This is certainly a less abstract category than previous ones. I debated whether or not to include it, because on some level it feels superficial. But I hope that the reasoning behind my choices is justification enough.
A refrain that I hear from game critics over the years is that what once impressed them is no longer quite as compelling; that true novelty becomes increasingly rare as one spends years playing games and writing or talking about them. This is true for me on some degree, but looking out across a game world is one thing that I do still find affecting. This category is about games that truly excel at conveying their setting through art, music, sound, and level design that culminate in moments of real splendor.
The Runner Up
Subnautica: Below Zero
I bought it in early access when it first launched a few years ago, and decided not to touch it until it reached 1.0 (I have trouble returning to games that I sink to much time into during early access). The original Subnautica is an all-time favorite of mine, so when Below Zero was released I was pretty thrilled to dive into it.
Something felt different about this game compared to the previous one. I never quite figured out if there was something about it that made it less scary or if I’d become less affected by it after the trials I faced in the original. All told, I think the introduction of more explicit storyline and more characters is a strength. But the terrestrial exploration felt underwhelming compared to the ever deeper dives into strange aquatic biomes, and few of the new creatures were as alien and terrifying as so many in Subnautica.
But it turns out that “craft, build, and survive in a spooky alien ocean” is still an incredible conceit that’s brimming with potential, and Below Zero has plenty of moments of tension, mystery, and awe. The world of Subnautica is just really cool to look at and a great way to work through my own (relatively mild) thalassophobia.
Just like its predecessor, Below Zero uses light and color to characterize its biomes and its alien sea creatures. Each one are colorful and strange, and yet all of them feeling intentional and at least loosely grounded in biology. It’s all brought together by fantastic water effects and sound design that convey the sensory experience of underwater exploration.
I’ve added a few more screenshots that I like below.
Solar Ash is the second title released by indie outfit Heart Machine. Their previous release was the isometric action game Hyper Light Drifter, a game with a haunting aesthetic, both vibrant and gloomy, that really resonated with me. In particular, its sparse and ethereal soundtrack remains one of my favorites.
I came into Solar Ash with high hopes. My first impression was mixed; while the atmosphere was as strong as ever, I was thrown off by the greater emphasis on dialogue. Hyper Light Drifter was a game with no voiced lines, and relatively little text at all. Much of the world’s story was there in the environment and in the enigmatic opening sequence; very little was delivered through conversation or exposition. At the start, Solar Ash felt like it was undercutting its spectacular aesthetic with too much talking and middling writing.
After a while, I got a bit more accustomed to it. I started to meet new characters and find more audio logs, and some of the narrative threads began to grow on me. About halfway through, I no longer felt the friction I had at the beginning; partly due to acclimation, and partly because the strongest writing comes in later on. But all the while, what I had really grown attached to was the atmosphere.
Solar Ash takes place inside a black hole, where numerous worlds have been absorbed and destroyed, their husks crushed and warped together. Amidst the twisted ruins are a few surviving stragglers, desperately contending with the destruction of everything they once knew. The sense of desolation in the world is as stark as it is vivid. The world is bathed in a haze of strange colors, distant areas looming in the backdrop as ominous silhouettes. The soundtrack evokes a certain curiosity alongside a feeling of unthinkable loss and confusion — all of which befits wandering through alien ruins.
Moving, platforming, and fighting through these spaces is a solid but not-particularly-remarkable experience (despite some high points). Still, the spaces themselves are so gripping that I always enjoyed exploring them. By the end, I didn’t feel all that strongly about the story, but I did find some satisfaction in the emotional catharsis of the conclusion.
But all of that is just flavor. Solar Ash is a game I couldn’t stop screenshotting; it was always finding new ways to impress me with the scale and drama of its strange vistas. It exemplified the simple joy of stepping out into a new area and picking out details in the distance that pique my curiosity.
As with Below Zero, here’s a few more screenshots to show you what I mean.