cel shading, but then everyone being impressed by it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Graphics are definitely a great tool that can be used to enhance the art style. And I absolutely agree that “realistic” art styles are the only ones that are visually appealing; the games you cited are fantastic examples of this.

      I was one of the folks who wasn’t particularly pleased with the style of Wind Waker, but I definitely see its merits now, both story-wise and art-wise.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m guessing you are more looking for the style side of the argument here because while games with superior, photo-realistic visuals (like say Battlefield 1), they can often pale in comparison to strong art direction like in games like Journey, Firewatch, or Inside. But I do think there is a place for both depending on what the game is going for, for example Battlefield 1 would look wholly ridiculous if it had utilized an art style similar to Firewatch.

    For me personally, it often comes down to architecture and set design. A game like say, Bioshock has such well laid out areas and setting that you feel like you are in Rapture when playing it. I don’t think I can pick on game in particular to say is my favorite but some of my favorites over the last few gens would be Inside, Windwaker, Bioshock, Horizon Zero Dawn, Uncharted 4, Gears of War 3, and Sunset Overdrive.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m looking for however you’d like to interpret my questions! 🙂 Games that have a handle on “who” they are and what they want to look like always seem to have the best marriage of art style and graphics. Graphics seem to be more akin to fidelity – many pixels and all that. But the actual style can make or break a story, like you mentioned… Although I might play a cartoon version of Battlefield, it wouldn’t have the same impact as the way the game is presented now.

      BioShock is another game that does a fantastic job of world-building through its style. I love how varied your list of favorites is! What an illustration as to how different art styles (and different graphic capabilities) can create such memorable experiences!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. That’s a tough one. Wind Waker and Breath of the Wild have great visuals. So did Skyward Sword now that I think about it. And Okami’s most definitely beautiful! I think I’d have to choose Okami for its gorgeous Japanese style brush artwork. Such a joy to look at!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a great choice, and it certainly gets a few extra points for originality, as well! And of course the Zelda games you mentioned are nice to look at, as well (even though I’d also add Twilight Princess because I’m a horrible fangirl haha). But I’m completely on board with Okami’s art!!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Really cool question to consider. It’s hard not to jump to some sort of automatic response about how breathtaking Breath of the Wild is, but when I think past that, I think of how far special effects have come in movies, yet you still kinda pine for the old days. CGI Yoda might be able to do backflips and participate in lightsaber battles in EP II, but in Empire Strikes Back… That goddam thing is a puppet, it’s REAL(ly) THERE. And not to harp on and on with Star Wars references, but same thing for the space battles in the original films – cameras sweeping over miniature sets was a workaround to create the illusion of intergalactic warfare.

    What I’m getting at is similar to your points about Castlevania – in those early days, more had to be done with so much less. Creativity and innovation were needed to create illusions like, say, an epic horizon behind a sprawling mountain range in Rygar on the NES. Hell, even Breath of the Wild is basically an expansion of that feeling we all got from seeing the visuals of the original Zelda; “holy crap, this world is HUGE.”

    … I don’t know where I’m going with this tangent other than, as technically blown away I am with current-gen games, your question, combined with your points about Ocarina of Time and such, made me look further back than I thought I would. In any case, thanks for a great read! I’m a little late to discovering your stuff, but I hope to catch up soon!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello and welcome! Thanks for dropping by and commenting (and for the follow)! I’m glad you liked the article. This was one I sat and thought about for a long time, too, mostly because I was surprised that “graphics” and “art” seemed to be used interchangeably, and I had just had a huge discussion with a friend about how they were actually different things.

      I like your Star Wars examples, because it’s very true. Sometimes the creativity that must go into creating something large with limited tools creates a much more magical experience, because you can’t rely on “shock and awe” to convey your point. It needs to “feel” right, for want of a better word, and that’s what people will connect with at the end of the day. Even BotW doesn’t really go on forever, but it certainly feels like it, doesn’t it?

      You’re always welcome to ramble! I enjoy the conversation 🙂 Hope you find your way to some other articles you enjoy here, too!

      Liked by 1 person

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