Sunday, February 13, 2011

In defense of graphics.

I'll try to keep this short.

I suppose it was the demo for Killzone 3 that got me started on this. My first reaction was, understandably, that "this game is fucking gorgeous."

Killzone 3 (demo version)

So what? What does it matter, if a game is good-looking or not? What matters is how it plays, right?

Well, right - a gorgeous game with awful gameplay is simply an awful game - but these days, it seems we're post-hip about impressive graphics.

Snootier-than-thou gamers will turn up their noses at technical wizardry, and instead extol the virtues of humbler games that manage to be exceptional without the benefit of beauty - Angry Birds, Super Meat Boy and Minecraft come to mind. Heck, even World of Warcraft isn't a particularly attractive title any more, but you'll be hard-pressed to find someone who won't admit it's the single best MMO in the world.

God of War III

Still, I feel graphics that push the known envelope are an important part of the experience. Pushing the bar ever-further is a central to maintaining the unique thrill that games - particularly single-player experiences - can provide.

It's a method of extending the gamer's suspension of disbelief. Take the PS2, for example. After a while, a lot of games on the PS2 sort of ended up looking the same. There was only so far most third parties could push the graphics on that console, and at that point the player is never able to ignore the fact that they've seen all this before. They're just playing another video game.

Then God of War II or Shadow of the Colossus comes along and does things entirely differently. We are pushed beyond our visual comfort zone - beyond the known quantity - into a place that feels like a new world.

I'm looking forward to the point in the PS3's life span where third parties have exhausted the known limits of the console, and begin to edge it a bit further with pure artistry - a'la Odin Sphere and Okami - but I digress...

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Presentation is particularly important when it comes to first-person shooters - where the name of the game is, first and foremost, immersion - and the two pillars of immersion are graphics and sound design.

Original, intelligent story and interestingly open combat aside, do you really think BioShock would've been such a huge hit if it hadn't had some of the best graphics seen at the time? It would still have been a great game - but its presentation pushed it beyond being merely great, and made it one of those rare "total package" experiences, where everything is exceptional.

First person shooters are often the best-looking games around - and while, yes, this is a result of all the publisher funding they get because Call of HaloZone is guaranteed to sell a few million copies - it's also because immersion is essential to the first-person experience, and as they say, seeing is believing. FPSs need to be so remarkably good-looking to deliver on their promise of making the gamer feel as if they really are there.

* * *

Now, I'm not knocking games that are exceptional without leaning on the pillar of presentation - such games are remarkable by way of brilliant game design, and should be celebrated as such. For example, here's a multiplayer shooter that reigns supreme and relies entirely on bold art direction, instead of technical wizardry:

But in the same way one should never discount Team Fortress 2 because it's not working your PC like a sweating draft horse, we shouldn't turn up our noses at games and assume they're lacking where it counts, just because they happen to be exceedingly attractive.

Don't hate them because they're beautiful.

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