Given the choice, I am always going to pick a game with stylized graphics over realistic ones. This is for many reasons; it’s partly because “realistic” so frequently means “bland and filtered over with brown” and partly because a game with realistic graphics is much more likely to look bad in a decade than one with stylized models. But first and foremost, it’s just because I like to be able to look at a screenshot and say that it came from a very specific game, that it couldn’t be mixed up with any other title.
There are a lot of games that wind up looking… well, pretty close to one another. But these games all have a style that’s distinctly their own, a sense of composition and design that keeps even the most generic shots from these games from looking interchangeable. And it doesn’t hurt that all of them are drop-dead gorgeous, to boot.
1. World of Warcraft
There’s been a trend of late to rebuild World of Warcraft‘s world in more modern engines with more realistic layouts and proportions, which I think sort of misses the point. WoW is stylized; it has a specific look to it that doesn’t neatly match up with reality. Quite frankly, that’s part of what I like about it. It doesn’t look like anything else out there. No, it’s not realistic in the least, but it isn’t pretending to be.
WoW is colorful in a way few other games are, and it shows through every moment of its play. Zones have a distinct color scheme and a specific look, giving you a sense of the place right off. You know that black with neon green means something, just like gunmetal, obsidian, and cool whites. The designs are abstractions of real designs, a suggestion of feel over practicality. I loved the graphics when it came out, and I still do to this day.
2. Final Fantasy XIV
By contrast, Final Fantasy XIV looks far more realistic. Character models are detailed, carefully proportioned, and made to look as real and practical as possible. That’s part of what I like about it, as well; everything feels grounded. This is not a universe held together by arbitrary design, but a real place with real people. You get the sense that even if you don’t see it, things like shipping food and sleeping arrangements and places to go to the bathroom are all being considered and handled, offstage but never out of mind.
Instead of going for abstraction, the game goes for a dizzying amount of detail in an environment that feels tangible. Standing in some snow? You can throw a snowball. Walking through a pool? Your feet get wet and slowly dry. Combine that with a world filled with all of the high magic and technology that you’d expect from the series, and the world feels at once grounded and fantastic.
This is the game that most closely approaches the looks of World of Warcraft, but with a slight twist. While I’d argue that WoW is all about color, WildStar is all about feel. Sure, the color is there, but it’s more muted; here the focus is on the look and feel of movement, of how your character bobs and weaves, all of the fine touches on animations that make even little motions seem like they’ve been carefully thought out.
No one just walks in WildStar. Aurin prance, Granok lumber, Draken stalk, Mechari march. The sense of kinetics within the game make it a treat to do things as you watch everything flow into everything else, a bit like watching some kind of collision between lava lamps.
4. The Secret World
What makes The Secret World‘s graphics so distinct isn’t darkness; it’s light. The light in this game is a very tangible thing. It’s never quite sufficient to illuminate everything, even when the sun hangs high in the sky, always pushing furtively to expose things and to give you a clear picture of what’s there. So much in the game looks distinctive simply because – by design: You’re never able to drag it fully into the light. And yet all of that unnatural and sometimes oppressive light makes it feel more familiar, like reading on your computer in a darkened room by yourself. A quiet, dangerous feel with every picture.
5. EVE Online
By contrast to the previous entry, what defines EVE Online‘s graphics is darkness. You are out in the void of space, sailing through inky blackness, and lights are sole points of habitation. It’s even an important part of the feel of the game. You are not important, you are not powerful — you are a single person in a cold metal ship sailing through emptiness. The only time that you see a huge number of ships in one place is usually for a battle, to boot, which just reinforces the sense of isolation and danger. It’s very distinct.
I’ve given WoW a prize for color and WildStar a prize for animation, so what do I nod to in Crowfall? Shapes. The style of this particular game is a shade more realistic than the former two games, but in exchange for more muted colors and more straightforward animations, the game makes everything feel more recognizable just in silhouette. Yes, part of that is by design with archetypes, but I find there’s a pleasing weight to the characters in the game. I want action figures of most of the archetypes, at that.
Well, most of them. Centaur figures would probably lack full leg articulation; I could live without that.
7. Champions Online
If I were going to point to a single game that got closest to the actual feel of four-color adventures, I’d point to the sadly departed City of Heroes. If I had to point to the game that gets the closest to the look? Yeah, that’s all about Champions Online. I was fascinated with the game pre-launch just because so much attention had clearly been paid to making the game look like it was composed of artfully arranged comic book panels, really driving home the idea that you were landing in your own comic adventure and smacking thugs around as you do.
Shame about everything else, there, but here we are.
8. Star Wars: The Old Republic
My favorite bits of Trooper armor have scuff marks. That’s what I like about Star Wars: The Old Republic. Sure, it’s clearly not a realistic aesthetic, and it pulls a lot of design elements from the prequel trilogy for a sense of continuity. But it also pulls what I liked most about the original Star Wars film, that feeling that these ships and places were actual spaces inhabited by real people, with scuffs and scarring and tears and broken stones hither and yon.
The graphics aren’t nearly as stylized as they could be, and in some places I feel the game suffers for that; it’s not willing to go as far as the animated shows in terms of style, but it’s also not hearkening to the more realistic style of other BioWare titles. But my armor has scuffs and burns, and more importantly, you look at a screenshot from this game and know it’s from this game.
People have compared Trove to Minecraft before, and I understand the comparison. I also don’t think it’s even remotely accurate. The aesthetic that Trove traffics is a different sort of intentional lo-fi homage, with the added benefit that it has a style that no other game has ever even tried to emulate. This is a game where neon dragons are legitimately a thing, and if someone told me that there is a zone where you are using a unicorn battleship to fight off swarms of invading electric monkeys, I would believe it. The graphics are very simple, and then the game tries to go for broke with everything it does; I approve of that.
10. Free Realms
I’m really glad that Landmark seems to have borrowed some of Free Realms‘ aesthetic because while the latter is gone, it had such a distinct look to itself. All curves and soft edges, big smiles and soft focus… it was one of the most welcoming games I ever saw, perfect for its target audience as well as anyone who didn’t want to stride through a virtual tavern looking like the biggest badass possible.
Of course, all of that gentle focus and friendliness didn’t help the game shake the image that it was only meant for kids; as we all know, adults kill things all of the time. But darn, it looked nice.