Undoubtedly, the visual impact of a game is important. But that’s not all there is to it!
The recent renaissance of story-focused retro-looking games with simplistic, even primitive, graphics proves that visual splendor is not a game’s most salient characteristic. If we’ve learned one thing over the years, it’s that players remember what happened in a game more than what it looked like. When we gather around the watercooler to drearily recap a dull weekends exploits with our pseudo-friends at work, we describe the story moments in the game, not the stunning digital vistas and realistic graphics.
The AAA game industry at large seems to have missed this memo, however. They seem to relish in a near suicidal focus on creating the most ass-achingly beautiful skyboxes while ignoring gameplay and story development. Multiplayer-focused games like Destiny and The Division are especially bad for this, but that’s because the graphics are basically all they’ve made. There’s no real story to speak of, at least not one that makes much sense. It’s all in the setting, with a thin veneer of plot layered over the top of it. Gorgeous though these graphics may be, they don’t stick in the memory, instantly sliding off like eggs on an infomercial frying pan.
Good Games and Good Graphics are Unrelated
Good games and good graphics are completely independent. Amazing games can have terrible graphics, and terrible games can have jaw-dropping graphics. But given the choice between a boring but photorealistic game and a fun but graphically primitive game, most users will discard graphical quality as the superficial. They’d be right to do so. Nothing about graphical quality makes the game actually enjoyable to play. That’s all about plot, story, characters, and gameplay. You know, the stuff that separates a game from a CGI walking tour.
Realistic Graphics Require Too Much Work
The effort required to make a character simply walk across the room in a modern-day top-tier graphics engine is extraordinary. Its thanks to this maw of productivity that games require an elementary school’s worth of developers and enough money to buy up all the houses in Nevada.
We’ve seen the same thing happens in movies. As films have become more expensive to produce, film producers have become more and more conservative. Only films that your average slack-jawed idiot can follow are allowed a place in blockbuster releases: everyone else has to tough it out with the indie crowd.
Story Matters More Than Graphics
When you recount a moment you experience in-game to a friend, you probably don’t describe the graphics. Instead, you describe the events that occurred: how you 360-noscoped some bozo in Dust or the incredible grapple kill you just barely pulled off. Or you might describe your emotional reaction to an event within the game’s story.
Games, even multiplayer games, are fundamentally a narrative experience. Whether that narrative is structured based on the winner or loser of the match or the events of the plot, it’s the narrative we recall and relate. The graphics are incidental. They need only to be good enough to not get in the way. Taking graphics as an end in and of themselves leads you exactly where we are today: tubby games that are gorgeous but dull, lovingly crafted rooms empty of interest but wallpapered extravagantly, with only the most samey and generic mechanics to connect the stops on the sightseeing tour.
Violence Becomes Legitimately Disturbing
This cuts two ways, and the value of realistic violence depends on the type of game you’re making. If you want to make a meaningful comment on man’s inhumanity to man, then photorealistic graphics can help you make that point. The opening of Saving Private Ryan, for example, would be far less compelling if rendered with cartoon characters. But if you want to make the kind of massively-popular AAA game that centers around violence as an avenue for agency and relaxation, then photorealistic graphics might introduce an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance in the player, as the game congratulates them for snuffing out the life of some uncomfortably realistic enemies.
In a game centered around the steam-releasing power of interpersonal violence, do we really want to be confronted with the physical reality of die via a spike to the brain? It depends on the game. For a commentary piece like Spec Ops: The Line, developers probably do want us to face the full horror of our agency. But most games purposefully avoid humanizing the enemy too much, sticking them in opaque helmets or creating non-human enemies for us to despise for guilt-free murderous rampages.
Some games would be distinctly worse with realistic graphics. Imagine stomping on a Goomba with photorealistic graphics. it reminds of that one frankly nauseating composite of Mario with realistic skin textures, and that’s not really a world I’d like to live in.
Why Should Graphics Be Realistic?
What is the point of having photorealistic video games? For the technical accomplishment? Maybe, but that hardly satisfies those doomed to play these games. For the shock and awe? But even the most beautiful environments grow dull and lifeless when you’re forced to tramp through them a thousand times in endless multiplayer matches. To goggle the masses? Probably, but the masses have long since become largely immune to goggling via graphical genius.
I don’t remember asking anyone for this. But publishers and developers go on ahead, abasing themselves before elder gods if it makes their game run on the latest 3D rendering engine, grinning back at us with bulging eyes and a manic grin, saying, “Isn’t this what you always wanted?!” as they madly plunge an obsidian dagger into their heart… sorry, that metaphor got away from me. Something about video game developers just makes me think “ritual sacrifice,” I suppose.
Good games don’t need photorealistic graphics. They need inventive mechanics, exciting player experiences, and engrossing stories and characters. If you’re the kind of person that’s impressed by graphical fidelity alone, Hollywood offers a welcoming embrace. But if you care more about the actual game part of the video game, then don’t let “bad” graphics stop you from playing or enjoying a game. That’s the only way we can hope to break out of this suicide pact the games industry has willing entered into. Quick, before it’s too late—go buy Shovel Knight or FTL!
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