One Of The Year’s Best Games Is Also Its Worst Looking

As an industry, we put way too much stock in visuals in gaming. Video games are no longer allowed to look like video games – they are supposed to be indistinguishable from real life. They spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on looking realistic, often trading in any sense of artistic personality. The Callisto Protocol is the most realistic game I have seen, at least in terms of the character models – but the common consensus is that it’s just not very good. Conversely, one of the worst looking games of the year is also the best.

This game is Vampire Survivors, and I’m a little embarrassed it took me this long to get to it. I’ve only played it for an evening, but it has already trapped me in a corner and drained my health with its sharp fangs as I struggle to whip it away. The game sees you wander around in blurry pixels, while hordes of bats, ghouls, and sentient plant monsters chase you around a never ending map. It’s a very simple game – there’s not even an attack button, with whips and knives and fireballs all being tossed out in an automatic rhythm. You kill things to get gems, which makes you powerful enough to kill more things. That’s all there is to it. It could have been released 20 years ago. But even with the huge technological advancements to gaming, it’s still one of the best games of 2022.

Gaming is primarily about fun. I hate using the word in my own writing for its shallowness, but at the crux of it, most games try to be fun. They want to entertain us, to occupy our time successfully, and keep us coming back for more. Vampire Survivors is a master of this. Every death has been my fault, every slice of luck a jolt of serotonin, every bad deal for upgrades an incentive to keep on trucking to beat the odds. My longest run so far is just over ten minutes, and that feels like a satisfying amount. I know I can get better, but I also know the game isn’t going to steal 80 hours of my life in exchange for being recognised as prestige.

It’s similar in that regard to Marvel Snap, another overlooked game this year, though slightly less than Vampire Survivors. Both are games with no pretences, that have a clearly defined sense of self, and take their own creative idea and package it into the most moreish morsel they can manage. Too often we find ourselves trudging through sludge because sales algorithms dictate that triple-A games need to be behemoths filled to the brim with emptiness

I’ve wrestled with the idea of what it means to be ‘award-worthy’ in gaming. I know what it means in cinema – it did not surprise me when the likes of Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home were not nominated at the Oscars. Top Gun: Maverick only has a shot because of the over-the-top stunt work of Tom Cruise. But in gaming, it’s harder to tell. Is Vampire Survivors award-worthy because it is simply fun with little to say? Is Horizon Forbidden West because it is technically compelling but slow and narratively derivative? Does it even matter?

It feels like it might matter, if only because the success of Vampire Survivors only serves to highlight the flaws with our triple-A approach. Obviously photorealism is here to stay, but it has passed the point where it is impressive. We fawned over the rope animations and shirt animations in The Last of Us Part 2, but that was because there was a good game underneath it. When we see Karen Fukuhara rendered in game just like the Karen Fukuhara we know from The Boys, we just sort of shrug. I get that it’s impressive, but it just looks like Karen Fukuhara. I can see that on Amazon, or with five seconds of Googling. This expensive endeavour is for nothing – it’s not award-worthy any more, nor is it a statement of quality or fun.

The aesthetic personality has been completely sapped from these games. They just look like ‘real life’, whatever that is. We know Sony was involved in Callisto’s development, and that’s telling in the way it resembles all of Sony’s prestige catalogue. It’s technically impressive, sure, to manage to create a photorealistic video game, but do you know who the eighth man on the moon was? It’s been done. It’s not a selling point anymore.

It doesn’t need to be this way, either. Movies are also photorealistic, given that they are literally a succession of photographs. Yet they manage to conjure up a strong personality. The Woman King, X, Bones & All, and Everything Everywhere All At Once (my four favourites of the year) all look visually distinct. The problem is video games are too similar to Marvel and Star Wars, where everything is clean, and safe, and the same. No one is willing to be The Batman or Andor; even that meagre risk is too much.

Not all games need to look like Vampire Survivors. That’s the opposite of my point. But more games do need to be true to their own identity instead of replicating real life. When we had technical limitations, necessity was the mother of invention – Silent Hill only has its iconic fog because of the game’s poor draw distance. Now we have no limitations, no necessity to think around them, and no invention.

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