GOTY 2018: Best Art Direction

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Best Art Direction: Return of the Obra Dinn

3909 LLC | October 18th, 2018 | macOS, Windows

Runners-up: Red Dead Redemption II | Donut County

During our GOTY deliberations, Spencer said that Return of the Obra Dinn absolutely nailed the monochromatic, 1-bit, dithered look of Macintosh classics from the 80s and 90s. I took him at his word.

See, I never had a Mac growing up, and I never played games on one. I have zero nostalgia for the graphical style framing Lucas Pope's follow-up to Papers, Please.

How is it, then, that a visual approximation of an era and platform I've never experienced feels absolutely quintessential to the enjoyment of Obra Dinn?

From screenshots, I can understand that the average person might think the game is all style, no substance. I was worried about that, too. In its first reveal, Obra Dinn just looked like it was trying too hard to be different. Choosing a drastically different look for a project invites the uninitiated to cast aspersions over the merits of the entire end product—which isn't news to any of you creators out there. So, I cast my aspersions. Later, I'd find out I was really, truly wrong about the game's look, and learn that despite my doubts, Obra Dinn succeeded because of the way it looks.

What's so brilliant about Pope's design choice is that he simultaneously sells the insurance adjuster murder mystery plot—which I can't imagine would've worked were Obra Dinn designed in Unreal 4—while reminding us that games don't have to be visually binary. They don't have to be either photorealistic or pixelated. To my eye, the games industry has steadily shifted toward artistic homogenization over the last decade, whether we're examining an independently designed early access game or a major release in a massive console franchise. It sometimes feels like every game is made with, well, take your pick: cutesy, hand-drawn illustration; blocky, retro-chic pixel art; Minecraft-lite voxel blocks; or insanely detailed, boundary-pushing 3D graphics. As an art form, games have recently leaned a bit too heavily on their commercial nature. Trends speak to sales estimates, so it's no wonder there's not much middle-ground for developers big and small struggling to achieve profitability: so, you design what you know will sell. That mentality leaves little room for the innovators, the boundary-pushers.

Or, I guess there's just enough room for creatives like Lucas Pope. Return of the Obra Dinn reminds us that games are made from nothing—they can be anything. Aside from its mind-bending logic puzzles, which are told against a plot that marries Jules Verne with Masterpiece Theatre, the soul of Obra Dinn is in its look. It's clean, it's old, it's modern, it's refreshing. More than any other game this year—of which there are many beautiful ones, including our runners-up—Return of the Obra Dinn can stand as a proud example for the industry: a game's success and peerless execution need not be anchored to predetermined, popular aesthetics.

If the creative mind is set free to wander, it can produce amazing results that, hopefully, wake up an entire industry to the reality that it can do so much more with the tools, and imagination, it has. — Aaron Thayer