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Graphics: They do Matter

Audiovisual media has been around since the dawn of Arts. Earliest examples coming to mind would be Greek plays, performed in an amphitheater. Distinct from books or poetry in that it was something that stimulated both your eyes and ears, hence, Audiovisual.

However, during the middle of the 20th century, Audiovisual media reached its Golden Age with the advent of Television. Unlike theater, which requires present actors to give the performance in one sitting, in front of a live audience, while Television (unless it’s live) is based around transmitting previously recorded shows, with non-present actors that can rehearse and fail their lines without fear of ridicule.

Videogames became part of this in the mid to late 90s, mostly because pre-rendered full motion video was becoming the norm for cutscenes and other animated segments, such as backgrounds or the whole game, in some infamous cases.

Part of the audiovisual entertainment value comes from the artistic portrayal of visuals, music and story, blended together to create an experience for the spectator. It’s common knowledge that all of these factors are equally important to the experience, in the grand scheme of things.

Videogames add another factor the the mix, which is Gameplay. Long has there been a debate over which is more important of all the factors. Is it the plot? The Gameplay? The graphics? (no one seems to care about the sound, for some reason).

It really depends on who you ask, some people will say that they play games for stories, and bad graphics, music or gameplay can be excused in favor of a good plot, while others say that Gameplay takes priority over any other aspect of the game, under the grounds of it being a game, you need to be able to play it.

Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I’m no one to claim to be right. But then again, I’m writing this, you’re reading, so, by natural law of the internet, I’m right, unless someone claims to know better.

The general consensus is that a game can’t rely on graphics alone to sell, and if you buy a game for how it looks, you’re an ignorant, stupid 13 year old Call of Duty playing homophobe who wasn’t even alive when gaming was good. And I’m not here to argue that subject.

What I’m here to actually present is the case that the graphical aspect of a game is actually quite important to the game in question, and doesn’t deserve the treatment it’s given.

As I’ve stated earlier, Audiovisual entertainment media is an ensemble formed by various factors. Videogames, we have Graphics, Sound, Story and Gameplay, that all go hand-in-hand to reach a good immersion for the player. Also, as I stated earlier, if one of these is given a larger priority than the rest, if so is the case, why is it that people seem to neglect the graphical aspect of games?

Well, let’s deconstruct "graphics". Firstly, we have the Graphical Design side of things. This refers to the overall tone and design features of the world, characters and environments. Everything  that can be seen within the game falls in this. In short, how it looks.

The other is Graphic performance, which refers to the technical aspect of things. This means framerate, polygon count, textures, resolution, HDR, all those nifty little things that make the game look smoother, sharper, more detailed and overall more realistic or more aesthetically pleasing.

The second factor is the one most people talk about when they refer to "graphics". And, of course, this is the part everyone acclaim, or hates.

Most people agree that graphics are no more important than a good story or good gameplay. Which, is true, however, in this regard we’ve seen plenty of people take this sentiment to hearth, going as far as to say that graphics don’t matter in the slightest to a game.

As I stated earlier, audiovisual media is a merge of various elements that have to come together to become something enjoyable, even art. Which implies that none of them are any better or any worse, less so are any more important than others.

Every aspect that forms a game or movie or TV show is equally as influential and requires the same amount of care being put into it. It’s part of a whole. Like the saying goes, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

Let me give you an example of what I mean, with the game Hat Fortress 2, the world’s first war themed hat simulator. Hat Fortress 2 is a stylish game, to say the least, and most people will tell you they only play it because of how much fun it is, and it is pretty fun, don’t get me wrong, it’s a really fun Hat simulator where you can trade, craft or buy hats for nine different classes (some hats are even class-exclusive). Oh, also, I think you can also shoot guns or something, I don’t know. Well, here’s how Hat Fortress 2 actually looks:

Sans the hats, of course

… And here’s how it was supposed to look originally

You can pin Hat Fortress‘ success on plenty of factors, but it’s quite hard to forget its cartoonish, yet over-the-top violent graphical design. It’s part of the game’s essence, it’s "soul" if you will, being one of the first things you’d think of when you think of the game. However, what if the game had looked like it originally was meant to look like? a bland, mediocre looking generic military setting.

It’s obvious, the game’s unique and distinctive look creates a very recognizable look that we can immediately relate to the game in question.

This is one of the instances we look at a game and don’t even mention graphics or how inconsequential they are to the game, because it looks good, it blends well with the game’s more comedic tone while starkly contrasting its near-gratuitous levels of violence. And the hats.

Graphics, just like gameplay, require some level of innovation to be good. For the same reason you don’t recycle the same gameplay without some serious flak, you don’t reuse the same graphics or the same look as another game because that’s highly frowned upon (and worryingly common these days), not to mention lazy. This is something a lot of First Person Shooters get flak for, as if the whole genre was nothing but samey brown desert themed shooters. To which I’d like to bring up games like Half-Life, Borderlands, Zeno Clash, the aforementioned Hat Fortress 2, Fallout, etc., which present very stylish and unique environments and designs, not at all like the common "sameish brown desert" image of a shooter.

Of course, I can’t stress enough that just because graphics are not less important than gameplay, sound or plot, doesn’t mean it’s the most important factor of a game, either. I appretiate a game with good graphical performance and/or design, it shows effort on the graphical design aspect, but this doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a game with technical limitations or with lesser graphical capabilities. I said it once and I’ll say it again, every part of the whole is equally as important, and you can’t just shrug off one side to focus elsewhere.

That being said, I can’t admit without shame I have at least once played a game solely for its graphics. And that game was Final Fantasy VIII.

Final Fantasy VIII was a bad game. There, I said it. The plot makes no sense and it’s rendered completely moot by the end, its characters are stupid, unlikable and just… stupid, the music is sub-par and the gameplay is so incredibly grindy it pretty much feels like menial work. But I couldn’t stop playing that stupid, unplayable mess because of how fucking pretty it looked. The graphical design, stage design, FMVs, it all looks really, really good. I kept grinding through the game because I wanted to see just what it was going to throw at me next, and, while the ending was horrendously lackluster, I can say that the overall quality of the cutscenes and art direction made the game pretty much worth it.

But then you say "Oh, look, there goes X again, that hollow shell of a human being, who hates everything that isn’t rendered in full 3D with polygons and crap, that nasty waste of air, him", to which I say, chill the fuck off, and no, I don’t have a gripe against 2D games, or, as I stated earlier, games with limited graphical capabilities. Quick, what are my two favorite PC games? Dwarf Fortress and X-COM: UFO Defense.

Heck, 2D-sprite based graphics can look amazing if done right. Look at an example I mentioned in a previous blog, BlazBlue, Guilty Gear‘s sister series’ and spiritual successor. It looks damn good, while the main plot moves in Visual Novel styled narration, the in-game characters are all very well animated and detailed sprites, while the background and effects are rendered in 3D. It looks really, really good, in fact, I’d say it’s the best looking sprite-based fighter this generation thus far. Every stage feels unique, disctinct, as do every character.

What I’m going for with this is that good graphical performance and design can help plenty to immerse you in the game’s world.

In that regard, look at The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and tell me that the graphics don’t matter in that game. Tell me you didn’t feel chills down your spine when the trailer unveiled the beautifully rendered mountainsides and other landscapes. Tell me every time you play the game and reach the top of a cliff, you don’t look down at the rest of the world. Skyrim may very well be the best example of how great visuals can help make a great game. Mind you, the game has a plethora of other merits that contribute greatly to the games quality, but at the same time, you can’t help but wonder if the game would be as good if it didn’t look as well as it did. (Well, Daggerfall was fantastic almost a decade ago, but that’s beside the point)

But, everything good must have a downside, and we all know what happens when you put too much time into the graphics, or not enough effort into them. Look at, for example, Red Faction Guerrilla , Good game, terrible artistic design. The wholeness of Mars looks awfully generic, uninspired and forgettable. It looks like there was little to no effort put into it, there’s nothing but brown hills, brown buildings, brown mountains, brownish-red desert, and it all breaks apart if you so much as look at it. The game eventually needs to rely solely on its destruction engine, and when the entire appeal of your game is to blow up the depressing martian landscape, you’ve got a problem in your hands.

Urban design is pretty hard to get right, too. Since cities all around the world pretty much look the same, how do you make it look so that it’s not just grey concrete against gray asphalt with gray-suited people walking by?

One game that gets it right is the Ryu Ga Gotoku series’, or, as us Americans call it, Yakuza. Specifically, the third game, which is divided into two different urban areas, as I mentioned in an earlier blog. At least there, there’s a distinct look to every new area, everywhere you go you can recognize visual patterns or common buildings, for example, Kamurocho lights up during the night, being full of lights and neon sights, not to mention Millennium Tower, which looks like a glowing monolith. Or Okinawa’s more homely, generally less metropolitan look. As much as you navigate, you’ll learn to recognize landmarks within the cities, which greatly helps navigation. Not to mention the excellent cutscene direction, great and stark color contrasts and fantastic pre-rendered cutscenes and character designs.

Or, how about Saints Row 2, which resorts to the classic trick of making every sector of the city different than the rest. Some are downtown business sectors, there’s the poor side of the city, the Hispanic ghetto,  there’s suburbs, a marina, etc. all which have their own buildings, color schemes and models for pedestrians, which helps give each sector of the city its own look and traits that define it, thus helping separating said sector from the others, which in turn translates into you knowing your way around the city.

Where I’m going at is that, in these cases, the graphical design actually helps out in gameplay by letting you navigate a relatively closed sandbox environment. It helps out, when you need to go from one place to the next, and without good visual design, city-based sandbox games would be nigh unplayable, because you’d either be too busy looking at your map to find your way or trying to figure out what goes where.

I’ve rambled long enough already, so here’s my mighty conclusion thingie: Saying "Graphics don’t matter" or "graphics don’t make a difference" is hispterish, close minded thinking that undermines the importance of pretty much the main sensory factor in gaming. Gaming is a visual medium, and the visual side of things deserves better recognition than it gets. Just because graphical performance or design isn’t more important than a good story or gameplay, doesn’t mean one can go all the way as to ignore this factor altogether. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and videogames, like any other form of audiovisual media, is a chain composed of different elements that only together can for a good or great experience, never alone.

Now commence flaming this.

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One response to “Graphics: They do Matter

  1. KonoBaka 25/03/2012 at 9:58 PM

    I highly doubt many make the claim that graphics – and art design, naturally – are completely irrelevant in terms of what it can contribute to a game. Graphics are how we interact with the game, and therefore have relevance to the experience of the game. In that sense, they are not less important than gameplay or narrative, and must in most circumstances be integral to the game as a whole. Furthermore, for a game to function at its hypothetical best, as integral to the game, graphics too must function at their hypothetical best (if such a thing can be quantified). However, it must also be said that while graphics are what enables gameplay and narrative, that only implies that they must be, at a minimum, functional. It is possible for a game to be good, or rather, to accomplish its set goals (in narrative or gameplay, perhaps both) without it necessarily excelling in graphics. The same can be said of gameplay too, though not narrative, being a function of both gameplay and graphics. I suppose that makes it more difficult, naturally, to construct a good game that doesn’t make full use of graphics, but not only is it a logical possibility, it’s one that has numerous precedents in gaming history. That said, I do agree with your point about graphics being integral in most regards, it’s just that there is most definitely a very basic structural hierarchy, and graphics are not themselves an end.

    As sound rarely enables gameplay and is a fundamental element only in the experience of the game, rather than in the required structure of how a game must be organized, it’s understandable why it does not get as much attention, though it is rather sad. Sound deserves more credit than it gets. Music too, for that matter, though I don’t find too many games with stellar soundtracks anymore (even Clint Mansell’s Mass Effect 3 score seemed to me lacking).

    Maybe it would be useful to talk of sound and graphics in terms of diegesis: what elements are integral to the gameplay (the shout a dragon makes before attacking, the way draconic words glow), and which are integral only to the game experience as a whole (the sounds and vistas you find along the way). Or maybe we need a new term for that distinction.

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