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COMMENT | Let's Stop Kidding Ourselves... Graphics Are Super-Important

Author:
Matt Gardner
Category:
Features
Tags:
Graphics, Graphics vs. Gameplay, inFamous: Second Son, PC games, PS4 games, Titanfall, Xbox One Games

COMMENT | Let's Stop Kidding Ourselves... Graphics Are Super-Important

"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.

COMMENT | Let's Stop Kidding Ourselves... Graphics Are Super-Important

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.

COMMENT | Let's Stop Kidding Ourselves... Graphics Are Super-Important

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.

COMMENT | Let's Stop Kidding Ourselves... Graphics Are Super-Important

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.

COMMENT | Let's Stop Kidding Ourselves... Graphics Are Super-Important

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

Add a comment7 comments
Yukes  Mar. 24, 2014 at 17:51

Good article Matt.
I agree that we all hypocritically play down the importance of graphics in a game whilst gawping at an in-game setting sun or sharp character model. In my opinion graphics are part of the aesthetics of a game, which includes art direction and attention to detail, and aesthetics themselves are just part of a wider picture of what contributes to the immersion factor as you highlight.
I would argue that sound design, scripting, bugs and character design are all just as important as aesthetics for making a game world immersive and satisfying to inhabit. By that logic therefore graphics are of importance but only a little.

Quietus  Mar. 24, 2014 at 20:04

If you ask me, it feels like most people's problems are that they can't accept the middle ground. Just because we feel that graphics don't have the be perfect doesn't mean we don't want things to look good, and it certainly doesn't mean they can look crap, and we'll just forgive them and still play it.

I tend to think of both graphics and sound as being in the same basket - they're nice bits of polish that can take a good, fun game, and make it a great, fun game.

It's not that I don't want spangly graphics, just that it's the cherry on top, and if the game isn't fun, then it doesn't matter how good it looks, because I simply won't play it.

Last edited by Quietus, Mar. 24, 2014 at 20:04
googleberry  Mar. 25, 2014 at 12:29

"Creating good graphics is a tool to be used in the pursuit of interactive immersion, not a crutch to paper over cracks."

Amen.

Love your example of dead space. That game could easily have looked good and yet been pants. Instead we got a game where the gfx and the game design were equal partners in creating a truly immersive experience.

Dead space with occulus rift......

!!

ChrisHyde  Mar. 25, 2014 at 13:21

Cracking article Matt.

Visuals make up a part of a game, as do many other things. It's like when I wrote about difficulty in games - no one thing determines the quality of the game. And there's certainly nothing wrong with wanting each aspect to be the best it can be.

But it's when the "best" thing you can say about a game or indeed the "only" thing you can say about a game is about one particular component (like visuals) that's when you've got a case to complain.

So no, visuals, don't make a game, no single thing does. A great game is made up of great individual parts - it stands to reason.

Timmmm  Mar. 25, 2014 at 19:24

Good article, the immersive graphics on PS4 games (like Battlefield 4, Infamous, Killzone or Metal Gear Solid GZ) so early into this console generation are absolutely incredible, we will see amazing graphics on PS4 for years to come.

destroyer11687  Mar. 26, 2014 at 03:07

Thanks for this!

You know, I simply haven't understood the devs and the many others making the argument that it's not about graphics as much as it's about the story. While there is certainly truth to this statement - if I fully embraced it, if they fully embraced it, if Msoft, Sony, and Nintendo fully embraced it - then why would they **** release a new system and expect us to buy it up (hmmm...maybe that's why Msoft tried to be the ONE thing for your living room, cause they thought gamers wouldn't buy a new system just for better graphics - something PS4 seems to be disproving). Now, I know I'm oversimplifying things a bit and it's not "ALL" about graphics, and there are certainly new things it sounds like these systems can do outside of the graphical component that their predecessors couldn't (Better AI due to faster processing, "Cloud", Twitch streaming, etc.), but the overall majority of gamers seem to be interested in one thing that they couldn't get with the previous generation. That is, much better graphics at a higher frame-rate in 1080p native.

Just think how much better Dragon Age 1 and 2 could have been with amazing graphics? While good games in and of themselves, their graphical shortcomings made what could have been an absolute orgasm for the eyes simply good games with terrible frame-rate issues and graphics that reminded us more of the original Xbox's days than that of the 360. In my opinion, the reason most gamers desire to step up to the next generation of hardware, including myself, is because of the improved visuals that will come with it, which will transform the way we experience the tried and true gameplay we become accustomed to. After all, it really doesn't appear that most of the games that have graced us so far are doing anything that the previous gen couldn't do as far as gameplay goes. And the games that are exclusives to the new systems are because the hardware wouldn't be able to handle the games on the 360 or PS3 without dumbing down the visuals to the point that the developer couldn't create what he/she imagined (i.e. - Arkham Knight). So, in my opinion, while gameplay is certainly important, it doesn't appear that the new systems will allow us to experience gameplay that we couldn't experience on the last gen (Please devs, prove me wrong!). What they seem like they will be able to do, and why I believe most gamers look to get a new system, is transform the way we experience gameplay by providing us with even more amazing and immersive visuals.

MaouTsaou  Mar. 26, 2014 at 22:38

http://oregonstate.edu/ua/ncs/archives/2014/jan/one-step-time-researchers-learning-how-humans-walk

That's odd... so we can't teach a robot to walk well but we think the pretty pictures somehow cover the lack of tacktile, order, non-virtual aspects of the "experience" we're trying to immerse ourselves in backed up with a drown out loud audio overdo to again substitute a trick as crafted imersion like the AC and heartbeat rythem in certain... functions folks engage in that use the resulting goosebumps and growing excitement to dun the days fee from the flock... Ted, I'm looking in YOUR direction... watch the hand producing the flash/bang y'all not the other hand especially as it does not much but appears content to just call flash/bangs art and not bother with the work of part of art and let's not forget that using another mediums "stories" what with the plots and scripting and all of it written BEFORE play making all the button clicks and mouse movement mostly moot and ignoring the fact that group RPG's are a medium of cooperative creativity and that's done in play unless there's some "author/director/we can't write rules so we call Players who argue 'rules lawyers' rather than write clearly and establish the HUGE mistake of the take my dice and go home if you don't follow my plot Player above all others because I said so screwup of the short period of development the genera got before frozen in module and rulebook marketing without ever cutting the individual out of the unit much less establishing anything beyond destructive and poorly reasoned play dynamics with little to offer by way of constructive play usually and nothing close to a functioning world in the planet-sense of what a world is, instead giving the staged scene illusion of a world outside the theater/campaign maps hazy undeveloped bounds. Design desent movement first THEN put the sparkles on the refracted sunray filtering through the window with the glass that breaks into the same shape and number of peices as all the other windows like it before vanishing into the nothing all the targets and gold peices appear from and disappear back into while moving between plot points gameplay does nada to affect much less change or avoid because why invest a expansion card on something stupid like a game clock/engine when you can just keep jucing up the video and forget physics, social systems built upon abundently limited resources, or even the otherside of the Planet as east never affects west ever so who needs to know what their doing when not there? Ecowhatics? That sounds hard... lets make the GIB sparkle in the sunbeam from the window... that's gaming.

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