Jacqui Edwards, Senior Lecturer on the Game Art BA (Hons) degree course, discusses some of the arthouse games that have caught the imagination through immersive and innovative graphics and gameplay that engage player’s emotions as well as their joypads. 

The advance in videogame graphics in recent years has been so exponential, you’d be forgiven for thinking that AAA studios and multi-million pound budgets are the only way of achieving visually stunning game worlds, but the indie sector is more than holding its own. The examples below introduce some groundbreaking indie games that have made an impact.

Journey (That Game Company) 2012

Two blurred cartoon women climb a dusty cartoon mountain

The oft-cited third outing from Californian Indie team That Game Company, was a triumph of minimal design and beautifully crafted colour palettes that took the player from metaphoric birth to death.

You experience the simple joys of play, surfing glittering sandscapes and soaring into the air to dance and float with the player character’s scarf growing with you as you progress and make friendships, all without a single word of dialogue. Contrasting with solitude and hardship in later areas of the game, as the warm reds and golds fade, you are consumed by blues and greens, and met with alien foes whose purpose is uncertain, before finally both colour, environment and character animation meet to build a euphoric ending and the circle begins again.

Journey is hard to surpass in terms of the emotional resonance, perhaps because of its ingenuous truth, with game design and game art working in absolute harmony. 

Gris (Nomada) 2019

Two green cartoon hands, surrounded by vines, circle a tiny cartoon girl dressed in red.

Another game that uses colour as part of its game design is Gris from Spanish studio Nomada. Like Journey, you take the role of sole traveller in a strange land working your way through colour-themed levels in a beautifully crafted platformer. Starting in a monochromatic landscape of broken statues and leaning towers, Gris is a girl dealing with weakness and fear, having lost her voice through an unknown trauma.

Colour is introduced as Gris makes her way in the world, growing stronger, learning skills and overcoming her adversities. Ethereal watercolours burst onto the screen, with Nomada’s Spanish sensibilities hard to deny in landscapes seemingly out of a Miro painting, with surreal mobile-like structures for Gris to traverse, some of which get up and walk!  Already winning awards and with fan art and cosplayers taking Gris to their hearts, this title is sure to endure well beyond 2019. 

Collage Atlas (John Evelyn) 2019

A line art drawing of The Collage Atlas videogame

Undoubtedly, the game that blew me away most at 2018’s EGX was John Evelyn’s hand-crafted puzzler Collage Atlas. Whilst taking a leftfield approach to game art in the sense of the way the 2d assets are authored, the dedication taken to create this illustrated world, all drawn on paper with a 0.03mm fineliner and assembled into 3d via the Unity game engine, has to be admired.

This dream-like game is a literary wonderland, evoking the sense of memories lost and found. A clever design puts the player centre of a pop-up book type universe, perhaps reminiscent of the likes of Tengami by Nyam Nyam.  The version I played was still in development and with a release date later this year, Collage Atlas is an intriguing game I look forward to experiencing in full.

Florence (Mountain) 2018

A still from the computer game "Florence" a cartoon Florence and a boyfriend are eating

Is it a game or interactive story? With Bandersnatch hitting Netflix as an interactive film at the start of the year, game design appears somewhat in fashion in other entertainment forms, but perhaps labels are becoming less important. Experiences are what we are looking for in this digital age, as so much of our lives are lived online, and we look to make real connections.

Florence is playful and pertinent, unfolding the story of the protagonist as she goes from boredom to fulfilment via love and heartbreak. The mobile platform is cleverly used to effect in making us involved in what could otherwise simply be a graphic novel. You swipe to clean Florence’s teeth, share her excitement as her lover moves into her apartment placing items in storage to make way for his, and feel her pain as you pack his things away again as their relationship dissolves. An emotive and imaginative game told through mechanics that involve the player in the narrative, and another example of artwork that although digital, has the hand-drawn touch at its roots. 

What Remains of Edith Finch (Giant Sparrow) 2017

whatremainsofedithfinch

This BAFTA winning ‘walking-sim’ interweaves the stories of the deceased members of the Finch Family, as discovered by 17 year old Edith whose first-person perspective is how we experience the game. Edith returns to her family home after the death of her mother to discover more about her family and their seemingly tragic stories. A game that has won plaudits for narrative design, helped along by an evocative soundtrack, none the less relies on the beautifully rendered world of the Finch house, lovingly detailed and crafted by Giant Sparrow’s environment artists, to absorb the player.

For anyone new to concepts like environmental storytelling, Edith Finch is a masterclass in drawing the player’s attention and driving the narrative forwards through a combination of whimsical lighting and particle effects and carefully cluttered rooms leaving narrow pathways for the player to explore. 

In conclusion

Whilst this is only an introduction to ‘Art Games’ of the Indie Sector, what these examples share is an emphasis on experience, emotion and human connections.  They achieve this through tactile gameplay that works harmoniously with beautiful game art. There will always be a place for the blockbuster AAAs such as Call of Duty or Overwatch, but recognition is growing for games that do more than entertain and that leave you thinking long after you put your joypad down.

Jacqui Edwards is Course Leader for BA Hons Game Art at the University of Worcester. Her module Game Art: Design, Theory and Concepts explores the relationship between game design and game art and creating immersive worlds.