In Pursuit of Graphics
Whenever a new generation of video game consoles (or a high-budget PC game looking for some publicity) emerges on the scene, the feature that always gets touted the most is its graphical capability. How many bits? How many polygons on screen? What do the fire and water effects look like? Can you look at the characters’ facial expressions without wanting to form an angry mob to chase them with torches and pitchforks?
When I was younger I used to pride myself in not appearing to care about graphics. Your fancy three dee blast processing gimmicks don’t impress me! I’m not like the shallow sheeple who open their wallets like Pavlov’s consumers whenever a flashy new gizmo screams at them from the magazine ads! In my defense, though, early-mid-90s 3D graphics were immensely ugly and have aged abominably. Compare the best spritework on the SNES or Saturn to the garish mountains of pointy Duplo blocks found in the first entries in the Tomb Raider or Tekken series and it’s obvious that the former is superior. That’s not moronic nostalgia seeping into this article; sometimes the old things actually are better.
However, as an adult I now recognize that it’s not wrong to like things that look good, based solely on personal preference. Expensive visual sensations are still inferior to gameplay in terms of importance, but their presence doesn’t automatically signify a poorly made game. One of my favorite games is 1998’s Half-Life, and I must admit that a significant portion of its high quality is derived from its aesthetics, especially the sound effects. Had it looked identical to Doom, it would have still been an excellent game but not as immersive and memorable as the final product was. And without those mechanical clangs, warped computer sounds, and meaty machine gun bursts, I wouldn’t have appreciated it as much. If that’s shallow of me, so be it; it’s not wrong to like beautiful things.
A few years ago, I remember hearing one of my nephews saying that Team Fortress 2 had “bad graphics” compared to whatever Call of Duty mediocrity came out that year. In my opinion, Team Fortress 2’s art style makes it much more visually pleasing than the attempts at photorealism, though the attempts at photorealism may be impressive in their own right. I much prefer good-stylistic over good-realistic, and the former is in short supply. All the indie games with their overly simplified pixel art styles are missing a big opportunity here; we should be seeing more gorgeous art like in Bastion or Braid if they truly cared about art. Yes, I know there are financial considerations, yet in the majority of cases it is imagination and public appreciation for beauty that are lacking, not funding.
I’ve become so nonplussed by technical visual improvements that when computer graphics eventually emerge that are 100% indistinguishable from real-life visuals, I probably won’t respond with anything other than a shrug while I go back to playing Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. I can look down at the filth in my keyboard if I want to see something that looks realistic; give me stylized any day.
Note that this is completely separate from the issue of realistic gameplay; the newest Tomb Raider reboot looks incredibly lifelike yet it plays like a dumbed down version of the first game in the series from 1996. Then again, a very realistic first/third-person shooter would be unplayable as you would play through it with only one life that could end instantly if you poke your head in the wrong place. Or you could spend a month or two in traction after jumping down too far and shattering your avatar’s ankles. Some elements of realism can be desirable—look at Fallout 3 or the Far Cry series—but it’s not necessarily an ideal to always work towards.
I remember being shocked by the incredible visuals of Super Mario Bros., which effortlessly annihilated the abstract Cubist orange blocks of the Atari 2600. Then, over a decade later, I felt the same way towards the intro to Final Fantasy VII with its seamless transition from FMV backdrop to a controllable in-game setting. Those are the only two times that I recall experiencing a sense of wonder at a video game’s graphics. That potential photorealistic game that the industry is always struggling to achieve, like the search for the formula to transmute lead into gold, the magical graphics that will make Heavy Rain look like Spacewar!, might instill the same sense in me. And it will be a gorgeous thing to behold. Yet I will probably always prefer something creatively cartoonish like Team Fortress 2 or the Mario series, something that has more heart than the lifeless, sterile progressions that attempt to soar to the heavens yet inevitably dip into the uncanny valley.
The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, generally hailed as the greatest video game in history, marked the transition of well-established franchises into 3D. And it looked like junk. Other series in multiple genres were attempting to emulate the success of Zelda and Mario. Yet everyone remembers Super Mario 64 and not the legions of Bubsy 3Ds. I’m grateful for those pioneers, sometimes it’s better to work improving what you already have rather than trying to jump the latest visual trend.