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Lookin’ good: video game visuals

Do you prefer realistic graphics or a unique art-style in your video games? That was the question posed to the community back at the beginning of July by Brandon from That Green Dude. It’s a bit of a difficult one to answer due to the sheer amount of choice we have available to us: advancements in technology mean we no longer have to put up with a simple sprite and can instead take our pick from retro graphics, hand-drawn animations and photorealism.

Everybody has a preference of course, and I’d say mine lies with pixel-art due in part to my age and nostalgia. My fondest memories of gaming while growing up primarily involve classic adventures such as The Secret of Monkey Island, Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars and Simon the Sorcerer; titles depicted in only a low resolution and 256 colours. Playing modern titles with a similar aesthetic still brings back that same sense of excitement and wonder that I felt as a child.

The Secret of Monkey Island, video game, ghost, pirates, LeChuck, Guybrush Threepwood, root beer, grog machine, Stan's Previously Owned Vessels, boatyard

There’s something about a developer adopting this type of visual style that’s quite brave, despite some gamers believing it’s ‘easy’. There’s a chance for their whole game to fall flat if the story isn’t perfect; the plot needs to be one which inspires the player’s imagination and encourages them to fill in the blanks between the pixels on screen. It’s the power of the mind’s eye which takes Guybrush from a blocky Deluxe Paint character to a young, blonde wannabe pirate.

As much as I love the pixelated style of the adventure classics however, there’s something magical about the photorealistic art used in today’s games too. Take Horizon Zero Dawn for example – one of the best releases of last year. Everything in the title has been fine-tuned to make it look as awesome as possible and around 80% of the natural landscape is procedurally-generated. According to Naughty Dog’s creative director, it was ‘simply stunning’ and set a new bar for graphics.

I spent so many hours both playing it and messing around with its photo-mode. It’s the small things that make it so special: the way Aloy’s hair ruffles when the wind catches it and how she hugs herself as she’s battered by rain. The mechanical beasts that interact with their herd while casually grazing, then limp and spark when wounded. The huge open vistas full of mountains and sunsets but smaller details such as tiny tree ants too, if you take the time to look closely enough.

Horizon Zero Dawn, video game, woman, warrior, Aloy, mountains, sky, photo mode, clouds

But would Horizon work so well if it was depicted in pixels of 256 colours? Definitely not. We want to see all that detail in Aloy’s metal foes as we go into battle against them because they’re so far removed from everything we know in the real world. And would Monkey Island have captured my imagination as much as it did if it was photorealistic? No again – because Guybrush would be someone else’s creation and not the pirate I see in my head.

It’s important for the graphics of any video game to be in-tune with the developer’s vision for their project and suit the gameplay. If all aspects aren’t in sync and don’t work together in harmony, they’ll never come together in a coherent form to create an awesome experience. The player is a the tourist in a game’s foreign lands and, just as with our adventures in the real world, each place we’ve visited conjures up a unique image in our minds that is wholly its own.

Thank you to Brandon for being the inspiration for this post – I’m sure there’ll be more questions from him in the future! Now, what’s your visual preference?

28 thoughts on “Lookin’ good: video game visuals Leave a comment

  1. The great thing about our current time is that we have the choice from ultra realistic graphics to 1985’s 8-bit pixels. I think it’s great that we can switch between those. If we’d only get games in these beautifully realistic graphics like in Horizon Zero Dawn, we’d get bored of them. The variety is what makes it fun. Do I feel like playing the realistically looking Metal Gear Solid or the artistically crafted Okami? Whatever you’re mood is, there’s a video game waiting for you.

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    • Yeah, that’s a really good point. As much as Horizon is an extremely beautiful game, those visuals would end up becoming really boring if they were the only type we had available to us! It’ll be interesting to see where the next level of graphics takes us…

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  2. I’m not really sure the best way to describe what I like, but I think it’s more atmosphere and the whole feel of the game – visuals included, that make me love it.
    Hollow Knight is a fantastic looking game, but it’s not that it’s all super detailed, but it has a flair and style that suits the game so well.
    Firewatch aesthetically, ticks all the boxes for me.
    But games like Star Wars Battlefront have jaw dropping visuals.

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    • Oh yeah, Firewatch is lovely isn’t it? It’s not photorealistic but contains all the details you need and you know exactly what title it is as soon as you see a screenshot. Campo Santo’s upcoming game looks just as soon – looking forward to that one.

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  3. I like a REALLY well done pixel art style game, but I think it comes down to animation rather than the artwork itself. I played The Long Reach recently which has fantastic animations for its pixel art style, so every character looks genuine and interesting regardless of what they’re doing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I must admit, I hadn’t considered animations as part of the answer to Brandon’s question but it’s a very good point. The artwork can be great but if it isn’t animated well, it’ll ruin the aesthetic of the whole game.

      I’ve just added The Long Reach to my wishlist. It looks really dark!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for the response. 🙂
    It really does depend on the game. I couldn’t imagine El Shaddai Ascension of the Metatron or Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom.

    I’ve been playing a pixelated horror game called Lone Survivor and it is fantastic. The pixel art style really helps to add to the atmosphere.

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    • I think some gamers underestimate pixelated horrors as they feel a game needs to be detailed to be scary. But sometimes what you can’t see, and what your mind fills in the blanks with, is far more frightening…

      Thanks for another question, Brandon! Keep ’em coming – looking forward to the next one. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  5. It depends on the game. I love the high fantasy visuals that some RPGs have and I love a more realistic tone for my shooters. You can’t go wrong with pixels either. I like them all lol.

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    • Variety is the spice of life ha ha! I think you’re totally right about it depending on the game, each needs to have a look that compliments it as a whole.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. That’s a tough one. I agree with you, it really depends on the purpose. I think the art style is an extension of the game. It can convey just as much as the story. Before you even begin to understand what a game is about, it conveys an atmosphere from the moment you experience the first cut-scene, or the first moment of game play. First games that come to mind are Wind Waker, Ori and the Blind Forest, Minecraft, and Okami. Comparing that with something like FF15 which needs that beauty and realism to become as immersive as it is. Its almost like comparing the types of music you like in games, it’s very relative 😊

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    • I like that: ‘the art style is an extension of the game.’ Very well put! The opening shot of a title is the one that’s going to draw you into playing so the visual direction decision is really important for a developer. The games you’ve mentioned above all have a distinct and different look, but they work perfectly for each of them. 🙂

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    • After Brandon asked his question, I was surprised at what a wide range of responses he received with regard to people’s preferences. I almost expected photorealism to come out on top, seeing as that’s what a lot of developers are aspiring to at the moment!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Unpopular opinion, but I really like cel-shaded visuals. I just feel like they are more vibrant and colorful. Games like Okami, Jet Grind Radio, Wind Waker, and Persona 5 are some of my favorites in terms of art direction.

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  8. I have a weird graphics preferences when it comes to MMORPGs. I love WoW because of its cartoonish, colourful style/graphics; I find it unique and just really charming. MMOs that look super realistic and pristine just don’t do it for me. I think it might be because the more cartoonish art style makes it feel more like a fantasy? No idea lol.

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    • That makes complete sense: sometimes you want to escape into a game and live the fantasy, and if it looks too real it can sort of pull you back to the present! The element of being able to fill in the gaps between non-photorealistic graphics and make what you see your own in your head can be hugely appealing.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m a sucker for good pixel art—always have been. There’s just something so aesthetically pleasing about it when done right, like in Stardew Valley and even classics like Super Mario World.

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    • Wooo another pixel lover ha ha! Pixel art reminds me of the classic adventures I played as a kid, so there’s always something really ‘comforting’ about it. 🙂

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