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Category Archives: Yakuza

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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Quick Time Events and flow

Videogames are a medium which requires a good hand-eye coordination. Naturally, this doesn’t apply to Turn Based genres, so, for the purposes of this article, we’ll refer to “games”, “gaming” and “videogames” not counting Turn Based games.

As I stated plenty of times beforehand, gaming has grown to be more of a storytelling medium over the years. In more action-oriented games, this can be conflicting, since it’s quite hard to blend in the plot with the gameplay so that one does not conflict with the other.

Cutscenes are often the easiest way to tell the story between action sequences. Pre-rendered FMV cutscenes are not always well received, since they take up a large amount of space in whatever storage medium the game comes in, and they are completely non-interactive. But you must be wondering “X, you hollow shell of a human being, what do you mean non-interactive? cutscenes are not interactive by definition!”  well, that’s when QTE’s come into play.

Quick Time Events, or QTE’s for short, are interactive segments during cutscenes that let the player interact with the action on-screen via action commands. However, QTE’s are a hit or miss aspect, since, when not implemented correctly, they can break the immersion and flow of a game completely, but when used properly can create a better experience all around for the game, and give the plot a better sense of urgency.

The conception of QTE’s is commonly attributed to Shenmue, a 1999 Brawler/RPG for the Sega Dreamcast, however, the first instances of these being used in cutscenes stems from 1996’s arcade hit Dynamite Deka 2, where the player characters would be seen running from one section of the stage to another, and sometimes would be prompted to press a button quickly in order to either avoid incoming hazards, or hit moving enemies as they appear. Failure would mean the players would have to fight an extra group of enemies, or would lose health upon entering the next section

A.N.: I’ll be brutally honest, I haven’t played Shenmue, so this is all information I’ve researched.

QTE’s as we know them today, however, stem from Resident Evil 4, which implemented them in cutscenes and while getting grabbed by an enemy. There was even an entire boss fight that played in one cutscene, and the penalty for failing every time was instant death. There’s a good reason RE4 doesn’t do QTE’s well, but I’ll get into that in a moment.

As much as I hate to agree with this guy, I’ve got admit Ben Croshaw (Of Zero Punctuation fame) got this subject spot on. QTE’s are not a bad thing, so long as they are implemented as an integral part of a game’s gameplay. To illustrate, imagine if the last boss of Assassin’s Creed was a 10 minute cutscene that suddenly started spewing action commands from nowhere. Chances are you’d fail them, thus breaking the immersion and flow of the game.

That’s the important factor, a game’s flow. What I mean is that a game needs to move along naturally, which helps the immersion. This isn’t to say a game has to be all action and never stopping, but action has to reach a climax, then the exposition and talking can begin, the game has to keep a mood balance in order to be effectively compelling.

A good example of how QTE’s work is seen in Shenmue‘s spiritual successor, Ryu Ga Gatoku, known here in America as the Yakuza series.

In Yakuza (or at least in the third one), QTE’s for a major element during combat. Since all the fighting takes place in RPG style “encounters”, most of the time one of these may begin with a QTE, where the main character deflects attacks or fights to grab a goon and send him through a crystal window. Or, sometimes, special moves will require action commands to be executed effectively (either stopping or failing to deal damage if the action command is not input correctly), which is especially true for the finisher moves against bosses, or while a boss executes a move on you that you can deflect or counter via quick time events. And, even in combat, sometimes special moves can be triggered when the player is prompted to, which can take place in a window of time as small as one second or less. This blends in with the combat nicely, and gives the battles a sense of booth urgency and awe that the game benefits from in the sense of making combat more enjoyable and challenging without necessarily ramping the difficulty too high.

Another good example of this would come from the Dynasty Warriors spinoff based on the Fist Of The North Star series’, Ken’s Rage. In Ken’s Rage, it’s only implemented against the final bosses of each chapter, which, after depleting their lifebars, will drop down on one knee and have to be killed using a finisher move. This then takes the player into a screen in which one has to input a series’ of (completely random) button sequences. If the player fails, the boss recovers a portion of their health and gets back up, if one wins, the player is treated to the rest of the attack, then the end of the level. And the enemy exploding into a thousand tiny pieces. The sequences become way longer and the time way shorter as the game progresses. The rush one gets from reaching this point (especially in the latter stages) is almost unmatched. And to get past them feels incredibly rewarding, since not only are the fights progressively harder as the game progresses, the game’s cutscenes are fantastic, and it feels actually rewarding to get past the harder levels. That is how you put QTE’s and action commands into a game properly.

Now, of course, as I stated earlier, this can’t always work properly. Sometimes QTE’s are implemented just for the sake of having them, which can lead to some undesirable results.

For example, take Splinter Cell: Double Agent (I swear, this game is the bane of my fucking existence), where after the third stage, every mission introduction segment has a quick time event. The problem here is that they’re not marked or stated by anything. For example, the first one was Sam jumping off a plane into the north pole. While he was falling, you’re supposed to guide his hand and grab the cord and pull it. I saw it not coming until I realized the little green circles that indicate Sam’s hand and the cord. While it wasn’t entirely bad, it came completely out of nowhere, had no significance, and was only there to stall the game, with absolutely nothing of importance being lost if you fail (you die and try again), nor anything of importance happening if you do it (you land and continue normally). See, just having them there to be there, with no bearing on the plot, is completely unnecessary to the gameplay in itself. QTE’s need to have a reason to be there, to be important in some fashion to progress, so that you want to do it, so that you want to complete the event to continue on. If they are just there for the sake of having them, it really demotes the importance of the event in question.

As I stated earlier, Resident Evil 4 doesn’t quite get this concept well, since every time you fail a QTE, it ends invariably in you dying. There’s never a different penalty, nor is the any incentive to complete them other than just continuing. It bears no impact beyond just moving the plot along. At least in Yakuza, they  let your enemies off guard for a moment, or in Ken’s Rage the animations and continuing on the game is a reward in on itself (plus, sometimes you gain a new move), so it feels satisfying to complete them. With the exception of that really awesome cutscene/boss fight, RE4 doesn’t reward you for completing them, so it ultimately feels pointless.

That’s my conclusion. QTE’s can be a good resource to make a game more immersive or more rewarding, so long as there’s something that the player can aspire to after the cutscene. Quick Time Events can be beneficial to a game so long as it feels satisfying to actually succeed in them, instead of it being ultimately pointless in the grand scheme of things, and in the end, as I stated earlier, games need to give you a sense of accomplishment within themselves to drive you forwards.