Our list of the best looking games of 2016 isn’t just a rundown of the year’s most glamorous eye-poppers. Technical breakthroughs are one way of thinking about graphics in any art form, but too much of it and you risk siloing thinking.
Focusing on the rendering prowess of a game can, for instance, lead to overlooking the accomplishments of something deceptively simple looking, like Burly Men at Sea, Brain&Brain’s folk-romp that uses visually minimalist pastels and geometric shapes to frame its charming vignettes.
Some on this list, like Giant Squid’s Abzû or Plastic’s Bound, immerse us in worlds brimming with kaleidoscopic colors and glittering alien geometry, while others, like Thekla’s The Witness or EA DICE’s Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, offer visions of otherworldly places that loosely resemble (and in the ways they differ, subtly comment on) aspects of our own.
After selecting games for this year’s list, TIME asked each studio’s art team to comment on their approach. You’ll see those quotes in the captions accompanying each image.