Some of the games on this list take advantage of the very latest in cutting edge graphics technology. And some, clearly, do not. But they all have one thing in common, regardless of the tech: great art direction. A feel. A vibe. That's really what determines if a game looks good, not how many polygons it's able to throw around. So, with that in mind, let's look back at some of 2020's prettiest PC games, from expensive AAA blockbusters to tiny indies.
Cloudpunk setting Nivalis is a vivid, intricate metropolis built entirely from voxels, and it's stunning. A bustling sprawl of neon signs, roaming spotlights, colossal billboards, and hover cars floating back-and-forth between monolithic skyscrapers, it creates the illusion of an overcrowded dystopian city more effectively than Cyberpunk's infinitely more expensive Night City.
Microsoft Flight Simulator
Sometimes Microsoft's newest flight sim plays like a game from five years in the future. Pulling up the Earth, picking anywhere, then finding yourself flying over a photorealistic depiction of it really feels like magic. This combined with natural lighting, fluffy volumetric clouds, and some truly terrifying, atmospheric thunderstorms make this a treat for the eyes.
This photography game is set in a wonderfully realised lo-fi dystopia influenced by Māori culture. Its stylised characters inhabit vivid, hyper-real urban spaces, and every inch of the world tells a story. This is a game with a true punk sensibility and unique aesthetic, like some scrappy underground zine come to life.
Assassin's Creed Valhalla
From the icy fjords of Norway to the autumnal forests of medieval England, the world of Valhalla is rich with detail and layered with fascinating history. Viking settlements sit alongside the faded ruins of the Romans, creating a powerful sense of place. It's one of the best Assassin's Creed settings yet.
Over the Alps
This spy adventure is fun, twisty, and suspenseful, but it's the art direction I really love. Lively animated vignettes inspired by vintage travel posters bring the story's Alpine setting to life. The colours, typography, and stylised landscapes are supremely classy. And thanks to its roots as a mobile title, it's super easy to play. A perfect game for a lazy Sunday.
City 17 was always an atmospheric setting, but in Alyx that sensation is heightened dramatically by a massive increase in fidelity. Its distinctive collision of faded Soviet Modernism and brutal alien architecture is more evocative than ever, thanks to some remarkably realistic lighting and tactile, detailed textures designed to be seen up-close in VR.
The stark, eerie volcanic landscapes you traverse in Death Stranding's post-apocalyptic United States are some of the most beautiful and haunting I've seen in a game. Hideo Kojima's bizarre post-Metal Gear hiking simulator has a muted, stylish aesthetic, combining rugged, dramatic Scandinavian terrain with Yoji Shinkawa's idiosyncratic high-tech mechanical designs.
As well as being one of the best detective games on PC, Paradise Killer is also beautiful to look at. On this tropical island you'll find immense crystal statues of goat-headed deities, grand marble temples, swaying palm trees, and a cast of truly eccentric characters. Influenced by Japanese videogames, vaporwave, and anime, Paradise Killer is a real visual feast of a game.
This short game was created by student Christopher Lee as part of his final year project at Singapore's School of Arts, Design, and Media, and is one of the prettiest things we played on PC this year. A film noir-inspired narrative adventure with a neat sci-fi twist, TimeOut mixes pixel art with real-time lighting, shadows, and reflections to stunning effect.
Under a Star Called Sun
This tiny sci-fi story was created with just two colours and a handful of pixels, using free game maker Bitsy, and yet it manages to be hugely captivating and atmospheric. It's a masterclass in making something great within strict limitations, and one of the best indies of the year. The growing Bitsy scene has fast become one of the most creative spaces in amateur game dev.
Star Wars: Squadrons
Squadrons is a great-looking game, but it's the cockpits that really make it special. They perfectly replicate the chunky retro-futuristic aesthetic of the movies, but go a step further and make the computer read-outs scattered around the cockpit actually functional. A thrilling Star Wars dogfight sim that brilliantly captures the look and feel of the original trilogy.