A statement often disputed since the 80’s, video games as an art form has often been a controversial subject for some. Of course, nowadays it has been officially recognised, so surely there isn’t much to dispute, right?
Wellll that’s pretend that’s true, and just celebrate and bask within the beauty of a choice few games. Of course, there are hundreds upon hundreds of subjects for this list, which is entirely subject, so let’s quickly discuss what makes a game ‘artistic’.
Because, as with paintings, films, music and anything else you might consider Art, while there are millions of contributions, but not all of them can be considered ‘artistic’. Of course, we’re not here to go into a huge debate of what makes art (although that would probably give this article some sensibility) but the way I’ve always thought about it; Art is someone’s creation designed to illicit an emotion from those experiencing it.
Of course, there are many creations out there that are paintings, films and songs that are not designed to illicit an emotion, or just fail at it. That’s why I am celebrating just ten of all video games, not just how they look visually, but how the visuals help the general feel of the game, and how they make the player feel. I’ve also tried to avoid games that may have aged, because nostalgia makes every game look great.
So that’s enough preamble, let’s experience some art!
As famous for it’s rough development and post-release due to outspoken creator Phil Fish (If you haven’t already, you should definitely watch Indie Game: The Movie, it’s amazing) FEZ is a beautiful 2D platformer, albeit with 3D elements.
You play as Gomez, who comes into possession of a fez, which allows him to see his 2D world as 3D, opening up a world of possibilities and consciousness. And yes, if you’re thinking to yourself that that sounds like an allegory for the apple of Eden, well you’d be wrong, that’s a weird thing to think.
Phil Fish’s aim for this game, as described in Inide Game: The Movie (Seriously, go watch it, I’ll wait here) was to create a sense of wonderment and adventure, like how many of us felt when we were little nippers, exploring Hyrule or the Mushroom Kingdom for the first time, and even at the ripe-old-age of adult-who-barely-functions-like-one, it still achieves that expertly.
Fez is beautiful to look at and to listen to, and it’s sense of wonderment will have you feeling like a seven-year-old on Christmas morning again, and I think that’s a beautiful thing.
Of course, there had to be a Bethesda game here somewhere. Say what you will about them, but from Morrowind all the way to Fallout 4, this company knows immersion. At least until all of your saves get corrupted after pouring almost 30 hours into Fallout 4 after booking a week off work to play it and having to start it all again thanks Bethesda.
Because sure, alot of their games do look dated now, and were never really strong aspects to begin with, and there are completely infamous for their game breaking bugs and/or glitches, and sure Skyrim has been re-released about three or four times now, but rarely does a game ever feel the same, as a Bethesda game.
Some of you may wonder why I didn’t put, say, The Witcher 3, and well that’s just because I haven’t played The Witcher 3, although I am aware of how pretty it is and yes that I should play it. But just because they are often compared, doesn’t we should always, even if it is more current and maybe better looking.
The point of Skyrim is that you can carve your own adventure, and that sense of wonderment and adventure we talked about before is amplified by it’s style, because you are immersed because it looks like a world you want to get lost it, and with literally thousands of mods to enhance that further, there is plenty to appreciate here. But even without mods, I can still stand on top of the Throat of the World and just stare at the beautifully realised world beneath my Khajit feet.
I had deliberations between L.A Noire and Red Dead Redemption being on this list, and in the end it’s a tough choice. Both are beautifully realised worlds that transport you into a genre of film, and it’s the closest we can get into being in any of these worlds (At least until Westworld opens up for real).
The beauty in these games is that while other games allow you to be part of a new world in the sense of role playing, Rockstar games have the ability to transport you there. At first I was confused as to why L.A Noire even had an open world (aside from the fact it’s a Rockstar game) but upon reflection, it’s all about the world.
The post-war Los Angeles streets have been lovingly and carefully created to an almost authentic standard (I assume, I wasn’t around then) so that when you’re driving around this sandbox, you really feel like you’re in your own Noir film. That’s what L.A Noire really feels like during your first playthrough, your own story, and that’s something other games and certainly any film can’t replicate.
And yes, obviously the photo-realistic faces and motion captured animations don’t hurt it either. If you’ve ever wanted to be a slick, noir detective, L.A Noire is probably the closest you can get.
You may have loved the art-deco halls of Rapture, the way the beautiful architecture crumbled and fell was in beautiful contrast that personifies it’s dark journey through choice and will perfectly, and your brain may still be in pieces after that scene, but would you kindly look at Columbia?
From the second you breach the clouds, and that music soars, you’re hooked. The water-coloured pallet and the fantastic decor sells you to the city, and it’s steady decline from beautiful-racist paradise to war torn ruin is steady and mesmerising.
The beautiful world is one thing, but the world is filled with deep, relateable characters that sell this fantastic world, and that is something to celebrate.
Telltale’s The Walking Dead beauty isn’t in it’s visuals, although the stylistic use of cell-shading is certainly their trademark. It’s not even in the intense and emotional story that will sucker punch anyone who isn’t prepared. The Walking Dead popularised their use of meaningful choices, but is often met with criticism due to those choices, many complain that whatever choice you make, the ending is the same, and so the choices themselves are redundant. Those critics miss the point entirely.
As to be expected from many games before it though, the gamer mentality is purely to get from point A to point B, but that mentality is what makes you forget about what happens in between. That’s what The Walking Dead reminds us of, with it’s poignant story that’ll draw manly tears from even the hardest of gamers, is that the beginning and ending of these games is an inevitability, but what happens in between, is completely your own story.
The choices reflect not how the story plays out, but how you, controlling the lead character Lee Everitt, fits into the world. Small choices can have big impacts, or they can just change how a character sees you. The world built around these characters has been masterfully and lovingly done, in fact I tried to play a second play-through immediately after finishing the short game but this time as a bastard, being mean to everyone, just to see how the story played out, but I couldn’t bring myself to. I had spent 8 or so hours connecting with these characters like they were actual people, and the thought of being mean to Kenny or even Clementine was more than I could stomach. There are few games that allow you to connect with them on that level.
Metal Gear Solid is a series that continually revolutionises the games industry as we know it, and all games are excellent (At least until we get Metal Gear Survive. Thanks Konami) and should be celebrated, but MGS3 sticks out the most. With a better story than MGS2, more innovative than MGS, a better story than MGS5 and better callbacks to the series than MGS4, MGS3 is the ultimate entry to the series. And it all starts with the story.
As a series, MGS has dealt with some unique subjects that while not exclusive to the saga, have been done better here than most others; child soldiers, a cautionary tale of AI, and even fatalism. MGS3, at it’s heart, is a love story, between two soldiers, trapped between love and honour. Of course, there’s plenty of nuclear tanks and supernatural spider-people because this is a Hideo Kojima game, but it’s about the nature of war, and more importantly, the nature of soldiers.
Big Boss is, arguably, a more interesting and dynamic character than Solid Snake, and here we are taken to the unique setting of a Soviet Jungle, flipping the MGS formula on it’s head and favouring wide open spaces with plenty of colour, rather than cramped grey corridors. The world is beautifully realised, the jungle is enchanting but deadly, with hundreds of different flora and fauna to scavenge as a means for sustenance, and the open environments inciting plenty of different ways for experimentation and error.
And what ties it all together? The magnificent soundtrack. Obviously, I don’t have to mention the main theme, and I would still stand by my words, the music is tense and intriguing, but man, that theme song. I mean, we didn’t need a reminder that we are in a spy thriller set in the sixties, but boy am I glad they gave us one, and do I need to mention it’s perfect usage in the ladder section? Snake Eater is often regarded as a perfect game, and maybe that’s because we get to live out our James Bond/Spy fantasies, and we even get our own Bond theme. Perfect.
Possibly a biased choice due to the fact this is my favourite game ever, but 1) it deserves more love and 2) this was the first game that actually made me feel something, when it came out back in 2003.
Beyond Good & Evil, by the brains of Rayman, Michel Ancel, takes place on the planet of Hyllis-full of glowing-parasites and animal/human hybrids rendered in beautiful bouts of colour.
What is wonderful about BG&E (aside from everything) is it’s dynamic contrasts. You’ll go from fighting horrible monsters in dark caverns to exploring the city and settlements of Hyllis and talking to the charming pig or rhinoceros people. Nail biting stealth sections will give way to serene, calming animal photography in bright blue caverns. Epic rooftop chases from the antagonists will subside to racing in your hover-car as funky Latin-style rap plays.
But the beauty of the world and it’s amazing score-that I still listen to, on occasion-are only highlights, and it’s story is nothing short of an emotional, twisting sucker-punch. It will absorb you with it’s bright and colourful world and deep, interesting characters and then beat you over the head with floods of haunting, meaningful twists. Sure, I’ve been waiting about 14 years for a sequel, but now we’re getting a sweary-monkey-focused prequel? Please don’t screw this up Ubisoft..
When ever I now meet someone who says their interested in game design, I always make a point to bring up Oxenfree. A point and click adventure with an amazing voice cast (Kenny from The Walking Dead makes an appearance, so you now it’s gonna be good) that focuses on an almost-cliche story of five teenagers trapped on a haunted island, everything about Oxenfree works.
What you’ll notice first, is the amazing art style. Simplistic, like a watercolour painting, with an island that is as much as character as any of the aforementioned teens. Speaking of, the characters are without doubt, the best part of this game. They are dynamic, varied and funny, and each line combines perfect delivery with top-notch writing. It’s a fascinating and beautiful story told here, and you get to tell it.
Again, the focus here is on choice, and much like The Walking Dead, the choices centre on minute decisions and how they affect the cast. And there are so many choices to make. For 90% of the time, each time a character illicit a response, you’ll get three dialogue choices, and the choice to stay silent, and each of these will change the game somehow, even if it’s just what you find out about your friends or if you can even save them from the spooky-happenings.
It’s light, it’s fun, and it’s beautiful. A must play for anyone who loves choice, and as I said, for anyone who is interested in making their own Indie game, this will be a great inspiration.
Another obvious choice, but Shadow of the Colossus is a colossal (sorry) game, a landmark in the industry, and one that means alot to so many people.
Featuring one of the greatest soundtracks ever to grace a video game, and graphics that staggered even now, let alone twelve years ago. I think everyone can remember the first time they saw the first colossi ominously wandering towards them, the way the earth shuddered, the way that no matter how far we tilted the camera to follow it’s immense size, it felt like it just kept going. And from there, somehow, they got even bigger, or more intricate.
As if climbing these sentient mountains to the epic, sweeping score isn’t enough, the game also makes a point of question of why you would even kill these giants, and through barely a word spoken. When you first meet each of the colossi, they are just minding their own business, wandering the barren lands like colossal, rocky animals. Most of them are only dangerous because they are retaliating, but you’ve been told by a deity it will bring the girl back to life.
The first time you slay a colossi, is the first lesson you receive. As it’s expressionless face dies, and black tendrils enter the body of your character, you’re left in mystery, at first. But once the revelation that occurs at then end, every subsequent play-through presents a thoughtful look at the player’s motives between their actions, and there are not many games which dare to do that.
From the art-director of Journey, yet another game I could have put on this list, Abzu is sort of a walking simulator, except that, well, you swim. Not a word is mentioned throughout the game, and the only real text you’ll see is the game identifying one of the numerous species of underwater-fauna beautifully rendered within the ocean expanse.
Abzu is a gorgeous, gorgeous game, if a short one, if only a couple of hours long. As the mysterious diver, you’ll swim through different underwater zones, each with it’s own colour scheme and theme, and it tells a story that you’ll have to interpret for yourself.
As someone who is as equally terrified as they are intrigued by the deep ocean, I found Abzu beautifully affecting. Were anyone watching me play, would probably see I was smiling the entire time. You explore underwater caverns and even ruins, ride along with fish and discover some crazy species.
It’s the sense of wonderment that really sold me, each time entering a new area, looking at the new colours and species, eyes open for any danger while you’re still gawking at all the life-like animations. I can’t forget the first time I saw a silhouette of a humongous squid that continued to grow as I swam towards it, not knowing if it would wrap me up in those colossal tentacles or swim by peacefully.
It’s less of a game and more of an experience, although there is plenty to do here. It’s a limitless dive (literally) into the ocean, where you get to explore as much as you dare, and there is so much to explore. Abzu is a wonderful, relaxing and enchanting game, and if you haven’t picked it up yet, you owe it to yourself.
Thanks so much for reading my subjective list. If you liked it or hated it, or can think of a better substitute please let me know, and have a great day!