With Art Direction, Is Photorealism The Best Gaming Can Do?

When the gang from TheGamer got together ahead of The Game Awards to pick our winners, we came armed with suggestions for extra categories that should be part of the main ceremony. These ranged from Best Baldur’s Gate 3 Act to Best Horror Game, but in thinking up these fictional awards, I realised something important is missing from The Game Awards proper, and perhaps, missing from gaming as a collective – the idea of Visual Style.


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This was one of my proposed categories that we ran out of time for, and in truth it was airlifted directly from The Steam Awards anyway. But it does feel telling that the biggest celebration of gaming in the world does not celebrate visual flair. The Game Awards has Best Art Direction, but looking at the nominees, that’s a very different thing. Still worth celebrating, but decidedly different, and I worry about what that means for the industry.

The nominees for Best Art Direction:

Saga near-death and low on health outside the Valhalla Nursing Home, as shown by the blood effects on the screen.

All of these games have solid art direction. Mario I’m not entirely sold on, but then I hated the New Mario era and love the bouncy whimsy of Wonder, so maybe it’s the perfect nominee here. Hi-Fi and Zelda I’ll leave out for reasons that will become clear, but let’s discuss Alan Wake 2 and Lies of P first. Both are ideal candidates here – the level of detail in their art direction builds their dark atmospheres perfectly. As per the award’s description, this category is for ‘outstanding creative and/or technical achievement in artistic design and animation’, and Alan Wake 2’s changing levels certainly fit the technical achievement part, while Lies of P’s baroque Pinnochio fits the creative artistic design part. In fact, by that description, I’m a little warmer on Mario given its vast creativity.

Compare these to my five nominees for Visual Style:

The Grey burns away in Slay the Princess

Steam’s Visual Style Award reads “Visual style doesn’t aspire to real-world graphical fidelity (though a noble goal in itself)… it describes a distinctive look and feel that suffuses an entire game”. The key phrase here is ‘doesn’t aspire to real-world graphical fidelity’, which both Alan Wake 2 and Lies of P do in TGA’s version. God of War Ragnarok, Horizon Forbidden West, and Stray were beaten by Elden Ring last year, while Deathloop won the year before, and Ghost of Tsushima beat The Last of Us Part 2 and Final Fantasy 7 Remake the year prior to that.

None of these are bad winners, and in fact Alan Wake 2 would be my second choice this year, because art direction has a specific meaning, and few could argue Deathloop falls short there. But these are all realistic-looking games that just look realistic in specific ways. Some of the more visually creative nominees in recent years, from Scorn to The Artful Escape to Ori, haven’t had a look-in against titles like Ghost of Tsushima that are really good at looking like what they’re meant to look like.

However, as games get more expensive to make and to sell, taking much longer into the bargain, it feels like our endless quest to get some slack-jawed onlooker to say ‘wow it looks like a movie!’ is eating our creativity. I’d be stupid to say Alan Wake 2 lacks creativity just because it looks photorealistic – it’s one of the most creative games of the year and the way it merges art and reality is a key theme that would not work with a more abstract art style. But while I think most of the Art Direction nominees past and present are worthy given the category’s specification of technical achievement, I can’t think of many more photorealistic games this year that have a strong sense of art direction and not just a generic sense of looking good. Conversely, I can name at least another ten non-realistic games that have engaging and creative visual styles worth celebrating this year.

A non-exhaustive list of this year’s great visual styles

Obviously games like The Last of Us Part 2 and (presumably, given what we’ve seen) GTA 6 are visually very impressive. I’m glad those games are able to push the boundaries like that. Ditto games like Lies of P that, while not on their level, are able to create interesting aesthetic flair. But the more trying to look like real life becomes the norm in gaming, often with no real artistic intent behind it other than the hushed discussions in focus groups that modern gaming demographics like the familiarity of photorealism, the less interesting games as a whole become. They take longer and cost more money to make, and end up worse.

Cheers to Alan Wake 2, winner of The Game Award for Best Art Direction. Despite the game’s photorealism, the art direction itself is great, and I don’t begrudge it one bit. But hopefully, we’ll still see games with the funk and colour of Hi-Fi Rush in the future.

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