Video Game Art Styles Combine Aesthetics and Atmosphere for Exceptional Environments

Alekhine's Gun's game art styles include bright, colorful elements and dark, shadowy scenes.
Alekhine’s Gun looks unique for a stealth game because it doesn’t shy away from color–but that color doesn’t lessen the atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion.

Game art styles can be used to great effect, complementing or contrasting a game’s mechanics and narrative to create a more vivid overall experience. As a player, it’s easy to get caught up in realism and high definition graphics as a sign of visual superiority, but low-key game art styles can also add unanticipated elements to atmosphere, mechanics, or story.

What makes a good art style is not just whether it faithfully represents reality, how pretty its coloring is, or how many polygons make up each object. It’s how well that particular style suits the game—though classic games didn’t have the graphic capability we have today, their art style is still a large part of appreciating them. Below are three games that have particularly unique styles that are a mix of aesthetics and purpose, exemplifying that great video game art doesn’t all have to look one way.

Agent Alekhine navigates bright and vivid Cuba in Alekhine's Gun signature game art style.
Rather than dwelling in the dark, Alekhine’s Gun lets players explore rich settings like Cuba in colorful glory.

In Alekhine’s Gun, Stealth Doesn’t Mean Dark and Dreary

Alekhine’s Gun takes a mostly realistic approach to graphics, as it’s set in the historical Cold War era and requires realistic grounding to support its conspiracy-inspired plot. Agent Alekhine explores lush, detailed settings in Europe, the US, and Cuba, all of them feeling like a realistic backdrop for his espionage-related escapades.

But rather than taking the dark, grimy approach of most stealth or similar game genres, Alekhine’s Gun is remarkably colorful. It’s not overdone—you’ll still feel like you’re in a stealth game thanks to dedicated mechanics and an overall atmosphere of tension and suspicion—but the pops of color make the game feel unique among a sea of black and green night-vision goggled views of stealth.

Because Alekhine’s Gun is set in many different regions, you’ll see verdant gardens and the decadent purple homes of mob bosses. You’ll explore dank, militaristic dungeons and torture chambers as well, all of them richly detailed. The game rarely takes the approach of darkness equating to stealth—while there are pockets of shadow, you don’t have to crank up the gamma to make it through these levels. Realism, in this case, means a world as diverse and interesting as the real one, including a healthy dose of coloring.

Game art styles like that of The Wolf Among Us support the game's narrative.
The Wolf Among Us uses film noir aesthetics to complement its dark and gritty fairytale narrative. Image Source: K putt via Flickr.

The Wolf Among Us Blends Light and Shadow for Mood

Though The Wolf Among Us is immediately recognizable as a Telltale game, its unique visual style is more than just an indicator of its developer. Telltale is known for its distinct look, reminiscent of cel-shaded graphics from games like Jet Set Radio and The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, but it’s taken to new heights in The Wolf Among Us, as the art style complements the story and supports its comic book origins.

Following Sheriff of Fabletown Bigby Wolf, the story is highly inspired by film noir and uses many of the associated aesthetics to create an atmosphere of fear, paranoia, and desperation. Nobody in Fabletown is what you’d call nice—everyone is out for their own survival, becoming shockingly human twists on the fairytale heroes and villains we’re familiar with. With neon lighting and lots of high-contrast shots, every character seems to be both half in and out of shadow, reminding us of their dark potential.

The thick outlines and somewhat static nature of their facial expressions are also a reminder that the story begins as a comic. Every one of The Wolf Among Us’ camera angles would be at home in a comic book, and both the episodic nature of the story and its sharp, witty dialog mirror what you’d find in the original Fables series. By creating an original story in this way, Telltale pays tribute to the predecessor while still creating their own unique product, in part thanks to using such a striking visual style.

Dreamy and dark game art styles like Limbo create a striking image.
Limbo’s art style is immediately striking, and also serves to set up the game’s dreamlike, creepy atmosphere. Image Source:

Limbo Explores a Dramatic, Monochromatic World 

Limbo is a striking game from first glance. Told in stark monochrome, the game follows a young boy in search of his sister. After waking up on the ‘edge of hell,’ the boy navigates a world that is all light and shadow, avoiding enemies and solving puzzles with simple controls.

The minimalism of the visuals lets other aspects shine through. The narrative leaves much to the imagination, letting players formulate their own ideas about what the meaning of the story is (or whether there is one at all). Having the art display such strong tones also puts the focus on the gameplay instead of distracting the player with lots of moving pieces and realistic elements—your eye is always drawn back to where it should be, because the parts that matter are those that are highlighted.

While the majority is black and white, the shades of gray, fog, and lighting effects add a dreamlike quality to the story. You get the sense immediately that the game exists somewhere between fantasy and reality, and navigating through the treacherous grayscale world is as much about avoiding the darkness itself as it is about evading enemies and solving puzzles.

Video Game Art Styles Mix Visual and Game Design

Each of these games could rely on their mechanics and stories alone to be successful, but the addition of unique visuals cements them in our memory as games that stand out. While each employs a radically different technique, there’s something to appreciate in the colorful realism of Alekhine’s Gun, the comic book sensibilities of The Wolf Among Us, and the creepy aesthetics of Limbo.

Alekhine’s Gun’s strong visual style is supported by excellent stealth mechanics and a gripping historical narrative. Now available for console and on Steam for PC!