Experience Points: Graphics Are Overrated
Foreword: I am resurrecting Experience Points as I felt that there wasn’t substantial indie game material to discuss in a column. In all honesty, I feel that content from Indie Experience Points is suited for This Week In Indie, in some form or another. I also wanted to discuss topics that are generally more applicable to gaming. Therefore Experience Points in its vanilla form is back, and I’m as angry as ever.
As of late, I have been struck by a recurring trend in the gaming world of criticising a game over its visual style (or aesthetics if you want to be technical). Most people equate visual aesthetics with the term ‘graphics’ and don’t understand that they are two very different concepts. Blame for this misunderstanding falls partly to gaming journalists and critics alike who have used the term as an encompassing word for all the visual wonderment a game spits out at you. Regardless, a differentiation needs to be made. ‘Graphics’ are the representation and manipulation of image data by a computer with the aid of either computer software or hardware. Consoles fall within this spectrum. To simplify this, ‘graphics’ are the process of creating a final visual representation that you the gamer interact with on a screen. The end result is the ‘visual style’, or visual aesthetics, a game showcases which includes character models, textures and other elements. I, however, feel that it would be technically correct to refer to in-game processes such as physics as graphical processes, or ‘graphics’ as they are decidedly not a typically visually represented, but do affect the in-game world of a videogame indefinitely. This was just a technicality that I wanted to clarify before moving on.
Why I chose to actually write about visual style was largely because reviews of a certain stealth game, called Dishonored, labour on and on about lackluster visuals in the game. Of course, every single person on the planet is going to have different opinion about what constitutes a great visual style. But the point is hammered on extensively throughout so many reviews that it feels pointless. Many game reviewers and gamers consider a game visually impotent if the visual aesthetic does not aim to be ‘realistic’. Realism is a thorn in the side of game developers and stunts the evolution of the industry as we try and push technology further and further along, forgetting what the concept of a ‘game’ is. Which is that a game is first and foremost about gameplay and having a fun experience whilst playing. This is a lost cause for the common gamer and the popular AAA developer who would prefer releasing tech demos, rather than actual games. It is essentially this sort of thinking that is dragging down our beloved industry into the doldrums of mediocrity. It is an unpleasant feeling and I see a few beams of light in the gaming darkness, but not enough to circumvent the current state of affairs we’re mucking around in.
Dishonored was criticised for low resolution textures and a visual aesthetic which wasn’t up to contemporary standards. I disagree, and I felt that the game will age and fair much better five years down the line than the military shooter clones that proliferate the current market. Dishonored has the same type of visual aesthetic that makes a Valve game visually brilliant, no matter what year it was released, particularly the Portal series and Half-Life 2. I would dare to compare it to the first Bioshock. I find the console version (in my case Xbox 360) of Dishonored to be visually pleasing and interesting with a style many other games only dream of. In this way, the game isn’t visually generic. My problem with games that aim for realism is that they leave themselves wide open for obvious flaws and vulnerabilities in their design, especially in the gameplay department. The game may be praised for its visuals, but lack altogether cohesive gameplay mechanics that make the game original or at least worthwhile. Really at the end of the day, this is all about balance in the game’s design and if visuals, audio and gameplay don’t gel well together, a game can falter and fall to shambles. From my perspective, Dishonored balances all these elements intelligently and in a stealth game this is a necessity.
Other developers, gamers, reviewers and journalists don’t understand this necessity and how great the implications are if there is a lack of it in a game, or a series of games for that matter. If you complain about the current market having a great number of generic games then you should be supporting games like Dishonored. Games like this, try to break away from the prescriptive formula that AAA developers think gamers want and these games dare to be different. Some people hark on about the visual style not being to their tastes, and they carry on their merry way in visual bliss. But I say look at the bigger picture of what Dishonored proves. An AAA game doesn’t have to be formulaic and concerned with being ‘realistic’, rather gameplay and a different type of visual flair can be showcased. If this is where games are heading, I support the transition wholeheartedly. I just wish other developers and studios, and publishers too, could take a hint from Arkane Studios’ success. The success of making a properly well defined game.