lol didn’t we talk a bit about this on the fb group? I’m really glad you brought this up! I have OPINIONS on this subject, I just want to preface this by saying that these are all my personal views and I don’t presume to speak for my employer or anyone else!
But yeah, I haaaaate using terms like “stylized” and “realistic” to describe artwork. It forces you into a narrow mindset where art exists on a linear scale, and is either one or the other. Just like you said Jason, the more we think about those terms, the less useful they become. I get that they’re part of our vocabulary and are convenient shorthands for consumers, but as professionals within the field we need to think differently about this stuff. It gets even worse when people attach actual job qualifications to the terms, i.e. I’ve seen job postings for a “stylized” game has VFX done using Photoshop and After Effects, while a “realistic” one uses Houdini and Substance Designer. It’s absolutely ridiculous.
The way I think about it is - if art fundamentals like animation principles, composition, color theory, etc. is what we’re trying to do, style is how we’re trying to do it. For example, color theory teaches us that the color orange is complementary to teal, but it doesn’t tell you which color your AoE effect should be, right? That’s what your game’s style is for. The “rules” for what makes great artwork is the same across all projects, but how we choose to approach and respect those rules is going to be totally different depending on what we’re working on - that’s what I like to call style. Every game has an art direction, every game has a style, and we’re expected to create art that fits regardless of what that style is.
With that mindset, “stylized” suddenly becomes a ton of (sometimes contradictory) things; simple, bold, vibrant, slow, disproportionate. “Realistic” becomes grounded, desaturated, high-fidelity, detailed, gritty, cinematic. I consider The Last of Us to be grounded and detailed, but the world is also vibrant and not really desatured - does that make it stylized or realistic? Journey is simple and slow, but incredibly cinematic, so same issue there.
Not oversimplying stuff into these two categories will help you, as an artist, to understand why Wind Waker is different from World of Warcraft, or even how Battlefield and Call of Duty approach similar problems very differently.