In celebration of 'ugly' games

(Image credit: Mr Pink.)

Games have gotten pretty bloody gorgeous, eh? In 2022 we're spoilt for lush vistas reflected against ray-traced floors. Draw distances that span thousands of miles and grass that flows against wind, shimmering in dappled golden light. With a little bit of effort even a chump like me can make a landscape that invites awe.

But then there are those other games. Not the games that just look a bit rough or low-fidelity, no—the ones that feel actively upsetting to even lay your eyes on.

This week I dipped into Golden Light, the disquietingly meatcore first-person shooter James Davenport played back in 2020 ahead of its imminent departure from Early Access, and I can't actually remember the last time I was so properly upset by a game's whole vibe. Golden Light moves in ways games shouldn't, your character lurching in ways we've been trained to see as bad, the world oppressing you with darkness and noise and walls made of flesh. A meat jukebox asks you to stick your hands all over it and I find myself rapidly reaching for the soap.

It's not gore in the way of the monsters in Back 4 Blood or Resident Evil, high-resolution gut textures glistening with specular sheen. But nor is it trying to use adherence to retro aesthetics to unnerve in the way of the indie scene's PS1 renaissance. It's an admittance, and an embrace, of the power of games to be really goddamn abrasive.

As technology has improved, developers have only gotten better at wrangling computers into creating believable worlds, be they the photorealistic plains of Red Dead Redemption 2 or the Pixar-like battlefields of Overwatch. But fundamentally (and to be extremely reductive), these games are still just drawing triangles and painting them in textures and shaders, and those can be used to create spaces far beyond the realms of reality or reason.

Cruelty Squad

(Image credit: Consumer Softproducts)

We saw this in last year's Cruelty Squad, a game so aggressive and abrasive in its aesthetic that even a perennial weird game enjoyer like myself hesitated. It's a nauseating game, but deliberately so—a game that leverages its audio and visuals to construct a cyberpunk dystopia that feels more affectingly hellish than anything Cyberpunk 2077 could ever imagine.

Golden Light, too, feels more immediately repulsive for its raw, grimy rendering. Even the most horrific Dark Souls monsters or goriest Mortal Kombat fatalities are still limited by a need to look not realistic, per se, but polished, high fidelity, the result of teams of artists working at the top of their field and restricted to what a modern game 'should' look like. 

But as the recent flood of retro PS1 horror devs can testify, there's a phenomenal power to unsettle in more dated visuals—vertices that wobble and low-res textures that don't quite light correctly, forcing your brain to fill in the gaps. Games like Cruelty Squad and Golden Light aren't just pulling from a single era of old visuals, though—as long as the medium has existed, there have been games that look off, unpleasant, technically broken and a wee bit absurd. 

A red sky over a highway

(Image credit: Taylor Swietanski)

In the early days of games, these may have been unfortunate accidents. But for years, indies have leveraged the potential for games to look more deliberately like computer-generated sorcery. And they're not just doing so to unsettle, either.

Taylor Swietanski's That Night, Steeped By Blood River uses stark colours and shimmering worlds to paint the sleepy tension of liminal spaces, a long night at a motel stuck between nothing and nowhere. Curtain, by If Found developer Dreamfeel, is a melancholy dream of a destructive relationship that hits far harder than if the game's Glasgow flat had been rendered in pain-staking photorealism. Unpaid Serenade for Future Solution Group [2026 eCon Grief/Heartbreak Singalong Nightmare/Archive]'s blurred, drunken conference hall is maybe the most accurate painting of the sheer terror of public speaking I've ever experience.

See, I was probably a bit facetious when I said these games are ugly. They can be uncomforable, often hard to look at, but with a great degree of intent in rejecting what a good game is supposed to look like. Hell, I'd go so far as to say they're beautiful. 

Yes, even the meat jukebox.

Natalie Clayton
Features Producer

20 years ago, Nat played Jet Set Radio Future for the first time, and she's not stopped thinking about games since. Joining PC Gamer in 2020, she comes from three years of freelance reporting at Rock Paper Shotgun, Waypoint, VG247 and more. Embedded in the European indie scene and a part-time game developer herself, Nat is always looking for a new curiosity to scream about—whether it's the next best indie darling, or simply someone modding a Scotmid into Black Mesa. She also unofficially appears in Apex Legends under the pseudonym Horizon.