I'm not talking graphics, here, or even overall presentation. I'm talking about the way a game can turn the screen into a canvas, and show us something that is - in one way or another - just beautiful.
At this point I should note that Heavy Rain is really deserving of a place on this list, in the same way that Uncharted 2 was deserving of the win last year - it's a real achievement, to render a believable, modern, realistic world - but on the one hand, it doesn't result in blowing my socks off, and on the other, there are more than enough nominations already.
Let's get to it.
This nom will likely earn me some flak - there are a great many folks who feel Darksiders' shiny, chunky, quote-unquote "gritty" and colorful 90s comic book look is the type of style they'd much prefer to forget existed, and never see again.
I'm not them.
Eschewing the brown-and-gray standard palette of post apocalyptic games, Darksiders is a big, flashy series of awesome set pieces, all splashed with bold primary colors. Enslaved can boast a similar strength, but Darksiders pulls ahead with consistency and unerring, iconic, punchy character and enemy designs and a willful desire to be different. It succeeds - it's a spectacle - and that's why it's on this list.
If one game in 2010 was constantly dropping jaws with its seizure-inducing designs, it's Bayonetta. Say what you will about its controversial degree of sexuality, Bayonetta is still a constant feast for the eyes with lush, crazy gothic architecture, enemy designs that are undoubtedly the result of the baddest of acid trips, dazzling effects and a leading lady who looks less like a woman than an interpretation of one.
Populated by every every badass archetype in the book with dusty, muted backdrops straight out of Saturday morning cartoons, Shank does an excellent job of setting itself apart from its peers - not by virtue of technology, but style. Its brutally violent cartoon characters all have smooth, expressive animation, but more than that, the game is designed to know when to offer the player a split-second moment of near-stillness that highlights a crazy knife-wielding leap or the way a shotgunned body doubles over as it flies or the look of panic on an enemy's face right before you do something really awful to them.
I know I'm sounding rather creepy right now, so let me put it another way: 'It's basically designed to throw a thousand insanely good-looking half-frames at you throughout the course of a level, and it's just delicious that it succeeds.'
Most (not all!) RPGs from Japan are pretty similar, when it comes to general style. Resonance of Fate is a breath of fresh air in nearly all ways, and its art direction is no exception.
Its rogues gallery is a collection of standard zaniness (dogs in hats with knives in their mouths! How deliciously absurd!), but its breathtaking, inspiring setting is a real shock to the system. Everything is sweeping European arches and spires, spliced with giant cogs and steampunk gears that twist in twenty-mile arcs across the world.
It also sets itself apart with costume design, if not character. All the zippers and buckles in the world can't hold a candle to what's on display here, with neo-Japanese style married to Victorian flourish. It's not a graphically impressive game, but that doesn't stop it from being absolutely beautiful.
By all rights Red Dead Redemption could win this category. The game exhibits a mastery of style in every facet, and its gorgeous vistas and dusty effects are no exception. Walking your horse carefully down a canyon wall, watching the lightning flash across miles of open prairie, the twitch of grass as a rabbit scampers for cover, your first view of old Mexico - the list of stunning images the game presents you with is profound. Most dazzling of all is its remarkable use of light, from the shadows crossing a man's face to the way sunbeams bend around a cowboy's strut, Red Dead Remption knows precisely what look it's going for.
Doubly impressive are its character designs and set pieces, rooted in and successfully realizing reality (or perception thereof), and the fact that so many of its incredible visual moments come not when the camera is directed to show you a certain sight, but seem to organically grow out of the player-driven experience. Technology aside, Red Dead Redemption is a gorgeous game from any angle.
* * *
BEST ART DIRECTION
Case in point: this is not concept art.
This is a screenshot.
The entire game looks this good.
This is a screenshot.
The entire game looks this good.
While one of the most impressive aspects of RDR is how it routinely (but not always) presents you with gorgeous sights in an open world, God of War III takes the cake by never taking the same risk. The camera is always, always in the developer's control - zooming back to show Kratos as a ten-pixel speck on the arm of a thousand-foot titan, flying back in to follow him as he squeezes through a two-foot gap. This allows Sony Santa Monica to frame every view precisely as they want it seen, and the results are nothing short of spectacular.
Every time you turn a corner, every time you open a door, you are greeted by an incredible new sight. The grandest, most opulent vistas and architecture imaginable, detailed reliefs and paintings - the game is a constant series of images that one could easily mistake for a painting, if it didn't also manage to move - and that's without getting into the character design.
Every enemy is rendered with supernatural attention to detail, from the scales on the tail of a gorgon to the texture on the tongue of a minotaur (I'm not kidding), but are just as striking from afar thanks to iconic, punchy designs that focus on silhouette as much as style.
This title is the only sequel named in this category - we've seen Ubisoft's beautiful renaissance Italy before, and Rapture, while still striking, is also a bit samey, when compared to its predecessor - but God of War III manages to be both wholly consistent with and untethered by its prequels. It doesn't just look like no other game this year, it looks like no other game ever.