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Graphics: When more is less

posted on August 14th, 2009 by jackson

What makes books so compelling? Lots of things, but one important facet is the ability of words, mere signifiers, to incite incredible images inside a reader’s brain. Few games encourage this, with their fancy polygons and all, but the same principle exists in them, whether it’s intentional or not.

When I first loaded Pokemon Red Version it was immediately obvious that the graphics were limited, or, to put it in nicer terms, pixelated representations of reality. Translating the sprites into concrete objects was something my brain had to acquire a taste for. I clearly remember not being able to find the exit of Ash’s home, and eventually learning that a certain rectangle on the floor represented the welcome mat and the door was off-screen from that. This sort of thing seems elementary now. Considering Pokemon’s limited environments are it makes sense that the series was never renown for them, but rather the adorable monsters themselves and their many fights. The battles were amazing. Ferocious monsters locked in combat, bombarding superpower after superpower upon each other, and all under my control. The combat is thrilling, these beasts often fighting for several whole minutes at a time until their health fails, and they collapse into those red and white balls.

To be honest, my memory is probably not what it actually looked like in the slightest. In fact the monsters were highly pixelated images which never moved. The various attacks were items on a menu and sometimes flashing sprites across the screen. There was no intensity, thrill, adrenaline, or any emotion at all to be interpreted from the display, except of course the HP meter. On top of it all was a layer of blurry grayscale. But my childhood mind was able to quickly train itself to read and understand all of these hieroglyphics and interpret the most amazing fight scene ever imagined.

A lot of what makes games fun is not what happens on the screen but what happens in your head. Despite this, not a lot of games actively attempt to be a catalyst for the player’s imagination. When I first saw the box for Pokemon Stadium I was thrilled, finally I would finally be able to see in real time 3D what I had only imagined before. But as I played the game I was only disappointed, the graphics could never compete with what went on in my head.

Sometimes a game needs a little humility. Even with all of their polygons and pixels, a game’s environments aren’t a replacement for reality. They’re a part of reality. Any game that suggests itself to be some sort of Matrix machine, feeding the player a preset world through his or her senses, is most likely a false prophet. But a game that does what it can and lets your brain figure out the rest, that’s the kind of game that will probably have a far greater impact.

All of these thoughts came from a recent experience I had when I decided to try out My Life as a Darklord, Square Enix’s new tower defense game. I haven’t played a Square Enix game for ages, and was probably intrigued by this one because tower defense is an unusual genre for them. The action is fairly abstract, as one would probably expect, and clearly a vague representation and implication of more sophisticated action. Monsters and humans swing their claws and swords around in the air, and apparently hit each other, despite being a fair distance apart, and then wait thirty seconds to attack again, all the while hopping around like they’re about to piss themselves.

After playing a few rounds my dominant complaint was that the graphics were far too distracting for me to enjoy them. The way all of the monsters and adventurers hop around on screen draws so much attention to the literal graphics that I don’t get a chance to take what’s happening and apply the lens of my own imagination to it.

I would like to tell every developer that I believe I am better at imagining amazing graphics than you are at creating them. If you want to compete against my brain, the odds are against you, but you’re welcome to try all the same. But if you’re not up for that challenge, then stick to pictographic sprites.

4 Comments

  1. christian said on August 16, 2009:

    This post reminds me of hearing that, when making the new Punch Out, Nintendo chose to make the enemy models fill up a lot of the screen because that is how we remembered them being, even though in reality, most of them were not that large in the NES original. Amazing to see what our memories and imagination can do to fill in the gaps where a game is blank.

  2. Michelle said on August 17, 2009:

    I’m with you completely about your imagination filling in a lot of the gaps for a quite basic looking game, was more fun that way no?

    Although I find these days that looking back at games I used to love as a kid, that my mind does a similar thing – making the game look much more impressive in my long term memory than it is on screen.

    Leads to a lot of disappointment like you say.

  3. Bruce said on August 17, 2009:

    Finding that exact spot where more detail doesn’t necessarily add to someone’s conception of an object isn’t something an artist is good at knowing, because artists know exactly how -they- see something and want everyone else to see it the exact same way. Add to this the hooting menagerie of unimaginative frat-and-fan boys on the internet who cry incessantly when a game’s graphics aren’t hardcore enough and you have a recipe for conceptual disaster. I’m not going to go into from my viewpoint because frankly it’s depressing.

  4. Cunzy1 1 said on August 18, 2009:

    Another Pokemon fan hey?

    Something my group of gamers discuss a lot with turn based combat in RPGs is that these days there is enough processing power these days for turn based combat to be presented like an interactive FMV sequence. Instead of the aforementioned ‘piss hopping’ in a bland rendered arena. But after seeing the same amazing looking animation for the 230th time you’d be spamming the skip button.

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