2018: Octopath Traveler
2019: Death end re;Quest
Video games come in all shapes and sizes, and that includes their design philosophies. What aspects of a game do developers want to stress? Where do games shine the most? Is it graphics, gameplay, story? All of the above? The following three games all had excellent design choices from environment to storytelling, but only one can win our 2022 Best Design award.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3
NA Release Date: July 29, 2022
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
I reached out to my sister to help me explain why Xenoblade Chronicle 3’s design is worthy of winning our award. Here’s what she had to say:
“If you have ever played a Xenoblade game, many areas of Aionios will be instantly familiar, from the towering Keves Castle to the beautiful Erythia Sea. If you’ve ever played any of Takahashi’s Xeno games, the themes of mortality, divinity and fate will also be instantly familiar. A beautiful marriage of everything that has come before it, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 shines most where it takes the concepts and familiarity of its setting and reimagines them, breathing new life into a story that has been literal decades in the making.
The character designs, as well, are all gorgeous, and with a glance one can instantly ping Keves from Agnus from the mysterious third party the main characters meet early on. Each hero has a unique, fun design that gives insight into their personalities without painting them as one-dimensional.
The battle system is also a wonderful blend of Xenoblade 1 and 2, with its own distinct flair that makes it the most fun for this writer to play. Each party member has a unique feel, and finding that perfect match of classes that can break the most difficult fight makes for fun and creative strategies.”
Can all of these elements add up to make it our 2022 Best Design winner, though?
Souls games are known for their difficulty. It’s one of their defining traits, even to those of us who haven’t played them. Elden Ring continues this tradition while also being incredibly accessible to newcomers to the genre (like myself), with a sprawling open world that lets players explore the Lands Between at their own pace. The nature of the world allows you to decide for yourself what difficulty you’re comfortable with, as there are distinct differences in enemy strength and type as you explore the various kingdoms and regions. Feel like a challenge? You can trek to Caelid right out the gate if you’re so inclined (and likely get curb stomped). Exploration is encouraged and led to some of my personal favorite moments, such as taking an elevator to the Siofra River.
That’s not to say there aren’t clear signposts for those who want the most smooth experience. Sites of Grace conveniently dot the landscape, with story-specific ones literally pointing the way to where you should go next to experience Elden Ring’s narrative. The story itself is surprisingly straightforward, but with enough wiggle room to keep the Lands Between as mysterious as they are beautiful, and the little hints and lore you can find by reading item descriptions, or buying notes from merchants, only add to the history and depth of this world.
Elden Ring also boasts some of the most imaginative characters and bosses I’ve seen in recent memory. Personal favorites are Alexander the Warrior Pot (seriously, I do not understand why there are living pots, and I also don’t care because they’re cool) and Astel, Naturalborn of the Void, which has to be one of the most gorgeous boss monsters I’ve ever seen. The way the game blends beauty and grotesquerie is just fantastic. Fighting them is equally fulfilling, with a plethora of combat configurations and weapons to fit any play style. Do you want to be a long range bow user? What about stack up your INT and become an unstoppable laser-firing mage? Feel like jumping into the fray with axe in hand? Or dual-wielding great swords just because? You can do that. Hell, you can just bash things with your shield and that’s A-OK. Elden Ring is just an expertly crafted game through and through. Is it enough to earn this Soulsborne our 2022 Best Design award?
NA Release Date: July 19, 2022
Platform(s): PS4, PS5, PC
Post-apocalyptic worlds are a dime a dozen in video games, but when one comes along with a distinct, focused design, it’s worth paying attention to, and I’m hard-pressed to think of one more unique than having the perspective of a cat. BlueTwelve Studio went above and beyond to make sure players embodied the feel of playing as a furry feline, building their world around a cat’s ability to climb and crawl into all sorts of nooks and crannies. The Abandoned City feels huge despite its actual small locations, thanks in part to the way the camera stays at cat level, forcing you to almost always look up at everything around you. The interactivity of the environment, as well, lends itself to being a mischievous feline, swatting and batting things off edges, or clawing at walls and carpets with abandon. Movement is fluid and light. You can also meow on command, which I found delightful.
The robots that inhabit the Abandoned City are also fantastic, drawing inspiration from a wide range of sources to be both instantly recognizable as homages to sci-fi properties of the past, as well as their own distinct characters in the world of Stray. I found them incredibly charming, especially in the ways they reacted to the cat. The cat’s interactions with them, as well, were very cute and again captured the essence of being a feline, from being able to sit on their laps, to rubbing their legs, and even tripping them as they walk. Along with the robots, I found the design of the enemies to be particularly striking, as they are also unassumingly cute in the same way small mammals are, and yet terrifying in the ways they swarm. Using them as sparingly as they did, BlueTwelve was able to really craft some tense moments to break up what is, overwhelmingly, a game about exploration.
I would be remiss to not discuss B12 when talking about design, though. In terms of gaming, companion characters are often rife with controversy, either because they are frustrating escort-types that you must protect, or because they are annoying or distracting. As a cat, you cannot talk or interact with others in any way that would further the game’s narrative, nor can you read the assortment of graffiti and notes scattered throughout the Abandoned City. B12 works as both an in-game translator for the cat (and by extension, the player), as well as a steadfast companion who I found genuinely interesting and likeable. You want to help B12 in his mission, just as he wants to keep the cat safe as you traverse the dangers of this post-apocalyptic world. There are few games that design companions as well as B12, and those games are all designed by Fumito Ueda, so for me, what BlueTwelve achieved with their little robot companion is high praise indeed. Does this cat game have what it takes to be crowned our 2022 Best Design winner?
And the winner of Best Design is…
This was honestly a difficult decision! Each game was designed to lean into the strengths of its genre, but Elden Ring‘s impeccable worldbuilding, difficulty, and combat ultimately gave it the edge to win our 2022 Best Design award!
I owe Brandon Rose a special thanks for creating the featured image for these Awards on short notice. You should check him and his works out over on Twitter.