2019: The Best Year for Game Art Direction

Obviously every year has games with inspired art direction, but 2019 especially had so many amazing-looking ones. From the childlike Yoshi’s Crafted World to the gritty cyberpunk of Astral Chain, I believe I have a new visual standard for games. And even though I have my mini-review marathon on the way, I wanted to take a moment to appreciate the exceptional visual work made in some games this year.

Just to clarify, art direction involves any part of the game’s visual elements. It’s not the same as frame rate or resolution; those are only tools for supporting it. Art direction involves character design, world design, art style, textures, effects, UI, and animation. So let’s talk about my art direction highlights this year!

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Yoshi’s Crafted World: One of the most difficult parts in making a modern 2D platformer is designing a level that makes sense visually. Mario’s levels are perfect gameplay obstacle courses, but the floating blocks and pipes aren’t exactly believable when you look at them. Yoshi’s Crafted World, on the other hand, makes its platforms out of shooting paper stars or fish suspended by a string. Each level a charming and immersive diorama. It’s no stretch to believe that some in-game Kindergarten classroom had put these levels together.

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Super Mario Maker 2: The UI for this game truly deserves an award. The way I can come up with a level idea, place it down, and test it out in a matter of minutes makes the daunting task of level design manageable. The item wheels are handy search tools. And the top bar keeps my most recent elements, a smart choice since I’m likely to only use a handful of items in one level anyway. The UI may not be incredibly stylish, but it certainly gets the job done.

Persona Q2: In contrast, Persona Q2 is bursting with style. From beginning to end, the devs show an impressive commitment to the film noir / movie theater aesthetic. When exploring a movie labyrinth, the 3DS’s top screen takes on a film grain. Personas are summoned with film projectors. The in-game shop is a snack booth, and each menu UI pops with neon lights, contrasting colors, and dynamic effects. It was fun just moving from menu to menu. Persona Q2 is a perfect example of how a 3DS game with a minuscule resolution can still have a spectacular art direction. For those interested, Persona Central put up a fantastic interview with the game’s developers over how they got inspiration for that art direction.

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Astral Chain: There’s a lot going on in this action game, and yet it manages to avoid feeling cluttered. The cool colors of the Arc set an introspective mood for your investigations, while the popping reds of the astral plane (along with its geometric monolithic structures) make a perfect stage for bombastic fights. I found myself just staring at the scenery in both dimensions, mesmerized by the level of detail. And that simple menu UI is the perfect contrast to give your eyes a break.

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Link’s Awakening: I realize that the art style is a bit divisive, but I believe this style fits the dream nature of Koholint Island rather well. In a dream everything feels a bit off, and yet your mind also fills in details rather realistically. In similar fashion Link’s Awakening mixes realistic, detailed lighting and textures with simplistic character designs. Now that I’ve let the game percolate in my mind, I’ve decided that I don’t want the Oracle games done in this style. I don’t think it would fit the story theme as well.

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Luigi’s Mansion 3: The first Luigi’s Mansion had two key visual elements: 1) an eerie atmosphere built on the Gamecube’s lighting and particle effects, and 2) Luigi’s personality built on expressive character animations (and Charles Martinet’s superb voice acting). The series has always maintained this, but Luigi’s Mansion 3 brings the atmosphere and character animation to a whole new level. The way Luigi glances around to follow his flashlight, or does a little dance when he beats a new ghost, you can’t help but admire the animators. Having the menus based on the Virtual Boy was a clever gag, but I actually found the red interface rather grating (and probably why the Virtual Boy never caught on). Keeping the in-game UI to a minimum was a smart idea, as it adds to the immersion.

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And those were just the highlights. Katamari Damacy looked simplistic, but that simplicity added to its charm and humor. Gris uses watercolors to give each environment a strong emotive note, a perfect stylistic choice for such an emotional journey. Pokemon Sword, for as mixed as its visuals were, had amazing Pokemon and character designs, sleek menus, and a clean UI.

Any games you played this year that you found had impressive art direction?

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