Open world games. It’s a broad label that covers a lot of range.
‘Stylised open world games’ in particular is still broad, but can be whittled down to ‘an open world game that isn’t actively trying to look hyper-realistic’. They can look gorgeous, beautiful, lovely, sexy, fierce, slay, etc. Of course, they can also look bad. Everything has the potential to suck a bag of hot steamy dick. It’s all about balance and execution.That being said, sometimes the look of the game isn’t a problem considering the content is strong.
I have to say here that visual design and art style do not determine the overall quality of a game. A game can look absolutely beautiful and run like a car that’s been pumped with cement. A game can also look like your child’s simple and somewhat offensive drawing of you that they did in school, but play amazingly and uniquely. But this post isn’t about the gameplay. It’s incredibly shallow.
It’s all very complex and confusing but in my mind, the visual design of stylised open world games exists on a spectrum. I have drawn a simple version of the spectrum below. I call it the SOW (standing for ‘stylised open world’) Spectrum.
The SOW Spectrum
In my mind palace, placement on the SOW Spectrum depends on not only the art style of the game, but also the execution of the art style. When I say that, I mean that a game could be a Sweet Spot game but due to not enough polish, sits closer to another end of the SOW Spectrum. I would also say that there is no point of the SOW Spectrum that is better than the other or the determining factor of a good game, but simply different.
You’ve got the left end of the SOW Spectrum, Very Clearly Not Real. This spot is reserved for very stylised open world games like Minecraft and Terraria, which are so very much their own style that anybody mistaking them for real might need to check for a gas leak in their house. Minecraft Steve is not real, he can’t hurt you.
On the right end of the SOW Spectrum, you’ve got This Could Be Real, But My Character Looks Weird Here. This spot is reserved for games that seem to have a disconnect between the playable character and the world around them, with the world looking quite realistic in comparison to the heavily stylised main character. A topical example of this is, of course, Sonic Frontiers.
I’ll get to the sweet spot at the end.
So where do other stylised open world games lie? Well, thinking about recent additions to the label, my first thought is Pokémon Legends: Arceus. Sure, technically it’s not an open world game but it’s the closest the franchise has gotten so far. I’m not including the upcoming Pokémon Scarlet & Violet games in this considering all footage out currently is ‘not final’.
Now I’m personally of the belief that Arceus’ gameplay was enough to make up for what some would consider bad visuals. They’re definitely a step up from previous iterations of the game, but there were still some bits and pieces that could’ve been polished.
Where does it sit on the scale though? I’d have to say somewhere in between Very Clearly Not Real and the Sweet Spot, as it’s definitely trying to hit the Sweet Spot mark, but little graphically stinky moments here and there drag it closer to the left.
Then on the other end towards This Could Be Real, But My Character Looks Weird Here but still nearing the Sweet Spot, I would very specifically place New Donk City in Super Mario Odyssey.
It has a style that is very clearly imitating real life but with it’s own distinct Mario art style, and Mario sticks out like a sore thumb compared to the other humans present. It makes me question whether or not Mario is human at all, and whether or not Nintendo considers Italians to be visually different to the standard human.
So what the heck is a Sweet Spot game then?
The Sweet Spot
The Sweet Spot in the middle of the SOW Spectrum is reserved for games that suspend reality while also making you wish the real world looked like that. Very clearly stylised in its own way, but isn’t completely devoid of truth. Visually just right. In my personal opinion and what I gather from the general consensus of people that constantly compare every stylised open world game to this one, a great example of a Sweet Spot game is Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
There’s definitely a few reasons why people always seem to reference back to Breath of the Wild when it comes to yet another stylised open world game coming out. Visually, it’s gorgeous. The thing is, Zelda games have always had a habit of being visually pleasing in the times they’re released. Even with Wind Waker, a title that had people divided on its art style, there was still a level of polish there that made it work.
With Breath of the Wild specifically, it adheres to the Nintendo Switch’s capabilities without downsizing. The use of colour is more vibrant than reality, but not to a point that it feels like a bubblegum land. The game’s depth perception and views of landscapes feel rooted in reality, but not so much that you feel like me without my glasses (I am short-sighted). To be more basic, Breath of the Wild visually is balanced, and executes its art style in a polished way. People keep referencing back to it because it takes elements from both hyper-realistic and hyper-stylised while still looking like a Zelda game.
And that’s what people are wanting at the end of the day, isn’t it? Fans of series like Pokémon and Sonic want two things: a game that stays true to the themes and stylings of the series, but also a game that takes advantage of the technological advancements of the current era and builds on what they’ve done in the past. That’s how I see it, at least! It is, after all, a video game theory.
Thank you for coming to my back-alley TEDx talk.