I recently finished reading through the digital version of the Alice: Madness Returns art book. If you're interested in the look of games and not just their narratives or playability I would greatly recommend getting your hands on an art book some time. I've always been completely shit at art, sadly, in grade eight my art teacher suggested to my parents at a Parent/Teacher evening that perhaps there were other talents I could pursue.
Nonetheless, that hasn't negatively affected my enjoyment of art, and within games that enjoyment extends to an expectation. Obviously I adore the comic book style of The Wolf Among Us and the beautiful, intricate and macabre darkness of Alice, but it doesn't need to be that complicated, it just needs to be appropriate. Look at To The Moon, or Actual Sunlight in its 2D form. Both games are pixel art but the mood fits perfectly and the art doesn't feel 'necessarily simple' though it may be just that, it feels fitting and complimentary.
The job of an art director sounds incredibly complex from all I've read. In some ways it's designing a wrapper for pre-designed levels, in other ways it's setting down every detail of the game world and the characters who inhabit it to enable to story to be told at all.
In this particular case, at least, it was consistently a process of being passionate about what they wanted and coming to a compromise that created something far better than what just one individual could have formulated. From the simplicity of Antichamber, the intense dichotomy of Limbo, to the soft sandscapes in Journey, art is everything. Whether a game is narrative focussed or not, we'll often just put it down to graphics 'quality' or make a passing mention that a game is 'pretty', but it's more than that. Art design, as described through the Madness Returns art book, is a process of hashing out what works and what doesn't. The thing I loved about the commentary from the art designers was the amount of times they cited heated arguments about what certain areas should look like and, indeed, what Alice herself should look like.
As in the success of all good things, they are the culmination of long, in-depth discussions between talented people with a vision. I still suck at art but at least I have that takeaway, and these lovely art books. Is there any in-game art that you're particularly fond of?