Games have gotten pretty damn beautiful, haven’t they? In 2022, we will be spoiled with luscious vistas reflected against ray-traced floors. Draw distances thousands of miles and grass flowing against the wind, glistening in dappled golden light. With a little effort, even a moron like me can create an awe-inspiring landscape.
But then there are those other games. Not the games that just look a little rough or low-fidelity, no – the ones that feel actively shocking to even look at.
This week I went into hiding in Golden Light, the disturbing fleshcore first-person shooter James Davenport played back in 2020 ahead of the impending early access departure, and I can’t really remember the last time I was this good upset throughout the whole atmosphere of a game. Golden Light moves in ways games shouldn’t, swinging your character in ways we’ve seen as evil, the world oppressing you with darkness and noise and walls of flesh. A meat jukebox asks you to put your hands over it and I find myself quickly reaching for the soap.
It doesn’t get in the way of the monsters in Back 4 Blood or Resident Evil, high-resolution gut textures glisten with a specular sheen. But neither is it an attempt to cling to retro aesthetics to get in the way of the PS1 renaissance of the indie scene. It’s an acknowledgment, and an embrace, of the power of games to be really damn abrasive.
As technology has improved, developers have only gotten better at wrangling computers to create believable worlds, be it the photorealistic plains of Red Dead Redemption 2 or the Pixar-esque battlefields of Overwatch. But essentially (and to be extremely reductive), these games are still just drawing and painting triangles in textures and shaders, and can be used to create spaces that are far beyond the realm of reality or reason.
We saw this last year in Cruelty Squad, a game so aggressive and abrasive in its aesthetic that even a perennial, weird game aficionado like me hesitated. It’s a sickening game, but on purpose – one that uses its audio and visuals to construct a cyberpunk dystopia that feels more poignantly hellish than anything Cyberpunk 2077 could ever imagine.
Golden Light also immediately feels repulsive because of the raw, dirty rendering. Even the most gruesome Dark Souls monsters or the most gory Mortal Kombat kills are still limited by the need to look not necessarily realistic, but polished, high-fidelity, the result of teams of artists working at the top of their field and are limited to what a modern game ‘should’ appear to be.
But as the recent spate of retro PS1 horror developers can prove, there’s a phenomenal power to jumble in more dated images — vertices that wobble and low-resolution textures that don’t quite light up, forcing your brain to fill in the gaps. to fill. However, games like Cruelty Squad and Golden Light don’t just come from a single era of old imagery – as long as the medium has existed, there have been games that were bland, obnoxious, technically broken and a bit absurd.
In the early days of games, these may have been unfortunate accidents. But for years, indies have exploited the potential to make games more deliberately resemble computer-generated wizardry. And they don’t just do that to disrupt.
Taylor Swietanski’s That night, drenched in Blood River uses stark colors and glittering worlds to paint the sleepy tension of liminal spaces, a long night in a motel between nothing and nowhere. Curtainby If Found developer Dreamfeel, is a melancholy dream of a destructive relationship that hits much harder than if the Glasgow flat had been rendered in painstaking photorealism. Unpaid serenade for Future Solution Group [2026 eCon Grief/Heartbreak Singalong Nightmare/Archive]The hazy, drunken conference room is perhaps the most accurate painting of the sheer fear of public speaking I’ve ever experienced.
Look, I was probably a little funny when I said these games are ugly. They can be uncomfortable, often difficult to watch, but with a great deal of intent to reject what a good game should look like. Hell, I’d go so far as to say they’re beautiful.
Yes, even the meat jukebox.