GOTY 2016: Best Art Direction

This year we've brought back our category awards to recognize achievements in specific areas of game development. There are ten awards in all, with two new ones being awarded every day this week. Keep checking back for more winners!

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Best Art Direction: The Witness

Thekla, Inc. | January 26, 2016 | PlayStation 4, Windows, Xbox One

Runners-up: Overwatch, The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine

The Witness is an extraordinarily difficult game to describe. That’s because the surface game and the essential experience — the intangible feeling or imprinted memory of play — are very different things.

One question I hear a lot is “what do you actually do in The Witness?” The answer is mundane, even disappointing: “You walk around an island and solve line puzzles.” But that’s like saying that reading Infinite Jest is all about turning pages and managing multiple bookmarks — it describes the motions, the mechanics of the experience, but not the heart of it.

Every location, every object, even every cloud placed in the sky exists deliberately to serve the core experience of The Witness.

The experience of playing The Witness is a lot like learning a new language — either spoken or programming. You see the shape of the thing, and you experiment, intuiting from a series of building blocks into more and more complex patterns until you become literate in the language. But The Witness’s language isn’t just a logical one — it’s also deeply, intrinsically visual. And it would utterly fail to work if it wasn’t for a deeply attuned and painstakingly realized world.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that every location, every object, even every cloud placed in the sky has a deliberate form and function that serves the core experience of The Witness. And nowhere is that more apparent than in the geography and the architecture of the island that the game takes place on. Developer Thekla worked with two architecture firms to create the right sense of a space that had been inhabited before, maybe by separate groups and civilizations, and used for multiple purposes. This crumbling-but-peaceful landscape creates a safe, calm, and engrossing space for the player to delve deep into their own mind, where the game’s experience truly takes place.

I like to describe The Witness as “a game about learning.” I think that’s the purest distillation of the experience — of exploring, of keeping your eyes open, of learning to interpret a rich tapestry of a world and unearthing deeper layers of allegory and mystery without reading a single word. The world of The Witness and the experience of playing it are one and the same. The world is the game; the game is the world. It’s a marvelous thing, and it was the stand-out choice for this award.  — Nick Cummings