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That a video game may have real artistic value is, by now, mostly accepted. However, there are as many styles as there are titles, including games that don’t look like the stereotypical ones with their fully rendered 3D environments and realistic characters. We selected five independent video games that reference art and animation history, something that even those who are not fully plugged into the video-game universe can appreciate.
For fans of art nouveau, fashion illustration, and Disney’s Sleeping Beauty
If anyone could capture the look of early modernism in video-game form, it would be Studio Nomada, whose Gris is definitely a title to check out. Not much happens in terms of plot: A girl meanders through different realms after an unspecified traumatic event has caused her to lose her voice and turned her world into a grayscale wasteland. The farther she proceeds in her journey, the more colors are added to the game’s visuals. Gris’s environments, with their stylized buildings and delicate line work, have echoes of art nouveau and also hint at Miyazaki’s animations and Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. The design is by Conrad Roset, an artist who specializes in fashion illustration and whose signature color palette of reds, blues, and yellows is also found in Gris. Even if your skills as a gamer leave a lot to be desired, you can enjoy Gris; think of it as the visual equivalent of a symphonic poem, in which not much happens in terms of action but in which the senses are delighted. Available on macOS, Microsoft Windows, Nintendo Switch, iOS, PlayStation 4, and Android.
For fans of abstract art, ballet, and M. C. Escher
Poland-based Plastic Studio, which got its start in the demoscene environment in 1997 and now mainly creates virtual-reality and interactive content for museums, has created a 3D platformer that pays tribute to both the visual and the performing arts. I know, I said I would to sidestep games that looked like videogames, avoiding standard 3D environments and pixel art. Yet the 3D environment in which Bound takes place only resembles Super Mario 64 on a surface level. Its abstract shapes, its convoluted line of action, and its psychedelic patterns make it nothing short of Escher-like. Here again we have a girl on a quest to overcome past trauma, but instead of climbing mountains and digging for hidden treasure, Bound’s main character moves in space like a dancer: When she has to jump, she performs a grand-jeté; when she glides along a runway that unfurls like a ribbon, she performs a figure-skating-inspired twirl; to dodge an attack, she may do a cartwheel. Honestly, one could spend hours making this character prance around. Available on PlayStation 4.
For fans of film noir, jazz, and trivia.
The movies Alphaville, Metropolis, and The Big Sleep, and Italo Calvino’s short-story collection Cosmicomics, are only a few of the references that can come to mind when playing Genesis Noir, a visual narration by the Brooklyn-based Feral Cat Den that is set at the end or the beginning of the world as we know it. In it, you control a watch salesman living in a seedy metropolis who has an affair with a jazz singer and eventually gets found out. The gunshot that is supposed to end his life is actually what sets the events in motion, and, as you travel through time and space, you encounter a plethora of allusions and tributes to art history: An overview of the main hub town has a diner that looks a lot like that in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks; the antagonist wears his hair in a pompadour with a curl that looks toward the Fibonacci spiral; a sequence at the bottom of the ocean sees the protagonist adopt the pose of William Blake’s Newton. All of these impressive artistic feats are rendered in a black-and-white palette, with occasional splashes of yellow. It is sometimes said that the more constraints you have, the more creative you can be, and Genesis Noir definitely proves this to be true. Available on: macOS, Microsoft Windows, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One.
For fans of early animation, body horror, and Creepy Kawaii
If you find yourself obsessing over early Disney cartoons and Warner Bros. shorts, marveling at the detailed line work, the vaguely uncanny rubber-hose shapes of the characters’ limbs, and the tips of the hat to surrealism, then we suggest you try Cuphead from Studio MDHR. The vintage feel is ubiquitous; even the soundtrack was recorded by a live jazz orchestra. Yet, despite its retro appearance evocative of Saturday morning children’s cartoons, it rests on a dark premise: The characters Cuphead and Mugman have lost a bet with the Devil, who tricked them into gambling away their souls. Playing it requires actual skills, which drew the ire of some crowds, who felt the game was trying to exclude unskilled players. Nevertheless, Cuphead has now garnered mainstream success: More than 4 million units have been sold since its release, and there’s a Netflix animated series too. Available on Microsoft Windows, Xbox One, macOS, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4.
For fans of 1970s-’80s sci-fi and Studio Ghibli
A girl on a desertlike planet is looking for artifacts. No, it’s not Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, nor Star Wars The Force Awakens, nor is it the world of the first adaptation of Dune. This is Sable, a game from Shedworks in which the eponymous heroine embarks on a coming-of-age task: She has to find a mask that will reflect her job and purpose before she can return to her nomadic clan. It’s an open-world exploration, where dinosaur bones alternate with palm groves and ruins of great civilizations past, and where the color palette changes according to location and time of day. The style is reminiscent of both Moebius and early Miyazaki (for one thing, the glider the heroine uses bears some resemblance to the one seen in Nausicaä) while the open world and the focus on exploration and puzzle solving is a tribute to Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.The soundtrack is by indie-pop band Japanese Breakfast, and the game has an overall indie-pop feel, something rarely found in a video game. Film and TV adaptations are on the way. Available on: Microsoft Windows, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, PlayStation 5.