When I first watched James Cameron's Avatar earlier this year, there were two things that struck me as incredible: the movie was an absolute spectacle to behold, and Sigourney Weaver wasn't more of a badass than her fellow marines for a change. But that's not what I'm here to talk about in this latest here editorial. Avatar, especially when watched with them special 3D glasses, was a technical marvel (and an excellent headache inducer) – it created the most believable-yet-unreal environments ever seen in a movie, but it was not its technical prowess that impressed me most – it was the artistic vision, or, more correctly, the visionary art design, of the movie's Pandora. The movie has the most advanced special effects ever seen in a movie, but it's when you see the oversized smurfs running through bizarre glowing plants that your breath really gets taken away.
Ellen Ripley. Way more badass than Dwayne Hicks.
Same goes for 2007's Crysis, which is still, three years later, the prettiest game of all time. The game has phenomenal special effects and countless other technical traits that earned it numerous awards and enormous attention, but truth be told, I found the game's most impressive moment to be when Nomad ran to the light and into that delightfully bizarre alien ship, where the verdant island setting gave way to the otherworldly, disorienting environment where gravity and architecture played with your senses while stealthy shimmering aliens tried to bite you in the buttocks.
Which is why, if you ask me, 2007's prettiest game really is Crysis. As for that year's most beautiful game? That one definitely goes to BioShock. I may sound like a crazy fool here, for BioShock suffered from low-resolution textures and very small environments that sometimes failed to astonish on a technical level. But as they say, real beauty comes from the inside, and if you look at the bowels of BioShock's graphics, you'll find one thing – an absolutely flabbergasting artistic direction that makes this strange underwater metropolis one of the most brutally beautiful game worlds ever created, so much so that it makes Crysis look, as pretty as it is, quite mundane.
As an artist myself, I tend to look at photorealism with a smidgen of disdain. If it is photo-realism that I wish to create, why not just go ahead and use a camera? I find a strange artistic vision to be the most valuable treasure an artist can have (I do not mean in any way that a photographer is not an artist). And, just as I'd much rather behold a completely twisted, surreal painting over another breathtaking portrait, I'd rather revisit Max Payne 2's playhouse than, say, Modern Warfare's dull enemy bases and F.E.A.R.'s sleepy office buildings.
BioShock, along with other games, displayed environments that weren't as technically marvelous as those of others, but its look had a soul, a heart, and a vision. It's just like how Mikael Åkerfeldt's incredible delicacte leads and emotional touches steal your consciousness more than any of Yngwie Melmsteen's highly technical, lightning-fast licks. I believe it's through the heart, soul and vision of an artist that a really memorable piece is conceived.
BioShock. A truly memorable game world.
Let me not be misunderstood – the advances in technology that have been achieved over the last five years or so are quite significant and extremely impressive, and I do prefer a sharp texture and delightful animations over a blurry texture and stiff animations. It's just that I believe that, the better the technology, the more of a tool it can be in bringing a unique artistic direction to fruition. Take Janelle McKain's Enigma. It is the perfect example of how to create a piece of art that is amazing on both a technical and artistic level, on paper. If you take a close look at Painkiller, you'll find the perfect example of this in a game. Back in 2004, it was one of the top-five prettiest games out there, and each of its environments (and its fantastic enemies) had its own unique look and details, and it's within these little details that I found a reason to think this game was so gorgeous.
Painkiller. Excellent textures, excellent animations, excellent models, absolutely spectacular game world(s).
Yet, when a game displays a striking world that is artistically strong, a lack of technological superiority is easily forgiven. Take for example, well, just about each and every level in 2005's Psychonauts. The game had, by no means, any superb lighting effects, highly detailed character models or stunning textures, but it did have character. It had its own look, its own atmosphere, presented by Schafer and co's bright minds, which also seem to prefer art to technology.
At times, those arts can even make up for monotonous gameplay. I will use a more recent example, being UbiSoft's Prince of Persia. The repetitive exploration and slow combat weren't always enjoyable, and after six hours or so of gameplay, the game began to feel like watching Citizen Cane (say what you may, this movie was a snorefest). This is all sheer opinion, though, and I'm definitely not knocking UbiSoft for making a lacking game, even though I sort of am. Once the novelty has run its course, we were left with an unlikeable protagonist whose occasional sitcom humor and unnecessary attitude inspired nothing more than a gawk from me, good (if repetitive) boss fights and one remarkable… erase that… fabulous game world. Everything about it was incredible – the distant windmill, the floating halls, the machinery grounds, the enemy designs, the beautiful healing of corrupted lands – everything about this game's environments was pure brilliance, so much so that it softened the blow of the game's lackluster gameplay.
Prince of Persia. Lackluster gameplay made up for by deliriously artistic environments.
While I can count quite a few things that are more important to a game than graphics (gameplay and sound being the most shining examples) I can really appreciate a graphically proficient game. After all, it's way more fun to watch Nazis crumble into glowing bits and dust than seeing an alien marine immediately disintegrate into blocky pieces, and it's even more fun to behold a spectacle made available only thanks to a very creative mind than see the same old (meticulously detailed, amazing-looking) Russian base, countryside or tropical island. Am I saying that I'm looking forward to Bulletstorm's weird new planet more than Crysis 2's NYC? You betcha. Unique art is precious, and no powerhouse game engine in the world can replace that.