The season of lists continues with me carving out a best-of niche that I find especially interesting this year: Art Direction.
2008 was a terrific year for experimentation in a variety of visual styles, and while not every game succeeded as a whole experience, those I've listed below suggest that video games remain fertile ground for visual artists.
Publishers continue to promote games that push pixels and polygons in pursuit of ever-more-realistic depictions of people and places. (Okay, that's out of my system now.) In some ways, this year was no different, with amazingly detailed games like Far Cry 2 and Fallout 3 proving that realism needn't be antithetical to ambitious, creative art design.
But other games proved that designers are eager to pursue visual aesthetic goals that go in other, decidedly less realistic directions. Here are my favorites from this year in no particular order:
No More Heroes
As I wrote back in January, No More Heroes is a game full of game. All the little things - the menus, the load screens, the maps, the save system - everything works, looks and sounds like a skewed, junked out, lo-fi version of a game you've played before. And then there's the blood. Something about the way it splatters. Like an aria. No More Heroes is a compendium of visual and gameplay references, in loving homage and deconstructed parody. When Travis Touchdown looks you in the eye and says "It's game time!" it is both an invitation and a declaration of principles.
Peter Molyneux's Albion is a lush, snow-globe vision of Great Britain that weaves together storybook and fantasy settings with an anachronistic blend of medieval, renaissance, and 18th-century environments. It never should have worked. But it did.
Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness
A perfect rendering of the Penny Arcade comic style in cell-shaded 3D with 2D art courtesy of Mike Krahulik's pen. The game crafts a colorful concoction of Lovecraftian steampunk and Hollywood B-movie pulp fiction. The animated cutscenes are terrific and bring the PA comic universe to life.
Mega Man 9
This game makes the list purely for sticking firmly to its principles. Mega Man 9 extends beyond "retro." Its 8-bit aesthetic permeates the entire experience, from loading screen to level design to perceptible flicker. Its very existence seems intended to examine the relevance of simple, pound-your-head-in difficult gameplay on modern consoles. Some of us still think these games are beautiful.
This rhythm/action game for the PSP features some of the most inspired art design seen in any game this year. French artist Rolito took his inspiration from pre-Colombian and primitive arts, as well as spiritual mythology to create a wholly unique and poetic vision. Even Patapon's color palettes seem carefully chosen. You've never played another game that looks like this...and how can you not love a tribe of cyclopsian eyeballs?
Little Big Planet
Among all the attributes of this superlative game, LBP's art direction may be its strongest asset. Little Big Planet communicates a tactile feeling to the player that renders the distance between the game-world and the controller in my hands virtually nil. It's an extraordinary thing to see this game in all its hi-def glory. The brick surfaces, the cardboard cutouts, the felt trees - everything suggests the hands of creators with (apparently) simple earnest skills. It absolutely begs to be touched and explored. And built.
Prince of Persia
The World Ends With You
Professor Layton and the Curious Village
World of Goo