2021 has been a great year for art design in games. While the blockbuster releases have been a little thin on the ground thanks to the pandemic, gorgeous looking indie games have lit 2021 up. When the site came up with our nominations for The Game Awards, Best Art Design was the category we became the most heated over. In the end, it's a little disappointing that pretty triple-As that don't do anything interesting are on the shortlist, but The Artful Escape is a gorgeous and cleverly designed game well worthy of its place there, while the barren beauty of Sable is very unlucky to miss out. Solar Ash, which launches today and will be eligible for next year's ceremony, completes the trifecta of sublimely artistic games that make brilliant use of open spaces.
I reviewed all three games, giving The Artful Escape a 4.5, Sable a 3, and Solar Ash a 4. As overall experiences, I'd say they're a mixed bag. As visual spectacles though, they're unmatched, and it's great to see games on smaller budgets having access to the technology that allows their artistry to run wild, even if it can't compete with The Last of Us Part 2's photorealism.
Related: The Transical Mystery Tour Of The Artful EscapeWhile I didn't click with Sable as a complete entity, how it looked, and how it felt to be in a place that looked so magnificent, was always a high point of the experience. In fact, one of the big disappointments with Sable was its day/night cycle, meaning the rich, earthy shades of the landscapes were washed out in greys and midnight blues far too often. While I personally felt players could have used more guidance when it came to finding quests and what order to complete them in, I have to admire Sable's commitment to an open world. It's not trying to be as big as the triple-A scene, but it instead opts to be as open as possible. It's empty, and as a player that can be a drag, but as a nomadic figure wandering through a colourful desert vista, it's magical.
Where other games feel algorithmically designed to keep your attention, Sable trusts you. At times, that means you're stuck with no idea of what to do or where to go next, but it also means you get to wander these lands undisturbed. Solar Ash inverts this idea – in every area, there are specific markers you must reach, and puzzles you must solve when you get there. But every marker is in some seemingly inaccessible place – at the top of a tower there are no stairs or ladders to, for example – meaning even when you know exactly where you need to go, you have to fathom the journey for yourself.
The colour schemes are inverted too – where Sable is natural and sunbaked, Solar Ash is neon and electric. Bubblegum blue, vibrant purple, and eclectic swirls of lime yellow dominate the palette. Solar Ash is clearly not deliberately going against Sable's design ideas, given that they came out mere months apart, but it's fascinating to see two indie games made on relatively small budgets be able bend the rules of exploration and art design in the gaming space in diametrically opposed yet extremely complementary ways.
Then we come to The Artful Escape. As a linear platformer, it doesn't seem to have much in common with Sable or Solar Ash. There is no freedom of exploration offered – you simply go forwards, occasionally jumping. Yet there is a freedom in this. Thanks to the spectacular sound design, you can begin playing your guitar at any moment in The Artful Escape, and it will instantly and seamlessly harmonise with the melody playing in the background. You might not get to wander freely through each planet you travel to, but you get to make every trip your own. The psychedelic visuals add an extra layer to all of this, especially when Francis' impostor syndrome kicks in and the world becomes dull once more.
As indies get access to better tech and greater scope to explore gaming conventions, we'll see more experimental titles pushing established genres and tropes in fascinating new directions, and Solar Ash is the latest in this trend. 2021 belongs to indies – the brave, the bold, the beautiful.
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