2021 was a bit grim, eh? But while the world outside was grey and dull, videogames were anything but.
From psychedelic mindscapes and watercolour picture books to the knackered anime VHS that got lost behind the sofa, games were serving up some serious looks this year. Here are some of the games that had us staring starry-eyed at our screens shouting “Woah, games can really just look like this!”
Nat Clayton, Features Producer
Unbeatable: White Label, Sable, Solar Ash, Exo One, Townscaper
I'll be honest, I've lost track of how often I tweeted about a new game being the coolest thing I'd ever seen over the past year.
It was hard to go even a month without having my eyes soaked in some fresh new digital palette. But the most exciting part of that, for me, is that none of the games that stood out over the past 12 months looked even remotely similar.
Unbeatable is a bloom-soaked, anime-tinted rhythm riot-torn from an old videotape. Sable, meanwhile, is a Moebius graphic novel brought to life with astounding deftness. Townscaper is a wonderfully springy island-building toy that evokes cracking open a box of Lego. And while both Solar Ash and Exo One delve into dreamlike alien worlds, they couldn't have taken more different approaches. One is a flowing, fungal explosion of colour while the other is impossibly harsh and brutal in its beauty.
Games have gotten really bloody good at rendering the real world. But I'm so much more excited to see how graphical advances can be turned to create the impossible. It's hard to imagine Solar Ash without dreamlike volumetric clouds that bubble and flow in Rei's wake. This year, I was blown away by games that used their visuals to break my heart, fire me up, or even just help me feel at peace by a campfire in some perfectly-drawn desert.
Jody Macgregor, AU/Weekend Editor
The Ascent, Resident Evil Village, Psychonauts 2, Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy
A top-down twin-stick shooter with some action-RPG in its DNA, The Ascent didn't need to look gorgeous. Players figured out how to unlock the camera and zoom around its streets though, and when they did they found its alien cyberpunk city was way more detailed than expected.
Sure, the character models are a bit low-fi, but the environments are lush and every bar, alleyway, and noodle stand is surrounded by holograms and flickering screens, all suffused in a fluorescent glow. It's just the Blade Runner aesthetic, but it sure is done real nice. The developers responded to players' interest by adding an official photo mode, and the hours I spent in that are half the reason I still haven't finished The Ascent.
It was a good year for faces too, from the high-poly models that make each villain in Resident Evil Village so expressive, to the less realistic but no less full of personality Gumby heads every ding-dong in Psychonauts 2 is blessed with.
Special mention to Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy, which has plenty of sweet skyboxes to gawp at but really blew me away with its mocapped faces. While the regular old Mass Effect conversations you have on the ship are matched with canned animations and look procedurally lip-synced, the cutscenes have clearly been acted out by actual, you know, actors, who give nuanced performances of these larger-than-life characters. Every pout, roll of the eyes, smirk, side-eye, and sneer comes across, and it adds so much.
Lauren Morton, Associate Editor
Book of Travels
Might and Delight has been fostering a distinct visual style since its first Shelter game, and its tiny MMO Book of Travels is yet another descendant of the recognizable aesthetic. It would be easy enough to call Book of Travels an interactive painting and claim my duty is done. I mean, just look at it. Book of Travels has all of Shelter's watercolor whorls of color in its pseudo-3D world, gorgeous at all times of its day and night cycle.
Book of Travels isn't a game that's beautiful just because it's managed to mimic physical art. It's beautiful in a way that only a game can be, and beautiful in a way that so many games are too insecure to be. Intractable objects like loot bags and acorn trees don't glow or shimmer, very rarely offering a small twinkle to guide your eye until you're trained to spot them. Players often blend with NPCs until they offer a painted overhead emote to alert you to their presence. The interface, a part of online RPGs I often bemoan, appears papery and textured like the rest of the world. Book of Travels is lovely to look at specifically because it's an interactive world that isn't constantly pulling my eyes to the edges of the screen
Morgan Park, Staff Writer
Potion Craft, Darkest Dungeon 2
Potion Craft is sorta like if Paper's Please was a chill potion brewing sim with no starving family or time limit. All the action happens in tidy little windows and the game has this 'storybook come alive' look that's done better than any game I've seen. It's a warm game that wants you to kick back, pick a few herbs from your garden, mush 'em into paste, and bottle a soup out of them. It's also pretty early (there are lots of buttons that currently say “coming soon”), but what's there is already fun and pretty as heck.
I didn't play Darkest Dungeon 2 much because it's hard and I hate it, but I sure don't hate looking at it. Red Hook took a risk when it announced the sequel would make the jump to 3D while somehow still looking like the 2D original, but by golly, they actually did it. The new polygonal heroes look better than ever with slick 3D animations and, remarkably, still give the illusion of 2D sketches when they're not moving. It's a total upgrade.
Chris Livingston, Features Producer
Growbot, Grow: Song of the Evertree, Icarus, Valheim
Among many surprises packed into Valheim, it's utterly breathtaking to look at, from the lighting in the forest as the sun sets to the plains dotted with flowers to the weather effects of a sudden lightning storm at sea or a blizzard in the mountains. Survival game Icarus is beautiful, too, with photorealistic textures, terrifying fire and lighting effects, and clear sparkling water (that'll probably poison you with microbes when you drink it). Adventure game Growbot showed off some beautiful and darkly quirky art when I met its galactic yeti and psychic octopus. And Grow: Song of the Evertree is a serene gardening and town management game that had me stopping short every few minutes to just take in its beauty.
Andy Chalk, NA News Lead
I upgraded to 4K at the end of 2020 in the midst of my Witcher 3 playthrough and the improvement was nothing short of stunning—my god, that is a beautiful game world. But it was the bold styling of The Pathless that really rocked my boat: Greens, blues, and yellows stretching across forests and plains and slashed with the blood red of the Hunter and the corrupted gods she pursues. It's just as gorgeous up close, too: The crumbling architecture and intricate garb of pilgrims, soldiers, and heretics emanate a sense of long-buried history and secrets, while brilliant weather effects drape a sheen of faux-realism over the weird fantasy realm. And the open-ended design of the game means you can wander around and enjoy the views without worrying about anything else. Go sightseeing—you won't be disappointed.
Editor's note: Yes, The Pathless came out in 2020, but these screens were too gorgeous to leave out.