Everything You Think About Graphics Is Stupid


(This is another edition of “</RANT>,” a weekly opinion piece column on FileFront. Check back every week for more).

Graphics are important. They’ve always been important, and they’ve always been on the frontlines of the console war battlefield, as platform holders endlessly vie to gain the visual upper hand over the competition. Graphics are among the most tangible things that consumers can evaluate before making a purchasing decision, so having a game that looks great, especially in the HD generation, is a crucial part to selling a product to the average gamer. Visuals are important, but they aren’t everything, and even though we all seem to know that, we are always so incredibly ready to forget it.

There is a worrying trend in the industry of judging a game on graphics and nothing else. Not only that, but our idea of what constitutes high quality visuals has become so incredibly skewed that I believe we’ve lost sight of what really makes a fun game. Even worse, I worry that this is bleeding over into developers as well, where graphics come first and gameplay comes as a distant second. I’d argue that this is bad for the gamers, but it’s the gamers who are encouraging a culture that assumes a good game is identified by good graphics.

Crysis is a fine example of a “visuals over substance” mentality. When people talk about Crysis, they never mention the gameplay. It’s always the graphics, graphics, graphics. They are most certainly impressive, I’ll grant you that. Running them at full spec on my PC is absolutely breathtaking, and wandering the lush jungles is genuinely astounding … until the actual “game” portion of the experience kicks in, and everything turns sour. Clairvoyant AI, random difficulty spikes, enemies with the damage threshold of Scarface, pointlessly gimped super powers and boring, mediocre first-person-shooter action is the core of the Crysis experience. But that doesn’t matter, does it? Look at how PRETTY it is!

And of course, we gullible fools swallow it up. A game is a visual delight, ergo it must play like a dream. Unfortunately, gamers have started to embrace the opposing concept — that if a game doesn’t meet their high visual standards, it must be terrible.

Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom is the most recent victim of this. While I’ll happily concede that the game is getting a mixed response for legitimate reasons, with some people loving it and others not enjoying the way it plays, a large portion of vocal gamers are writing the game off instantly for its graphics. Now, Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom’s graphics are not the most amazing in the industry, but they are not bad, as some people would like to argue. They’re just not dripping in lighting effects and huge amounts of textures. Yes, that gives the character models, especially the main characters, a bit more of a rudimentary look, but the exaggerated way in which some people are criticizing the graphics speaks volumes about how spoiled we’ve become.

Here’s the thing — Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom is a gorgeous game. Not because it has a load of visual horsepower, but because its art design is superb. I call the game beautiful not because it has the best bump mapping or bloom lighting in the business, but because people with real artistic talent came up with a unique aesthetic style. The design of the game’s primary enemies is amazing, as the corrupted soldiers of Darkness drip with an oozing, gloopy black slime and their feet stick to the floor with each grotesque step. The game is full of simple visual touches and endearing animations that outclass anything in the beautiful but sterile Crysis. This is why, to me, a game like Majin looks better than a game like Crysis. Artistic skill will always beat technical power, as far as I am concerned.

I think many of us have completely forgotten that design is better than graphics, and I also think that has informed the way we react to certain visual styles. It’s become the norm in this industry to praise “photorealistic” graphics and shun anything that isn’t dark, gritty and believable. This is typified with my opinion on Viva Pinata. I’ve said before, and I’ll say it again, that Viva Pinata is the best looking game this generation. I have been laughed at for suggesting this. Laughed at because it isn’t Gears of War, or Killzone 2, or Uncharted. No, it’s not one of those games with realistic physics, or a grey and moody atmosphere. It’s bright, it’s simple, it’s clean, and it contains gorgeous colors that pop on an HDTV more than any “realistic” game. The design is amiable and fun, with amazing textures on the various creatures that bring them to life. More importantly, Viva Pinata boasts far more imagination and invention than anything you get in a “realistic” shooter with its focus on dreary, wartorn backdrops and grey gun barrels.

The fact that such an argument is laughed off without gamers even willing to debate it stands as proof at how conditioned our eyes have become.

That’s why it’s dismaying to hear the well-worn, tired, and bratty accusation that a current-gen title “Looks like a PlayStation 2 game.” This has become one of the most stupid, pathetic comments to have cropped up in recent years, and the sentiment appears to be cropping up more and more. Here’s the thing — if you’ve used the term, “Looks like a PS2 game” to describe something on the Xbox 360 or PS3, then there’s a 95% chance that you were talking absolute shit. In fact, I invite you to go back and replay your PS2. For days. Then come back, look at the 360/PS3 game you were criticizing, and punch yourself in the nuts for saying something so stupid. Nearly every game that looks¬†comparatively¬†poor on the PS3 or 360 is still better looking than the average PS2 game. It’s incredibly sad that we’ve become such spoiled infants as to forget that.

Besides which … some of the best videogames ever made were on the PS2. Since when did having “PS2 graphics” hurt those?

Great graphics are great only relative to the time period they’re in. Great graphics get outclassed and become obsolete in just a few years or even less. Great art, however, is timeless. Great gameplay remains long after the aesthetic thrill has worn off. I’m not saying that graphics don’t enhance the experience, of course they do. But they do not make good games bad, or bad games good. And very, very, very rarely do they ever look like PS2 games, unless they were on the PS2 to begin with.

So there.

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15 Comments on Everything You Think About Graphics Is Stupid

Derangel

On November 24, 2010 at 6:12 pm

Great article Mr. Sterling. This needs to be said more often then it is. I’m so disappointed in my fellow gamers when I see them slamming something artsy like Majin or even some of the good looking Wii games and it pisses me off to see people who are supposed to be professional reviewers doing the same.

Graphics haven’t impressed me in over a decade. Even Crysis failed to impress me at max settings. I simply don’t get it or care to get it. Its a good looking game, sure, but nothing spectacular in the least bit. In my first 15 minutes with the game I could easily point out a number of short cuts Crytek took and the gameplay simply couldn’t distract me from it.

The look of games like Mario Galaxy, Little Big Planet, and even Kirbys Epic Dream are the kind of graphics that get my attention. Interesting, unique, amazing artistic design. On top of that those games are also fun to play. I’ve played enough drab generic shooters over the years to not be impressed by them anymore. I grew out of that phase long before there was such a thing as a good console FPS.

So I’ll close with this statement: If any gamer wonders why games all look the same look at the games in your collection and figure it out because most of you are the ones supporting this crap.

Nolan

On November 24, 2010 at 6:48 pm

I completely agree with both Derangle and you Mr. Sterling.

What a game looks like should be second to how a game plays not the other way around. In fact 2 of my favorite games this gen are low budget and rather horrendous looking, Earth Defense Force 2017 and Deadly Premonition. I already know how you feel about Deadly Premonition.

I’ve argued before that Halo 3 looks better than Killzone 2 simply because of it’s use of color and art direction, and it pales in comparison to some of the titles Rare has released (Kameo and, as you said, Viva Pinata) which will stant the test of time through art. I look at Ico as being similar even, graphically it isn’t really much, but with some tricks of the light it’s truly beautiful.

Nexus

On November 24, 2010 at 6:56 pm

I’ve never really look at Graphic, Good graphics doesn’t mean good game or game play, look at Activision’s game, it pretty much the same, poorly (overall) made, yet, good graphic. I always look at gameplay or story before graphic, unfortunately we have too many idiots who are blinded by that and are instant over the game and thinking it good, just because it’s high intense graphics.

Greg

On November 24, 2010 at 7:12 pm

While I do agree, I also see the opposite happen just as often. A game creates some cutesy little creature that looks like half of the non-human character designs out of Japan, and it’s heralded as ‘creative’ and ‘stylish’, while any game that tries to attempt a more realistic looks gets met with “HURR BROWN AND BLOOM”.

Regardless of how good it looks, Gears probably gets dumped on the most of any current-gen game, and I really don’t understand, because I enjoy the aesthetic and it gives contrast for vivid, bright games like Enslaved. We’ll always need both styles, because otherwise it’ll become stale and tired.

Luther

On November 24, 2010 at 7:42 pm

Sort of reminds me of Final Fantasy 14, the game looks so amazing and yet there still abusing its players with the same game play in the original FF11, after 10 years there is no improvement what so ever other then graphics and its vary saddening. I guess we might be spoiled in certain types of game play as well, some of the game mechanics we might of dealt with in the past may no longer suit those of today. I can understand how game developers would struggle for a balance.

Bob

On November 24, 2010 at 9:28 pm

Crysis is a great game in all facets. The gameplay is fun and innovative — it actually felt very much like an improved version of Deus Ex. The beauty of Deus Ex was that each mission could be accomplished in a myriad of ways (stealth, guns blazing, hacking etc.) Crysis has all of these options streamlined down to its 4 powers. All the powers work and they’re all awesome. The level design (not just graphics but design) was brilliant in the zero gravity portions.
Criticizing Crysis for being “just a pretty game” is like assuming the hot girl in class is an idiot just because she’s hot. Some ugly games are brilliant — but there is a reason why pretty games are often good: it’s a reflection of the quality of the team and the investment that has been made in terms of time and manpower. Do games have to be photorealistic? Of course not. But a beautiful graphics a solid engine, programmers and effort. Conversely, if a game looks like a PS2 game it likely implies “not caring” — it wasn’t worth taking the time or paying the right people to support a high quality visual experience.
Perhaps we can agree on this point — Goldeneye Wii and Mario Galaxy were not nearly up to par with mediocre PS3 graphics, yet were amazing games. But they also looked about as good as the Wii can.

TL;DR — Graphics and gameplay, in practice, are not orthogonal.

AIDs

On November 24, 2010 at 10:23 pm

Brb, playing NES games that are fun to play and don’t skull me to death with ub3r DX9000 graphics.

This is why the grestest games of all time are just that. They focused more on the story and gameplay above something like over hyped graphics.

Wrecking Ball

On November 24, 2010 at 11:22 pm

Console gaming runs at what, 720p and lower? Do you realize what resolutions your pc can run games at? How can you complain when you’ve self-imposed this restriction?

Dirty Zombie

On November 24, 2010 at 11:38 pm

This reminds me of when Halo: Reach came out…. Quite a few people (some critics) complained about the graphics. I had to facepalm whenever i saw those types of comments, you’d think would be targeted for its gameplay rather than graphics but no. And alot of people seem to link good visuals with good graphic.

Errol

On November 25, 2010 at 5:47 am

I think graphics matter when it comes to seeing how a series evolves over time. Grand Theft Auto was not the best looking game before this generation. The graphics helped make Liberty City feel alive.

its also becoming more expensive to really gloat about graphics. With 3d TVs costing up to $3000 it’s hard for me to think im playing the best looking game on My LCD computer monitor

Bob

On November 26, 2010 at 4:38 am

Anyone who says “graphics are important” has never played Minecraft. The game has crappy graphics to look old school and is a blast to play!

MAdMaN

On November 26, 2010 at 1:56 pm

Last year a museum in my city was showing the history of video games. Walking through the interactive exhibit two children had just finished playing Jet Set Willy. The comment from one of them: “That game was really fun.” Proof that gameplay matters more than graphics.

Garyn Dakari

On November 27, 2010 at 1:59 pm

For me story is the most important followed by gameplay, then audio, the graphics hardly matter to me, as long as I can tell what is happening.

Alex

On November 30, 2010 at 9:53 am

I feel like this is exactly the same issue that “killed” 2d games back in the day. Everyone pushed for new 3d graphics when most of the games done in 3d graphics were done poorly because it was the cool new thing.

I think the ultimate point here is that graphics age with technology but art is timeless. Look at old games with good art direction and even though the graphics are terribly out dated they still look good. Compare Ocarina of Time to Goldeneye both on the N64. I loved Goldeneye multipler as much as the next person but you look at it today and it’s just poor while Ocarina looks fine though technically inferior to games today.

corpse

On November 30, 2010 at 9:11 pm

I agree with Nexus, I don’t give a crap about graphics anyways, that’s not what makes a game good take a look at board games, do you complain about the board looking bad for the game? Hell NO!! You like the game then the developer’s mission is accomplished. Graphics are like the frosting for the cake of a video game, it just makes it look nice. As long as you have represented what you want in the game and make it easy to see then you have my money (plus the game has to be fun, that’s the point of playing them in the first place, duh!). I still like 2d games slightly better than 3d sometimes due to the fact that it feels that more drawn art is put into them, whatever concept designs that they put on paper are used in the game you don’t get that same feel with 3d games. But on the other hand 3d games are necessary for certain titles like FPS games, but I think the perfect idea was John’s Doom series from Ultimate to Final (the Playstation title is still one of my favorites out of the doom series due to the sounds used in it). Its a good mix of 3d and 2d which I think most games lack sometimes, I think if you learn how to use your 3d with your 2d images you can get a very good looking game with nice low fps if you build it right. Like I said in the beginning of my comment doesn’t matter to me as long as your game runs smoothly with out frame rate troubles, I don’t give a crap how bad your game looks as long as I can identify who my character or controllable object is and you can tell between the boundaries, the enemies and the goal. I think that 8-bit gaming is making a come back, same with 16-bit.