"Looks aren't important." It's the old adage that gets trotted out every once in a while when a game comes along that's beautiful to look at, but perhaps drops the ball in terms of gameplay mechanics or a forced, mediocre script, or design that's limp and sweaty and uninspired. It's the cry of critics and fans styling themselves as a sort of would-be industry intelligensia, playing down the crude concerns of those only interested in the whizz and wonder of blockbusters and spectacle. I'm often a little flippant about it on this very site, and the graphical side of things sometimes get a bad rap. The suggestion is that good gameplay can meaningfully enhance a game with poor graphics, but shining production values can't save a game that's mediocre at its core.
That may be true on paper, but then why do we go so absolutely nuts over games with good graphics? Are we idiots? And I say "we" because I'm a just as much of a sucker for a pretty game as the next person up. We can chat some jumped-up waffle about how graphics don't really matter, and that is true to a certain extent, one only has to look back at some of the timeless classics of our industry, but times change, technology moves on, and with new possibilities come new expectations.
It's the vistas that have brought me to think on this topics lately. There have been so many moment in inFamous: Second Son where I've found myself pausing for a moment on top of a skyscraper and swooning over the draw distance and the pinsharp detail. We've come such a long way since the infamous N64 fog days, and these graphical evolutions help to create a greater sense of connection to the virtual worlds we inhabit. As technology has advanced quicker, as PC capabilities continue to break boundaries faster than ever before, so our expectations have rocketed. Immersion has become the grail in terms of gaming experiences.
For two decades we've been able to have our cake and eat it too, stepping into game worlds of varying shapes and sizes and role-playing across innumerable genres to our hearts' content. What we can see -- a visual representation or demonstration -- often forms our first introduction to a game. It's why companies spend so long on trailers, and explaining games though visual means. That channel of communication is incredibly powerful, and its successful exploitation will only improve as the industry grows and technology advances.
With 3D gaming, we've long had the ability to truly immerse ourselves in digital worlds that make sense in comparison to our own, and as graphics get better, the paintbrushes used to create these worlds become smaller and finer, allowing for greater detail, fewer cracks, and moments of beauty that we can related to on a sensory level. For me, it's the vistas -- whether that's watching the sun set across Los Santos, or marvelling at a titanic space battle above my head in Titanfall (and dying because of it!), or spotting something over the next mountain in Skyrim. As graphical engines have progressed forwards, the horizons have rolled back, and in skilled hands we've been able to to see further than ever before. That's addictive, and once you've experienced something like that, you start to demand it from many more of your virtual experiences.
But when we talk about graphics, we're not just talking about the hyper-realistic. Art direction is games has never been more important precisely because there's now a possibility to tell stories through entirely visual means, to add light and shade to a narrative by means of visible, environmental context. What once needed heavily-involved scripts to describe across punitive text adventures, we can now realise in arguably more powerful fashion. As another old adage goes: it's always better to show rather than tell.
It's given rise to games that have in many sense both stripped back gameplay mechanics to a bare minimum and yet also found more in-depth ways of interacting with an environment. That sounds a little contradictory to begin with, but that's what underpins games such as Dear Esther and, better yet, Gone Home. To take that even further and consider something like Loading Human is to begin to realise that we've reached a point where graphics are actually becoming gameplay, and that developers working feverishly on the former can be fundamentally tied into the latter. In fact, it's been going on for years: think about how many times dynamic lighting in a game has contributed to a sense of unease or tension or, in the case of Dead Space, some pants-ruining terror. Though L.A. Noire frequently careened over the cliff of humanity into the uncanny valley, reading the expressions on the faces of the characters to try and determine guilt or anxiety or pride was enormously enjoyable. In fact, I'd posit that L.A. Noire only grew weaker when it moved beyond that connection between what we as Cole could see, the world around us, and the investigation, and forced more traditional gameplay mechanics into proceedings, ruining everything.
There's a limit, though. Creating good graphics is a tool to be used in the pursuit of interactive immersion, not a crutch to paper over cracks. Like I said a personal vlog regarding cinematic games, simply approaching game design from one perspective is not going to be enough, and just because the visuals are the first thing we might notice about a game, doesn't mean that you should build your game atop those foundations. Crysis, an outstanding title when it first emerged, blowing our minds with its graphical capabilities and setting a benchmark for years, has not hit those heights with subsequent instalments because outside of its visual spectacle (and others have caught up) there has been little particularly worthy of note. The cop-out argument, of course, is that the pursuit of shinier graphics is an expensive and time-consuming process, which doesn't often leave the resources and the time for everything else. Balance is key -- making a game that looks great but plays like crap isn't down to the focus on good graphics; it's down to botched development.
It's a difficult thing to resist, though, and if you can make your game look stunning, some might say that it's a bit of a no-brainer. You only have to glance at the swathes of feedback and the hit numbers for articles dealing in resolution wars, graphical comparisons, and "ultra" settings videos to see how important this is to audiences. But it's important not to write that off as dumbed-down appeal, especially not these days. There are plenty of examples of games that try to use visual spectacle to paper over the cracks, but we're also seeing games that use the extra detail afforded by more advanced rendering and modelling techniques to build worlds begging to be explored.
Good graphics are super-important when they serve the game, when used as a tool not a crutch, and when the end goal is a more immersive experience. And we all need to remember that