This summer's best-looking game is Limbo, an atmospheric side-scroller created by Copenhagen indie Playdead Studios that boldly takes German expressionism as its graphical template. Using shadows and silhouettes, an endless array of greyscale, a "film grain" filter and flickering lighting effects, this physics-based platformer is a wonder to behold — much appreciated considering how often you'll bite it while navigating the "trail-and-death" game play.
"We definitely feel it's best to avoid competing for realism and high polygon counts, instead focusing on making something with what you have," says Dino Patti, Playdead's co-founder and CEO. "I believe in using the most resources on the essential parts of a game, and for me that is definitely the game play. That being said, creating something which feels like a complete package always takes a lot of time and dedication."
The limitations of an indie outfit make these artistic choices sensible as well as striking. Not only is it inexpensive, it also stands out against the same-sameness of photorealistic games. In fact, expressionism in cinema was originally conceived as a way for low-budget German filmmakers to compete stylistically with Hollywood movies.
Limbo features an unidentified glow-eyed boy making his way through a film noir forest "on the edge of hell" (hence the game name) searching for his missing sister and trying to survive the devious puzzles along his path.
Its utterly unique look gives the game an instantly iconic status and further boosts a gaming movement towards more artistic graphics. This is already the case with most breakout indie downloads like last year's temporal 2D platformer Braid, which boasted a hand-painted look, the MC Escher minimalism of Echochrome or the abstract surrealism permeating every arcade effort from PixelJunk and Bit.Trip.
A movie uses photorealism quite often because it's free," BioShock creator Ken Levine recently told the BBC. "We don't get a cost benefit for being photorealistic, it's the same reason Pixar's not photorealistic — you just end up creepy. There's no need to be photorealistic and I think it's kind of a cop out. I'd much rather play a game that's stylized."
Sony's already onboard with its fabric-fuelled platforming franchise LittleBigPlanet and it's only a matter of time before more big budget games jump aboard the bandwagon. "I see a lot of AAA titles experimenting with alternative looks," Patti says, albeit noting they're still held back by a fixation on polygon counts. "Nintendo is a great example of a company who has successfully balanced this challenge for a long time."
Indeed, the graphics from Nintendo's 8- and 16-bit eras remain iconic, and the low-tech Wii has encouraged its own unique visual aesthetic — not just with the Mario and Zelda games, but also third-party titles like the comic-inspired MadWorld, adorable Little King's Story and punk No More Heroes.
Meanwhile, many "realistic" games from even a few years back already seem hopelessly dated. The last-gen titles that don't — like the sand-bushed surrealism of Fumito Ueda's Ico and Shadow of the Colossus or the interactive Japanese watercolour painting that is Okami — are those that went for the most stylized looks.
I think that are many examples of beautiful, classic games that have been remade in a way that destroyed the original aesthetic," points out Patti, agreeing that unique imagery simply withstands aging better. "[Playdead artist] Arnt Jensen started working on the look of Limbo in 2004, and the visual style he showcased in the original teaser trailer has remained every bit as powerful through the game's development."