If a picture is worth a thousand words, this category speaks volumes. Regardless of technique, this award recognizes games that are not only visually attractive but stylistically distinctive. One look at a screenshot should elicit not only jaw-dropping admiration, but intuitive recognition of the game to which it belongs. This award includes both game world and character design, but not cinematics.
The Aggie award winners:
2018 Readers Choice' winner of:
Regardless of whether you believe David Cage's latest choice-based adventure is a storytelling triumph or an exercise in heavy-handed melodrama, it’s hard to deny that Detroit: Become Human looks anything short of phenomenal. It's clear right from the beginning that Quantic Dream threw an enormous amount of effort and care – and yes, money – into the game's visual presentation, which includes both wonderfully lifelike character design and photorealistic environments that you genuinely want to explore from top to bottom. Even the game’s weather systems are incredible; when its heroes trek through the wind, rain, and snow, they look absolutely miserable and chilled to the bone. While such attention to detail might seem like a trite thing to praise, a lot of games fail to hit this mark and yet it’s imperative to get right when attempting to tell an emotionally-charged story with an emphasis on authentic interactions.
Detroit blows right past the uncanny valley with characters that look amazingly realistic, infusing the game with a nuanced believability that’s absolutely essential to the experience. The meticulously modeled city itself, meanwhile, benefits from the developer's willingness to keep one foot on the ground. It certainly feels like a futuristic metropolis, from its state-of-the-art cars and stoic android population to its sleek, modern architecture, but it's not so far removed from our own world that you can't relate to the surroundings. Tucked beneath the neon glow and electronic veneer lies a beating human heart, which you'll encounter in the surprisingly mundane (and tech-free) suburban homes and all-too-familiar neighbourhood convenience stores. The entire package is pure eye candy, and the more time you spend admiring the sights all around you, the more you’ll feel like you’re actually there. It almost seems unfair to compare games having multi-million dollar budgets with small-scale indie productions, and yet historically we’ve chosen the more stylized artistic directions over slick hyper-realism. This time, however, Detroit blew us away, earning the game our Best Graphic Design Aggie over some impressive competitors.
2017 Readers Choice' winner of:
SkyGoblin’s The Journey Down series has always had superlative graphic design, but never has that been more evident than in its third and final chapter. There’s a timeless quality to the vivid hand-painted art, with inspiration taken from all sorts of eras and cultures, from ancient temples to Gothic architecture to a neon-glowing metropolis. More than ever before, the settings burst with variety: one moment you find yourself amongst giraffes and parrots on gorgeous African plains and islands, the next you’re plotting with subversive freedom fighters in secret underground resistance lairs or held prisoner aboard a floating airship that looks like something out of a sci-fi film. And yet with two playable characters in different parts of the world, never once does this incredible diversity feel forced; the fact that all these locations feel part of the same cohesive universe is one of the series’ noteworthy artistic strengths.
What makes The Journey Down even more distinctive are the unique character designs that draw inspiration from ancient African masks and carvings. This rarely-explored ethnic backdrop is no mere gimmick or nod to political correctness, either. After three full episodes with Bwana, Kito, Lina and the gang, you won’t be able to imagine the game with any other character models, as they’re an integral part of the experience. But really, everywhere our protagonists go, impressive eye candy awaits. The use of light and shadow are cleverly contrasted, and where appropriate the colour really pops. Upper-class skyscrapers tower over oppressive, rain-soaked urban streets and a bustling, earth-toned market. Elsewhere in the fabled Underland, the sun beams down from impossibly blue skies onto stunning waterfalls amidst a jungle of lush vegetation and wildlife. There were plenty of other great looking games of all different styles in 2017, but none so consistently beautiful as The Journey Down finale, making it our choice for the year’s Best Graphic Design Aggie.
2016 Readers Choice' winner of:
That Daedalic Entertainment should snag another Best Graphic Design award should come as no real surprise, as it’s the fourth such achievement for the popular German developer, one of them for The Whispered World back in 2010. But it was no sure thing that Silence would follow suit. A sequel that mysteriously dropped any “Whispered World 2” references during development, it seemed that Daedalic was intentionally trying to distance the new game from its predecessor, both through gameplay changes and a switch to 3D graphics. The latter got genre fans dreading the worst, as we’ve seen numerous examples of ill-fated “modernizing” through real-time rendering. Could the same thing happen to yet another franchise whose graphics were a legitimate work of art already? With this award, we can safely answer with a resounding “No!”
Silence is a good title for this game, because that’s the sound players make when their jaws are hanging open, soaking in the sights. One look and you’ll understand that this isn’t your grandparents’ 3D. In fact, it’s not even a traditional use of 3D, employing a method of camera projection that allows it to maintain the same level of 2D background artistry but with the added benefit of dynamic cameras. Regardless of technique, the results are once again gorgeous. They look more “realistic” than the cartoony original, but retain the same lovingly hand-painted quality. From the moment you first step into the fantasy world of dreams – through the yawning maw of a slobbering, toothy, many-eyed (but thankfully dead) monster – you’ll begin journeying across crumbling stone bridges, ancient moss-covered forests, subterranean lava caves, and a medieval market, passing picturesque scenes of mountains, castles, sun-drenched waterfalls, and giant stone statue heads along the way. Character models, too, are stunning in their detail, from the cute-as-buttons Renie and Spot to the terrifying masked Seekers and a pulsating behemoth insect queen. Whatever the view, it’s sure to be exquisite, earning Silence our nod for outstanding artistic achievement.
2015 Readers Choice' winner of:
Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger may have made his video game debut with Cyberdreams’ Dark Seed way back in 1992, but the late artist’s macabre designs continue to have influence in the genre. Not content to merely retread past efforts with a straightforward homage, however, in Tormentum: Dark Sorrow Polish developer OhNoo! Studio has combined Giger’s “Biomechanical” themes with the organic, dreamlike works of their nation’s own Zdzislaw Beksinski, lending the game a diverse and wonderfully-macabre aesthetic. Many of the characters and creatures found throughout the game are a sight to behold, especially those that are clearly inspired by the Necromorph of Alien fame, one of Giger’s best-known creations. Along the way, players encounter monstrous caterpillars, demonic guards, and a wide variety of other creatures that populate the decrepit settings, including a family of rat-people harboring a dark secret in their basement.
But the true star of the show here is the environment itself. Outdoor locations showcase the ruined hellscape you find yourself in as brimstone rains down from soot-blackened skies, while indoor locations blend the macabre with a number of art styles, including touches of Art Nouveau. Cathedrals made of bone and other organic materials seem to sprout from the ground itself. Distorted female figures appear within the walls of passageways. Slender, larger-than-life hands steeple up from the ground to form an archway. Even a fire-spewing steam locomotive makes an appearance, along with several other buildings composed of skeletal forms bound up in towering organic structures. The result of all this is a look that’s equal parts gorgeous and nightmarish, inviting you to savor every last hand-painted scene, and the success with which OhNoo! Studio conveys their dark vision is plenty of reason to award Tormentum: Dark Sorrow 2015’s Aggie for Best Graphic Design.
2014 Readers Choice' winner of:
Great art comes in all different styles, and traditionally the Aggies have favoured a more distinctively hand-crafted look than those with cutting-edge graphical fidelity. This year is a different story. There are very few game environments rendered as realistically as Red Creek Valley in The Astronauts’ The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, which is essential for a game where the primary activity is wandering through the wilderness and exploring creepy abandoned houses.
The beauty is all in the details: the dense foliage, the sun glinting over the mountains and shimmering through the trees, the rusting water pumps in the dam, the rotting planks of untreated wood in the long abandoned homes. Look closely and you can see every pit and crack in every boulder, every nail in every plank of wood. There are scenes in the game that look all but photorealistic, thanks to an innovative technique where in-game models were generated from dozens of photographs of real world objects. The results speak for themselves. You’ll spend as much if not more time simply gawking in wide-eyed amazement as you do playing. It’s the next-best thing to actually being there, and for so fully immersing us in its richly detailed world, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter takes the award for Best Graphic Design of 2014.
2013 Readers Choice' winner of:
Daedalic’s jaw-dropping Memoria explores two different time periods in the history of Aventuria – a magical, dangerous place where demon armies gather for battle and an ancient mask holds deadly secrets. This sense of mystery and enchantment is expertly enhanced by the game’s hand-drawn interiors and landscapes, which are expansive yet still manage to convey a sense of intimacy. Small details are beautifully depicted: ironwork patterning is reflected on a polished floor; skulls, chests and scrolls clutter a magician’s attic; and exotic blossoms embellish a cave lost to the grasping hand of time. Backgrounds reveal a dramatic sense of scale, where spire-tipped mountains march across the landscape, monumental stone dragons frame an arched doorway, and gnarled trees ascend in tiers through the mist. The locations are remarkably diverse, from the angry red sands of a corpse-strewn battlefield to the cold majesty of a fortress floating above the clouds. The quality of light also varies: mage fire in a tomb glows a sickly green; purple dusk steals through a forest, and sunlight dapples a rooftop garden.
The game’s 2D characters fit smoothly into these environments. Sadja, a princess from Aventuria’s past, is on a secret mission. Dressed in muted colours, boots, and a hooded shirt, her hair is restrained and she’s neat as a pin. Geron, the hero from the first game in the series (the equally gorgeous The Dark Eye: Chains of Satinav), is wan and scruffy. His medieval togs are rumpled – he’s neglecting everything in his urgency to find a cure for Nuri, a young woman transformed by a curse. Mythical creatures aid or threaten, from a phoenix-like being made of pure light to a craggy rock giant smashing everyone in its path. Perhaps the most intriguing is a sentient wooden staff, twisted and gold-banded, its bony tip vaguely human. From the rustic landscape to its outlandish temples, from warriors and tricksters to exotic artifacts and beasts, Memoria distinguishes itself amid a crowd of comely rivals, capturing the Best Graphic Design award for 2013.
2012 Readers Choice' winner of:
Though the beauty of thatgamecompany's Journey is certainly unconventional, it is nevertheless artistically captivating. One look at a screenshot and you instantly pick up the image of a strange traveler, suited in a flowing robe adorned with strange symbols, exploring a vast and hazardous landscape. The pastel colors are rich in their flatness. Light promises salvation and danger in equal measure. The shadows are purposeful, aiming to hide or accent elements to build suspense and surprise at every turn. The creatures you encounter live seamlessly in their environments. The vast desert hills and watery depths and frigid climes all speak to a consistent world that you immediately want to explore.
But what the screenshots don't tell you is how the art really is the foundation of the entire experience. The animation and lighting work in perfect concert with the sound effects and even music to elevate the background visuals to their highest level. The characters glide like iceskaters across apocalyptic sand, in a long fluid trail. The trills and flutters that accompany movement punctuate your dives and spins. Throughout it all, you are directed to the pinpoint of light in the distance. You don't know why you need to get there but you do know you want to, if only to see if it holds something even more gorgeous than what you've already experienced. Everything in Journey seems crafted to fit and its visual elegance shines through the entire experience. The result is a visual masterwork that narrowly earned our 2012 Best Graphic Design award over some other jawdropping contenders.
2011 Readers Choice' winner of:
In an industry dominated by cutting-edge 3D graphics, hand-drawn 2D adventures are generally considered quaint and antiquated, at best given backhanded compliments like “classically styled”. Undeterred, Daedalic Entertainment designed A New Beginning the old-fashioned way, and did so with such impeccable artistry that it managed to edge out the fiercest of competition. The vividly coloured, skillfully illustrated screens of this thought-provoking eco-thriller are as distinctive as its premise of desperate time travellers trying to stem an impending environmental catastrophe. Each setting is individually captivating, whether the verdant, idyllic Scandinavian forests of today; a climate conference set against an ominous purple haze caused by smoke-spewing power plants; a dusty, devastated San Francisco drowned by an overflowing Pacific in 2050; or the alien, treeless world of 2500 about to be annihilated by a solar flare. The larger picture for mankind isn’t always pretty, but the artwork displaying it surely is.
Unusual viewing perspectives add to the game’s visual distinctiveness, while the clever interplay of light and shadow to go with day and night transitions add fascinating realism to the backdrops. The cast of characters are just as well-drawn as their world, and emote credibly despite being two-dimensional and outlined in black ink. Cinematics are made of stylishly sketched and dramatically animated panels, which play out sequentially to create comic book-style pages. Coloured clips are often juxtaposed with black-and-white or silhouetted ones to enhance their impact, both in terms of design and as a storytelling device. The flourishes even carry over to utilities like the main menu and saved game archive, creating a cohesive visual experience throughout. For proving with great élan that hand-drawn craftsmanship is not a lost art form, A New Beginning wins the coveted title of Best Graphic Design for 2011.
2010 Readers Choice' winner of:
As soon as the first screenshot was displayed, years before the game’s actual release, every adventurer was drooling over the gorgeous hand-drawn graphic design of The Whispered World. Thankfully, Marco Hüllen and the artists at Daedalic ensured that the end result looked just as good in action, making Silentia the perfect backdrop for this melancholic adventure. Luxuriant autumn forests, blue skies filled with milky clouds that resemble frothy waves, underground caves enlightened by emerald rivers, nights so gloomy they appear to be taken straight from a Gothic novel, tumbledown buildings of impossibly curved shapes, opulent interiors that resemble a Victorian dream... Wow.
But it’s not just the scenery that looks great. The strange, bizarre, and sometimes downright scary creatures that inhabit the world make the joy of exploration so much more rewarding. From the adorable shape-shifting caterpillar Spot to a crystallized, many-eyed anglerfish monstrosity to the jester-garbed, blue-faced protagonist clown himself, Silentia is populated not by elves and dwarves and orcs, but by its own distinct, memorably original inhabitants. All told, with its bright colours, vivid lighting, curious buildings and breathtaking landscapes, The Whispered World is a visual pleasure that will make you feel like you’ve stepped into a painting come to life. For that it’s earned our Best Graphic Design award, beating out the stunningly realistic Heavy Rain by the slimmest of margins.
2009 Readers Choice' winner of:
The tiny Czech studio responsible for Samorost has always produced visually compelling games. But the cult freeware favorite and its sequel mixed cute but simple flash cartoons with re-purposed photography, and Amanita Design promised to up the ante for its feature-length debut, welcoming artist Adolf Lachman and animator Jara Plachy to the team. The outcome: Machinarium, a painterly dreamland of rusting metal and machinery, intricate detail and implausibly picturesque structures, all done using a muted colour palette and woven out of living concept art.
Each new background in Machinarium is a tantalizing reward for progress; each robot design perfectly evokes its distinctive character. And it’s all done wordlessly. Here the graphics not only provide the eye-candy, but drive the narrative as well, allowing pictures to tell their own stories that no amount of words could do as well. Better yet, the presentation doesn't obstruct the gameplay – there's no pixel hunting here, as every tiny button on the wall or collectable object is laid out with natural clarity. To cram so many visual wonders into every corner of a game takes a particularly deft touch, and Amanita has demonstrated that in abundance.
2008 Readers Choice' winner of:
The production of A Vampyre Story, possibly the most high-profile adventure release of 2008, was led by LucasArts veteran Bill Tiller, best known for his art direction on Curse of Monkey Island. With that level of quality on his resume, there was a great deal of anticipation surrounding his debut adventure with Autumn Moon--anticipation that slowly grew to apprehension as the development life of A Vampyre Story stretched past six years. Through good times and bad, the one thing that never failed to offer encouragement while we waited was the jaw-dropping concept art and early screenshots of stylish Draxsylvania, and the finished product is better still.
A Vampyre Story is simply a gorgeous game, with beautifully creative character design, distinctively colourful and detailed backgrounds, and a delightful commitment to its consistent visual theme. All the stops were pulled out to make this the best looking adventure game on the market. To our welcome relief, AVS as a game also proved to be good--but as pure eye candy, it is the unquestionably the best of 2008.
Readers Choice' Award winners:
For anyone unclear on why pixel art is still a thing now that technology can support so much more, the answer is simple: Unavowed. It’s not a case of lower resolutions concealing a lack of talent, it’s an art form in its own right that looks sublime in the right hands. Hands like Ivan Ulyanov and Ben Chandler’s. The former’s character models are wonderfully diverse, representing a realistic cross-section of New York City (and beyond), while the latter’s landscapes are vividly painted with bold colours to establish a supernatural flavour. There are no blue skies (or even grey clouds) here, just ominous hues of pinks, orange and red. The lighting is similarly evocative, and while there are plenty of recognizable backdrops, from back alleys covered in graffiti to the streets of Chinatown to the shoreline overlooking the Statue of Liberty, there are also troubling signs of another world creeping into our own around the edges. Rarely have pixels ever looked so good, earning Wadjet Eye another reader Aggie.
The fabulously immersive XING: The Land Beyond draws players in with more than enough beauty and realism to create a sense of wonder, plus a touch of surrealism that challenges, startles, and engages. From a magnificent portal hub through four uniquely different earthly realms linked to particular eras and cultures, there’s always another picturesque new landscape to behold. Hanging over meandering paths are intricate branches and colorful blossoms; a sunset paints the sky, sand and palm trees in glorious golds; snow drifts down into the mist framed by breathtaking cliffs; and ancient ruins are emblazoned with vivid, enigmatic designs. And scattered throughout are stained glass dials, mysterious jeweled pedestals, glowing orbs and colourful, box-like totems crying out to be manipulated and mastered. We can certainly see how this game managed to edge out its more stylized competitors for this year’s reader award for eye candy.
Wait a minute… these aren’t photographs of real alien worlds? But they look so lifelike! (Or at least, life as imagined by Amanita Design’s wonderfully wacky and ever-creative designers and artists.) The flip side to our Best Setting award is the extraordinary artwork that makes Samorost 3’s strange places and their even stranger inhabitants seem so real. However fantastical, the vividly detailed and utterly unique settings will make you feel like you’ve shrunk down in size and are actually there with the little gnome protagonist on his spacefaring adventure. That is no small feat, earning the biggest and best Samorost game to date the reader nod for Best Graphic Design in a very close race among all five finalists.
Contributing significantly to the many creative settings that make up Broken Age are the lovely graphics depicting them. In a year with so many jaw-dropping visuals comprising all kinds of aesthetics, it’s the whimsical, painterly art style of this game that wowed the most readers. While some complain that the design is too cartoony, too childish, Tim Schafer was insistent on following Nathan “Bagel” Stapley’s artistic vision, and that decision has certainly paid off in this stunning world of imagination and wonder.
As computer graphics become increasingly realistic, there’s always a danger of falling into the Uncanny Valley. But if you’re The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, you bypass that unwanted destination and arrive straight at the jaw-dropping Red Creek Valley instead. Apparently we all stopped to soak in the gorgeous views of forests, lakes, and railway bridges while passing through the cemetery, tunnels, abandoned homes and underground mines, each looking utterly authentic. Has the torch finally been passed from 2D to 3D? Of course not. But with games as stunning as this, the gap has officially been closed.
Daedalic is no stranger to this award, but the German developer not only had to contend with some incredible competition from others this year, it also had to split votes among its own impressive trio of games. But once again, the studio’s talented stable of artists came through with its stunning hand-painted depiction of Aventuria – and doing so with only a fraction of the budget of its nearest runners-up. For that, Memoria sweeps both our staff and reader Best Graphic Design Aggies for 2013.
Until we went in a more abstract direction this year, we were thinking about changing the name of this Aggie to the "Daedalic's Latest Game" award, as the German studio continues to crank out one gorgeous adventure after another. This year was no exception. With Botanicula nipping closely at its heels, the fantastical hand-painted world of The Dark Eye: Chains of Satinav displayed the artwork most worth crowing about for our readers.
From the top of a Mount Doom-like tower against a blood red sky to the burbling acidic gullet of a monstrous creature; from the hazy green swamps of Death’s pirate ship abode to the sweltering volcanic home of a dragon, the scenery in The Book of Unwritten Tales is fantastic in every sense of the word, with lush, detailed backdrops in vivid colour that made them a joy to explore. So much so, it’s your winner for the year’s best graphic design, decided by a gnome’s whisker in a rousing competition.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, are words really necessary with a screenshot to the side? Seeing is obviously believing, as we weren’t the only ones smitten by The Whispered World’s gorgeous art design. The rich colours, painstaking attention to detail, whimsically stylized architecture and magical inhabitants all come together in what is surely one of the best-looking adventures ever made.
How often do you see some concept art for a game and wish the finished version actually looked like that? The raw design art is less polished but more human, less managed but more natural. In Machinarium, that’s exactly what we get, and clearly we all loved it. It’s dirty, it’s grimy, it’s broken down and decrepit, it’s nearly monochromatic and looks like a pencil sketch… and it trounced all opposition for the best looking game all year.
Everyone knows there's much more to a game than great graphics... but that doesn't stop us from drooling over the lookers! And in that regard, it seems we agree that Autumn Moon's Disney-meets-Burton-esque A Vampyre Story is the standout visual gem of the year, despite a valiant effort by the stylishly atmospheric The Lost Crown and the sci-fi stunner The Immortals of Terra.