Visual design isn’t just about making the prettiest game with the highest polygon count, best post processing and lighting, it’s about making something that’s unique, engaging and that draws people into the world you’re trying to create. It can be adding layers and animated expression to pixel art, about finding that unique effect that helps a game stick in your visual memory, even about stripping the graphics all the way back so that the rest of the game shines through.
Of course, being pretty helps too.
“It’s just Tetris!” cry all of the unbelievers. “I’m not paying full price for that” warn the fiscally minded. “It looks like a seizure waiting to happen” shout the health-conscious. And then you play it. Tetris Effect is categorically one of the best games of the year, and while we’re here in the Visual Design award, the joint efforts of visuals, audio and gameplay take it above and beyond what the series has achieved before.
The central mode, Journey, is just that, and takes you through a gorgeous, psychedelic holiday album that sees you travelling from the stars to the seas, taking in cities, plains and sky-borne windmills, while you’re attempting to focus on making lines out of blocks. It shouldn’t work. It should be distracting but it isn’t, with Enhance’s pacing perfectly weighted to give you time to enjoy a moment before causing you a heart attack a few seconds later. There’s clear influence drawn from Mizuguchi’s earlier Rez, and where that game brought together concepts of light and dark, and the evolution of man, Tetris Effect takes its inspirations from human life, and the planet we live upon. Tetris has become environmentally aware, and it’s spectacular.
It’s also playable in VR, and while the visuals look stunning splashed across a 4K screen they’re utterly intoxicating when you place yourself amongst them. It’s the ultimate in experiential gaming, and hard to appreciate if you haven’t experienced it yourself, but you can take our word for it – Tetris Effect is incredible, and boasts the best visual design of the year. You owe it to yourself to try it out.
Return of the Obra Dinn – Runner Up
Obra Dinn’s visual style is summed up perfectly by Lucas Pope himself. ‘An Insurance Adventure with Minimal Colour’, and he means it. Obra Dinn uses a 1-bit monochromatic graphical style, inspired by computers of the mid-80s, and uses it to impressive effect.
This is a fully 3D game, as you explore the Obra Dinn and try to decipher events that took place aboard the ship, but with just greenish white and greenish black with which to paint the environments, it’s staggering how much detail it can evoke. There’s an almost pointillist effect to the dithering that helps creates the impression of gradients of colour, while it has no trouble creating the sharp outlines of the ship, creating detail for character faces, and more.
GRIS – Runner Up
The artwork of Conrad Roset and the evolutionary way that GRIS builds from monochromatic drawings to a vivid and colourful world of layered watercolours is simply fantastic. It’s simply gorgeous as the colours wash over the screen, the game shifting from the feel of a lazy afternoon from the reds and greens, through to an etherial night of deep blues.
Not only does the game shine as you play it, but the moments of close up animation for the girl at the heart of the game’s story are wonderfully emotive, as she struggles to sing despite the darkness that wants to engulf her. GRIS is a special game, and the art style is a huge part of that.
Honourable mentions (in alphabetical order)
- 11-11 Memories Retold
- The Haunted Island – A Frog Detective Game
- Red Dead Redemption 2
These are our picks, but what games stood out for you as being the visual highlights of your year?