Credit: Unravel via Facebook.
For the entirety of video game history, a console’s ability to bring the worlds of its titles to life through graphical fidelity has long been considered an important benchmark on which to judge its overall merit. As the latest gaming systems, including the PS4 Pro and Xbox One S, achieve technological prowess at one time thought impossible, photorealistic graphics are now considered a necessity rather than an impressive bonus for the vast majority of triple-A, mainstream releases.
With graphically impressive but decidedly bland titles including the likes of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare dominating the video game charts, some critics argue that the art of video games, or video games as art, have been lost as developers instead look to flex their technological muscle.
Thankfully, however, due in a large part to the proliferation of digital game distribution service Steam, the gaming industry’s independent scene is burgeoning, with a veritable array of arty and abstract titles to suit each and every palate. Indie developers know they can’t compete with their triple-A juggernaut counterparts on a technology front and instead have been forced to innovate, in terms of their title’s gameplay, narratives, and graphics.
While the photorealistic browns and beiges of Call of Duty and Battlefield’s war zones may dominate the sales charts, there’s an underbelly of the video game industry that is dripping with color and vibrancy. With that in mind, today we’re taking a look at two of the most visually striking titles released in the last 12 months.
Abzû (PS4, XB1, PC)
The first title from Giant Squid, the studio founded by Flower and Journey art director Matt Nava, Abzû is an underwater adventure game that features an abstract, almost dream-like visual style. Much like Journey, the title does away with highly detailed textures in favour of flatter, stylized cel-shaded shapes. Abzû also features a rich and vibrant color palette, with the title’s flowy lines and impressive use of light and shadow transporting the player, who assumes the role of a scuba diver, into a psychedelic and beautiful reimagining of life under the sea.
There has been a trend over the past few years for developers to deliver these vibrant and atmospheric cel-shaded visuals, with games such as Firewatch, the aforementioned Journey and Bound all featuring a similar aesthetic. It’s not just conventional video games that are employing these sorts of visuals, either. As written by Bitcasino in their blog, the GameArt-developed slot game Thunder Bird also juxtaposes wildlife imagery with vibrant, cartoony graphics to achieve a minimalistic but nevertheless rich aesthetic. Thunder Bird is a five-reel, three-row slot based on the titular, mythical bird, and offers additional features including a tribal-themed multiplier, free spins and a gamble option – all of which are set against a mystical purple and blue landscape.
Unlike most modern titles, Abzû features very little in the way of active threat, instead offering players the chance to peacefully take in their rich, colour surroundings, interacting with ocean life including turtles, sharks and shoals of fish. It’s very much an “explore at your own pace” kind of game, and while it likely won’t appeal to those who prefer adrenaline and violence-filled action, Giant Squid’s debut is certainly an artistic marvel in its own right.
Unravel (PS4, XB1, PC)
Developed by Swedish indie studio Coldwood Interactive, Unravel is a puzzle-platformer that focuses on Yarny, a miniature-sized knitted protagonist, as he traverses a number of lush, real-world environments in search of his family. Unlike titles such as Abzû and Firewatch, which employ a consistent aesthetic throughout, Unravel juxtaposes the endearing animated character with stunning photorealistic backgrounds and obstacles to great effect.
Inspired by the picturesque nature of northern Scandinavia, Unravel’s environments showcase a stunningly pure world, with vibrant and rich colors representing all four seasons as the game progresses. Deep red autumn leaves fall from trees, pure white snow crunches underfoot and sunlight glistens through forest trees. Unravel is a beautifully rich game, and one of the most visually striking titles released in recent memory.
Of course, for all its visual achievements, the game would amount to very little if its gameplay failed to match the dizzying heights of its art style. Thankfully, Coldwood kept things simple and intuitive, with players being required to make use of Yarny’s ability to unravel himself to solve simple puzzles, such as creating a yarn bridge to cross a river, fashion a lift onto a passing kite or create a rope-swing to move onto the next section. Yarny’s diminutive stature and vulnerability are encapsulated perfectly in the limited abilities he is able to offer to players, and with a very lenient difficulty curve, you will have plenty of time to marvel at the beautiful world around you, likely blown away by Unravel’s simplistic but no less magnificent concept.
Which titles of the last 12 months do you think deserve to make our list as the most visually stunning? Let us know in the comments below.