An Open Letter to Graphics Snobs

Before we start, a brief disclaimer. I am a man of indescript age with little to no formal training. I am not a game designer, a storyboard editor or a psychologist. In fact, it has been over 20 years since I’ve written any practically relevant code. If there is one point you take away from my entire body of work I would want it to be the exact opposite of the Jackass warning: I am not trained professional, please try any of these exercises at home.

“You heard it from the bumbling intelectual, graphics do matter”

That there, folks, is a prime example of what we call a loaded statement. This discussion is one I’ve been ducking for almost a year now because it often gets reduced to a juvenile mud slinging contest that boils down to two basic concepts. Before we jump down that rabbit hole, let me start with this. Carson is not a “bumbling intellectual”. Such a statement is an insult to academics everywhere. If that stuttering fratboy is an intellectual, then William Chamberlain (CEO of Klaw Digital) is Neil deGrasse Tyson. Savant? Sure. Deceptively Brilliant? Bet your life on it. Intellectual? Not even close.

Now that the trivial stuff is over, on to the meat and potatoes of this week’s discussion. Do graphics matter? No, or at least not much. I mean, sure, there are stories that become impossible to tell if you’re working with 8 bit color on a 640×480 resolution screen, but once you get up to Xbox 360 (or even PS2 if you’re crafty) quality graphical fidelity you hit a plateau where the human eye starts to lose the ability to distinguish qualities that are even exponentially higher. So no, graphics no longer matter. Thanks for reading, see you next week.

Okay you caught me. Of course I’m not going to call it on so little detail so listen up. Graphical fidelity is actually not what any of us are talking about when we say “Game A looks good”. What we -are- talking about, however, is aesthetic direction, which matters for the world. Simply put, I don’t care how good your game is, if it looks like Superman 64 nobody is going to play it and if nobody likes your game, you have made a bad game.

Like the eternal battle between Soul Calibur and Soul edge, the graphics/aesthetics debate has raged behind the scenes of gaming history. It has followed closely on the heels of some of our greatest and infamous consoles. It has been fought by designer and fan alike and buried amazing systems and games under tonnes of polygons and jargon. However, before I get real technical with you I would like to go over a few examples.

Let us start with what I consider the first major dust up in the modern console wars. I refer, of course, to Genesis vs SNES. You remember the tagline, “Sega does what Nintendon’t”. the Genesis was an impressive piece of hardware. It was fast, it had brilliant colors and a mascot so badass he would later survive his own (apparently deliberate) destruction. Now, think for a second, what do you remember about the Genesis? It had a mediocre Aladdin port and a titanic remote, but whenever someone says “Genesis” you really only think of a very specific hedgehog. I mean, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker did pretty good in the postmortems, but other than that, Sonic and Toejam and Earl, the Genesis really didn’t have it going on.

What about the SNES? Yeah, now its all coming back. Link to the Past, the better Aladdin port, Half the Square and Enix catalog including Chrono Trigger, FF6 and Illusions of Gaia as well as the breakthrough entry for my favourite badass blonde in a battle-suit. Now, my decision to throw in with SNES didn’t just come from the fact that the SNES was the one my parents got. I had a Genesis too, (in fact, I think I had the Genesis first) it just didn’t have the epic line up of the SNES. The SNES itself wasn’t even that great, most of the games that ran on it had to come with their own SFX and GFX expansions just to keep competent.

Fast forward a few generations. remember the Dreamcast? God I loved that thing.. I used to play Evolution and Powerstone all day on my cousin Clary’s Dreamcast. now, I’m not sure who won that generation’s console war. I’m leaning towards the PS1, mostly because I had the N64, my brother owned the PS1 and, as tweenagers, we -really- weren’t getting along. All I know is that the only games I really loved for my N64 was Mario 64, Ocarina of Time, and Starfox. Oh, wait, Super Smash Bros was amazing, and I did like 2 mastery runs on Majora’s Mask. The PS1, however, was the bomb. Seriously, Final Fantasy Tactics, Final Fantasy 7-9, Bushido Blade, Megaman Legends, Spyro and remakes of -all- of the Final Fantasies 6 and earlier (excluding 3 because screw Americans). I’m not sure if it beat the N64 but I do know that it hauled ass for miles compared to the Dreamcast and, expansions included for all 3 systems, it simply could not beat the raw graphical power of it’s contemporaries.

So a device’s graphical power clearly has no bearing on it’s ultimate success. Lets look at individual games. Let us discuss the most controversial tech upgrade of the 90s. Of course, I refer to the FF6/FF7 debate. I’m sorry, spike hair fans, FF6 was better and it looked better. I’m not saying that 3D was objectively bad for Final Fantasy. FF10 is on my top 10 favourite games ever list (I really should do another run of that game. The sex scene between Cloud and Yuna always elicits a good cry) and the Kefka fight would have been much more dramatic if I could, between phases, watch Locke, Tera, Umaro, Mog, Shadow, Edgar, Sabin, Cyan, Gau, Relm, Gogo, Celes and Strago physically climb up the spine of the Abomination, dodge nimbly through the Court, leap from the crumbling bodies of The Lord and Lady and have a Safer Sephiroth style throwdown with the Mad God while Setzer positions the Blackjack to catch the team as Kefka Tower crumbles. That’s kind of the point though, isn’t it? Yeah, some drama was lost but was FF6 any less complete without the 3D wizardry? I mean, they managed to make up for the lack of graphical power with sepia and gray scale filters. When you load up FF7 and see that low poly count does it really feel that revolutionary?

We don’t need to be talking about graphical fidelity, the more relevant argument is aesthetic direction. Take Legend of Zelda : Wind Waker, Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword. Skyward Sword was, hands down, the most technically demanding of the three entries (motion blur, heat waves and rippling liquids aren’t cheap. Nor are durability trackers or gear skews for that matter. Why do you think Link Between Worlds did away with the gear bank?) but it failed utterly in it’s aesthetic theme. Seriously, look at that thing and tell me it says “prehistoria” to you. Hell, tell me that the land even felt remotely mysterious. Wind Waker had the mystery down pat. The low detail and sparse populations made you want to look at every corner, your eye shot directly at anything out of the ordinary. Remember how the cartoon aesthetic somehow made the Redead look even more horrifying? Now think of Skyward Sword, specifically the Underworld section of Ancient Cistern. I don’t know about you but I had a very hard time feeling threatened by those Redead. Now back to Twilight Princess. The hard boiled high detail coupled with dark color palette really underscored the tragic story of Zelda’s moment of cowardice in act 1. I literally caught myself saying “Wow, Zelda really screwed the pooch here” every time I had to do one of those Twilight Bug fetch quests in Twilit Hyrule.

For a final point, let us look at World of Warcraft. If you have a subscription to WoW, go into your graphical settings and just look at that mess. You literally have sliders for everything, and when you max it out (if it doesn’t fry your rig, RIP Zephyr’s power supply) just look at the world. For all of that graphical power, even the zones that got the biggest overhaul in Cataclysm still look kind of bland. Really the only parts of Cata that really wowed was the Hyjal Ragnaros reveal and the initial descent into Deepholm and even then, some areas of Deepholm actually look -worse- with the graphics pumped up to max. Don’t even get me started on the Neltharion fight. Seriously, Blizz, that fight looked terrible. Neltharion’s back looked like a turd with wings and the Maelstorm… what was actually going on there? did Deathwing suddenly grow hands? Were those his broken wings? I have no idea what was going on there. I even tried maxing out graphics and it looked even worse. To top it all off you decided to pre-render his death animation. Who the fuck pre-rends a death animation? Seriously, Squeenix doesn’t even pre-rend their death animations. Up until Cata -you- didn’t pre-rend your death animations. Even look at the set pieces in the same game. Go to 60-70 Hellfire Peninsula, Nagrand, Shadowmoon Valley, even Netherstorm, they all aged better with ancient Vanilla-level graphics than your cutting edge toilet bowl dragon. You really dropped the ball there.

See, right here falls one of those analogies that I love about video games. Imagine a horse drawn carriage. There are 4 parts to this equation. The load, the carriage, the driver and the horse. Now, if the load is your content, then the carriage is the aesthetic design, the driver is your theme, and the horse is your graphical and technical power. If all you’re pulling is a little wooden sleigh you can probably get away with a mule or a Shetland. I’m not saying you never need a big hulking 1.5 ton Clydesdale of a graphical rig, games like LA Noire simply wouldn’t function (and, I’d argue, didn’t function in the case of the Xbox 360) without a trillion dollar engine, but 90% of even the AAA market could get away with a quarter horse or less if they really focus on nailing down their aesthetic and theme.

So no, I don’t think graphical power equals game quality, or even visual quality. We need to get the idea of simultaneous high poly count and frame rate out of our heads and start talking about stylistic choices. The sooner we do that, the sooner we will stop seeing $60-$120 games that are only 4-8 hours long and the sooner we can get back to making quality AAA games. Thank you for reading, see you next week

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