Above: Crysis 3
This isn't one of those classic debates like, Super Nintendo or Genesis (Super Nintendo, obviously). It's not even anything like Playstation 4 or Xbox One (still Super Nintendo). This is one of those conversations that is incredibly important, but no one has. We're always posting pictures of the most gorgeous games, referring to anything visual as graphics, but sometimes we're talking about art direction, and sometimes we're talking about graphical capabilities. Sometimes we just call it the art in the game, usually when we're talking about a project that isn't technically complex.
Let's compare two games. One of them has good art direction, while the other has good graphics. Take a look at the image below. I know some of you can identify the game on the right, but the game on the left might be a little more difficult for you. I'll give you a hint, it came out in May last year, and was developed by a studio based out of Kiev, Ukraine. The game is very highly regarded for it's visuals. Okay, it's Metro: Last Light.
Metro: Last Light is a beautiful game, even more so while in motion, but it's not exactly unique looking. That shot on the left could be mistaken for any franchise, while the one on the right was probably much easier to identify. There really aren't any games that look like Wind Waker, even within the Zelda franchise. That's what good art direction can do.
This is an important distinction to make, especially in today's world where visual fidelity has reached an incredible level, and indie developers have to compete against massive teams with a fraction of the funding and resources. How do you make your game stand out from the crowd? Make it look unique. Take Minecraft for example, when it's popularity was booming, it was a very unique looking game, and has even spawned many imitators. If Notch had opted (or was even capable of) making the game with out those giant pixelated blocks, I guarantee the game wouldn't be as unique looking.
Let's take a look at another example (below). The game on the left you might be able to identify, but what's the game on the right? The game on the right has some really great graphics (especially considering that it's a free to play title). Just look at those dynamic shadows, it's very impressive. If you guessed Diablo III and Path of Exile, you are correct!
Both of these games are good looking, but one has a more unique identity. Another thing to note is that Diablo III is a very clean game, visually. All of the environmental textures are smooth and muted, compared to the enemies which have more details, and are sharper. Then compare the enemies to the player characters who are colourful and bright. It's a very great visual hierarchy that makes playing the game very easy, even when things start getting crazy, and there are a lot of things happening on screen.
But art direction doesn't end with in game visuals, it extends to the branding, GUI, and HUD. See if you can identify the game below just from it's HUD. It's a very popular game by a very popular and well liked studio. It's not League of Legends, or Heroes of Newerth. It's Dota 2! Valve have done a fantastic job with this interface.
They could have just left all that stone as either black or grey, but instead they decided to give all that dead space some non intrusive character. It doesn't distract the eye, but it looks awesome. The chunky, almost hand painted style is present throughout the entire look of the game, even in the branding. Valve really nailed this one. Another great example of art direction, and probably one of the best in gaming is Team Fortress 2. When you see anything from the game, a map, a weapon, or a character, you know instantly the game it came from. On top of that, both teams in the game are visually distinctive, and each character in the game is unique, even if all you can see if their silhouette.
So there you have it, art direction vs. graphics. You will remember art direction, but you will probably forget bleeding edge graphics (eventually). If you combine the two, you can create something magical, but of course this is much easier said than done. I'm going to leave you with one more comparison. One game is 5 years old, while the other has only been out for less than a year, and I bet you can figure out the name of the older game a lot quicker than you can the new one.
What do you think, are game studios neglecting art direction in favour of high definition graphics, and gritty realism? Is this even a bad thing? I am personally more interested in well art directed games, but that might just be me. Thanks for reading.