The last generation of consoles will be remembered for many things: the explosion of online play, motion controls, the indie renaissance and a strange proliferation of waist-high walls among others. But when looking back, what is most striking is its incredible range of visual styles: from the realistic to the abstract, the cartoonish to the minimalist, and nearly everything in between.
For the first time since gaming dove headfirst into the third dimension, style became the rule rather than the exception. Many developers built on or abstained from photorealism altogether, making impossible worlds that captivated imaginations and informed gameplay. They returned to sprites with gusto for "2.5D worlds," or took painterly inspiration for 3D models that looked like comic books come to life.
There are far too many examples of captivating visual styles on PS3, Wii, and Xbox 360 to list comprehensively, but these are the games whose bold lines and unashamed triangles still burn the strongest the mind's eye.
Bastion's world is made up of tiles... just like most other 2D games. But since its tiles rise up one at a time from the void to meet The Kid's footfalls, it's easier to appreciate each individual piece of the hand-drawn world. And what a tragically beautiful world it was.
Vines wrapping, moss creeping, tablecloths dangling, footpaths sinking, roots bursting; these are all things that make a place seem alive. But Bastion subverted those details, making those signs of life into livor mortis. The hand-drawn warmth of every element, exactly the same as it was before the cataclysm but now sundered from its surroundings, made the broken world the game's most compelling character.
Minecraft's low-res textures and so-angular-they're-a-workplace-hazard models may seem ugly at first. But the brilliance of its visual style, like the brilliance of the game itself, is only revealed when you have a ton of blocks in front of you. Its procedural landscapes make every valley unique, and every crested hill reveals a breathtaking new view. In these massive environmental contexts, the blocks are transformed from individual entities into 3D pixels (voxels if you're a stickler) of a massive picture: sawtooth hills and rivers are natural terrain in the distance. But close the gap and they reveal themselves as building blocks, easily identified and ready to be reshaped. Minecraft's modular vistas are algorithmic poetry in motion.
Street Fighter IV
Columbia may have been too beautiful for its own good. We don't mean philosophically, here: we mean that most of the people who played BioShock Infinite preferred wandering around the floating city in peace to fighting its scores of police, rebels, and mechanical monstrosities. We can't blame them.
From the immaculately dark and wet womb of a chapel to the final moments of a burning city draped in red, BioShock Infinite is stupefyingly gorgeous. Elizabeth's era-appropriate wardrobe and just-cartoonish-enough expressions more than make up for the rest of BioShock's usual gummy faced citizenry. Irrational Games could sell a "Go for a Long Walk with Elizabeth" DLC Pack for $20 and we would buy it just to revisit the stunning world without worrying about getting shot.
Mark of the Ninja
Mark of the Ninja's visual style wasn't new territory for Klei Entertainment - thick outlines and flowing animation made the studio's previous game Shank stand out from the crowd. But it wasn't just window dressing in Mark of the Ninja; it was an essential part of its design vocabulary and a huge factor in its success as a streamlined stealth action game.
Mark of the Ninja's environments and enemies are instantly readable. Points of entry, scene elements like switches or lights, and even the emotional state of patrolling guards are taken in instantly thanks to brilliant use of minimalist color and silhouetting, making players feel like master ninjas themselves. Its captivating backdrops and animated cutscenes completed a world that felt both believable and perfectly suited to stealthy machinations.
Trine goes between looking like a paperback fantasy cover to a psychedelic blacklight poster within minutes. Its magical world isn't terribly original in video games, so it's a good thing the strange places its thief, mage, and knight travel through are so impeccably gorgeous.
Bloom lighting, which makes vibrant areas of the picture bleed into others, can be very easily overused. Even though Frozenbyte dumped on the colored lighting like a kid who just played Unreal for the first time, it all worked out to create a soft, dreamy fantasy world: a welcome respite from the generation's overbearing use of dirty colors and harsh film in just about everything.
No More Heroes
Screenshots of the original No More Heroes for Wii look kind of bad these days. They're haunted by all the ghosts of standard-def gaming: muddy textures, empty environments, and more jagged lines than a nervous cokehead's coffee table. Thankfully, all those flaws just make a game trying to be punk rock so damn hard all the more believable.
No More Heroes' gawky characters were constantly in danger of being swallowed by the hard black shadows that fell across them but which left their mundane surroundings untouched. At any moment they were equally likely to be bisected by Travis Touchdown's lightsaber as they were a bizarre dutch angle - of course, only the former would cause a shower of oversized red pixels. No More Heroes' anime-Americana style was the best kind of hot mess.