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Graphics over gameplay: is it really all that bad?

posted on October 2nd, 2006 by matt

Whether or not graphics really add all that much to video games has been heavily debated in the last few years. And once the Wii and PS3 come out to steal the 360’s spotlight, we’ll surely hear about it all over again.

Though it may not seem like it due to the clever use of lighting and camera angles, the colossus is actually only an inch taller than you.

But, if we think about it logically, is there really a difference between the two? Some would say, “Of course there is! What are you, high? You can’t play with pictures!” And yes, they’d be perfectly correct. But what people don’t think about is the complementary effect that graphics can have on gameplay.

Take, for example, Shadow of the Colossus. Not exactly the prettiest title in some respects, but one cannot say it isn’t graphically intensive. The sheer size of the Colossi and the lighting engine employed probably put a big strain on the PS2’s Emotion Engine and its separate VPU’s. You can tell by how the game’s frame-rate starts to stutter when fighting the Colossi.

SCEI used lighting in the game to make it look like the Colossi were much farther than they were. If you’ve ever looked at the Colossus’ face when on the ground, it would seem that the distance between the two was rather large. In raw 3D terms, it’s probably not, but with the added ability of a competent lighting engine, the user is oblivious to this fact. They therefore think the Colossus is hundreds of times bigger than the player.

Now, combined with the fact that the sole objective in the game is to bring these suckers down, the player starts to get excited. “You see that thing?! The thing’s huge!” This all happens before you even push a button. Graphics, in this instance, have increased the amount of enjoyment that a player has with a game. Some even say how you play SotC isn’t all that amazing, but the experience that they’ve had was amazingly worthwhile. One would therefore deduce that the graphics were the primary reason why they did.

Didn’t Van Damme do this in Cyborg?

Now, think of Splinter Cell. That series has always been at the forefront of employing good lighting effects. The stealth gameplay in the game depends on light, or rather, the lack thereof. If the lighting was suggestive (like there was an in-game meter that told you how much light was around the player, but was not evident by looking at the game) then the realism that the player wants is not there. They would probably feel somewhat uninvolved with the game’s universe. Again, graphics were one of the reasons why Splinter Cell was so much fun to play, and you can see that for yourself by reading its reviews.

Now, don’t get me wrong. We’ve had games that look like crap and become masterpieces. Pac Man, anyone? We’ve also had games that were based on stealth that had graphics that are far below Splinter Cell’s. The earlier Thief games come to mind. And those games were great to play.

What I’m trying to say is that we’ve attained a far more immersive gameplay structure when introducing more powerful graphical presentations.

FEAR has a million bullets and clouds of dust flying on screen, and it makes as if the player is in a room controlled by sheer chaos. Wind Waker’s ocean is probably the biggest chunk of open horizon in any game, and Twilight Princess promises to be even bigger. These games could not be achieved with hardware of past years. No one could imagine the types of experience we would be having when playing games on the Apple II, for instance.
Another point is the fact that people just like to look at nice-looking things. Take Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, for example. People just love to look at it. They love how the leaves on the trees sway with the wind, as well as many other graphical minutiae. Psychologically, I have no idea why this is. Maybe people like seeing how far technology has come, where they like to see fake things that look extremely realistic. Or maybe they like controlling these insanely realistic people with a touch of a button. Maybe they just like trees.

Why go outside when Bethesda has captured nature’s tranquil beauty?

But some people’s enjoyment of playing the game, i.e. gameplay, is based on the fact that they just look at it more than they play it. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve been known to ride Agro in Shadow of the Colossus just to look at the scenery.

On the flip side, if a game is pumping out insane amounts of polygons and texture effects, but is a dread to play, we can say that graphics are totally useless when talking about the experience you had with the game. This basically comes down to the fact that graphics were emphasized more when developing the game, rather than its gameplay. Look at Criterion’s Black.

One could imagine how good the Wii experience could have been if Nintendo put more money into graphics but still used the wand controller. We all know why they went the route they did, but think of playing FEAR with the Wii-mote. It would be the best of both worlds, and what’s wrong with that?

Gameplay has become a combination of graphics and basic human interaction, but people always seem to break these two aspects apart, making it almost sacrilegious to say they‘re nearly the same thing. We’re at the beginning of a new era in interactive media, where gameplay and graphics finally hold hands as the lovers they were destined to become.

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: Nintendo Wii: Factor 5 Are Not Impressed « Sickr on October 24, 2006
  2. Pingback: Graphics over gameplay: is it really all that bad? « Shallow Observations on February 14, 2008


  1. jay said on October 2, 2006:

    I agree with your thesis. Gameplay and graphics are often so intertwined it’s impossible to pull them apart and judge one but not the other. The examples you chose are games that use graphics in order to add to gameplay. People who usually argue for gameplay over graphics aren’t dismissing graphics that add to play, at least I’m not, but extraneous effort put into making a game shiny. Making good graphics takes time and that time is almost always better spent working on game mechanics.


    Ultimately, though, stronger hardware does allow designers to integrate graphics into gameplay more, so Nintendo does not have a monopoly on innovation. 

  2. Dan said on October 2, 2006:

    Yeah, I like to look at pixelated boobs as much as the next guy, but for every one Shadow of the Colossus there are two Quake 4s: games that are fun to look at but the actual experience of playing the game leaves something to be desired, to say the least. I have never felt disappointed in a game that was simply joy to play, even if it does look life crap. I feel as the game makers (and people who didn’t buy psychonauts) forget that. Not to say that psychonauts had bad graphics, just that people who didn’t buyit didn’t buy it because it wasn’t the halo or madden graphics they are so used to. These are the same people who got all stupid about Wind Walker. Just play the damned games, and their graphics will engross anyone far better than Quake 4’s.

  3. Matt said on October 2, 2006:

    Yeah, on the other side of the token, a good gameplay experience is not bound by how pretty a game is. Super Mario Bros. on NES is still an awesome game not matter how basic it looks now. BUT, one thing I will say is that I don’t like playing Final Fantasy VII just because the graphics are horrible. They look God awful, and I thank the gaming gods that Square shaped up for the rest of the PS1 games. In this example, the lack of good graphics ruined my experience with the game. Its universe wasn’t visually appealing for me and I opted to stop playing. And yes, I do agree that any developer should put far more time into making a game play well before focusing on graphical superiority. That’s just common sense for any developer. If they don’t, I’d fire the producer/whatever post-haste. 

  4. jay said on October 2, 2006:

    FF7 looks bad today while FF6 still looks good because of style, not graphics. It’s hard to make the distinction, but style is what makes Phantasy Star and Secret of Mana not make us want to throw up today. Square was new at 3D and they didn’t make FF7 in a style that would age well.

  5. Matt said on October 2, 2006:

    Yeah, good point. I was originally going to say how Chrono Trigger is a great game with simplistic grahics, but I said to myself, "I like how Chrono Trigger looks, even though it is only sprites." So yes, style can definitely go a long way. 

  6. Christian said on October 2, 2006:

    The fact that cel shading technically uses less resources but looks stunning is a testament to the fact that when it comes to graphics, its all about how well you use the hardware, rather than what hardware you have to use.  SoTC exemplifies this too; that team used every bit of the PS2 hardware that they good, and had to think of some creative ways to achieve the vision they had.  Powerful hardware can indeed help, but if a developer doesn’t know how to use it, it becomes much less of a factor.  I think its not a matter of graphics not being important, but as Jay says, gamers appreciate something that uses detail and style appropirately, in order to make a world they’re interested in playing.  Also, Nintendo’s logic with the Wii is the same as theirs with all their hardware; make something that is as powerful as can be while still being economically friendly to the consumer.  Its the same thing they did with the DS, the GBA, and the Gamecube.  

  7. Matt said on October 2, 2006:

    This article reminds me a lot of what I said about game music. If implemented correctly, the experience a user could have would be amazing. Graphics, like music, can add a lot to the overall experience. If done correctly, that is. 

  8. Shane said on February 5, 2007:

     Wrong, I’d love to see the day when graphics are more important.  Atari 2600 > PS3 :)

  9. halex dartboard said on June 22, 2007:

    Nice site. Thanks.

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