The Fifth Column: Graphics Vs All The Other Important Bits
The recent news about the difference in Call of Duty Ghost’s native resolution on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 got me to thinking about the role of graphics in games. In successive generations of consoles as well as PCs, alot of the discussion has centred on resolutions, frame rates and lighting effects. In these very heated debates, the graphics in a game are often elevated to the highest value with seemingly less importance placed on the story, characterisation and sound effects. The importance of these elements varies of course depending on the genre of the game but the undue focus on graphics quality is not very helpful.
In the early days of video games, hardware limitations meant that games had very basic graphics as well as a basic game mechanic. I remember playing early PC games like Donkey Kong and Frogger, neither of these games would have been much improved by high resolution graphics or special lighting effects because the core of the game was its basic mechanic. As technology improved so too did the nature of video games. With the advent of 3D environments games became more immersive, over time they have also become more cinematic with greater emphasis placed on telling a story.
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The importance of various elements of a game really depends on the genre. In the First Person Shooter (FPS) genre for example you spend alot of time running around shooting and blowing things up. In these fast paced games you don’t spend alot of time admiring the scenery aside from trying to ensure that the scenery is not trying to kill you. So you could argue that a super immersive environment is less important. Because FPS games generally place a greater emphasis on the multiplayer modes, you could argue that accurate and immersive sound effects are more important in the game than other design elements because you need to know where the shooting is coming from. It may also be more desirable to create an environment which is destructible rather than one which looks amazing but is relatively static. In contrast in a role playing or adventure game where the emphasis is on exploring the environment, you could argue that a highly detailed and immersive environment is a critical part of the game. After all if you are busy scouring a landscape for clues to a puzzle or need to find an artefact, there is a much greater chance that you will pick up on visual flaws and inconsistencies than if you were running around dodging and strafing your way around a level.
In addition to good visuals, games need to have a great story, must be well scripted and need excellent voice actors. The game that stands out as the most immersive video game experience that I have ever had is the Half-Life series. It had good graphics for its time and an immersive environment, the story was engrossing and the voice acting was convincing and well scripted. In addition the level progression was well conceived so that your movement through the game felt natural and logical. If any of these elements were poorly executed, it would have affected the overall experience and Half-Life would not be the highly regarded game that it is still considered to be today.
The reality is that the most impressive eye candy cannot disguise a game which has a poor story line, limited characterisation and dull sound effects. As I mentioned earlier, the importance of these elements can vary depending on the genre of the game but you really cannot emphasise one at the expense of the others. Video games have the ability to transport you to whole other worlds, where you are an actor rather than a passive observer. But in order to achieve this level of immersion it is critical that all the design elements are well conceived or else the end result is lopsided and not worth the price of admission.