(This is another edition of “,” 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.