A Visual Matter

As of 6am today, all of Venezuela, my country, is “celebrating” its Presidential Elections…just wanted to say that. And now for something completely different!

Games, specifically, Video Games.

Being a visual media, we have to accept that Visuals, the graphics are important, the question is, just how much? I think that like with many things, it depends on the case and the gamer. Some don’t even touch a game without a certain level of graphics, which more often than not means a certain level of detail and gloss in a photorealist visual style (define photorealism as realistic).

I think the best approach for this is to have a pro-con discussion, but since this is my blog, I’ll be arguing with myself, and no, I’m not crazy…not yet anyway. I’ll try to look at both sides of the argument and let you decide for yourself which one is stronger.

Graphics > Story &/or Gameplay

On the one hand, this is a visual media, and as such, visuals are important, like I just said before, and a certain degree of visuals can help or hinder the gameplay and immersion. If you need to do something and the visuals are blurred or crap and that something requires interaction like in a point & click, the crappy visuals will make it a distinctly not fun experience for the player (most games get around this by making things stand out, but there are a few oldies and new-ies that don’t). As immersion, it’s jarring when you hear a beautiful and heartfelt delivery by the voice actor or your read a gorgeous piece of written conversation and the characters’ faces don’t express or convey the emotion (with Skyrim being the opposite, with characters capable of expressing their emotions, but having soulless actors performing). If you’re witnessing a scene that’s supposed to disturb you and the visuals just aren’t there, you fail at your intended purpose.

On the other hand, a game with solid if not astounding visuals but with terrible gameplay is pretty much worthless, even more so than a game with good gameplay and bad visuals. Story, well, if the gameplay is good you can forgive bad storytelling. We also need to consider that “visual level” can also be costly and there are always limits in technology, as is the case with the most classic games, from the NES era or before, those had the top graphics of their time and they were crap, same with N64 & PS1, terrible terrible graphics, but some of the best games out there, with just-okay visuals but amazing gameplay and stories that made you forget about the bad visuals and instead, now, you remember the bad graphics fondly, with a sense of nostalgia. I think those too-realistic games have spoiled many into a belief that visuals should top everything or at least be on par with the content (and sadly those too-realistic visuals are wasted in gray-black-brown shooters, but that’s another topic).

In the end, a game is not visuals or gameplay or story, it’s all three put together, or at least the first two, as story can be optional. A game should always be studied as a complete package, and that’s why games like Crysis are crappy games in my book, because while they may boast astonishing visuals, the story is horrible and the gameplay leaves much to be desired.

Photorealism vs All-other-contenders

This is an interesting topic.

There are some who believe absolute realism in games is the way to go, and most of the time they  dismiss games with another visual style, like cel shading, which can be a half and half, one half realist one half cartoon, like Borderlands or Red Steel 2, or like The Wind Waker which are top to bottom cartoony.

For those who side with photorealism, the belief is that strong emotion, shock, fear and disgust can only be conveyed with something we recognize as real, something we know is actually like that, and the reality makes the situation presented, such as a murder or the horrors of war, be truly effective.

I also believe the need for photorealism and their dismissal of more animated looks stems from that notion that “cartoons are for kids”, extrapolated from televised media or film into gaming. It is the believe that “live-action” is the way to go when you’re not a child anymore, as liking a cartoon look will make you seem (and in some ways feel) childish and immature.

Some, like myself, believe any visual style has its merit, and certain styles, like cel-shading sometimes do a better job with certain genres or settings. For example Fantasy. A High-Fantasy setting in a cartoony game allows you to go bigger, greater and bolder, to go as high as you can, as the visual style will support and help you convey the epic-ness. It’s in these cases that sometimes Photorealism falls flat on its face, as the full might of an epic fantasy setting will either not look very well or look like a Michael Bay movie. Of course, some photorealistic games manage the Fantasy setting and pull it off amazingly, such as both Witchers, which are grounded on Polish fantasy novels and as such have a guide-map on just how the epic and majestic elements are and should be portrayed.

First person games have almost always been the realm of photorealism, from Doom, Quake, Metroid Prime and the Thief games to the current mindless iteration of Call of Duty and its competitors/clones. The purpose of these games is to set you behind the eyes, or the visor in most cases, of the hero or heroine, and the realism is supposed to add to the immersion, making it seem genuine, and I have to admit it works, even with games like Metroid Prime, Thief and Skyrim, which introduce outlandish elements, the first person perspective work in getting you involved. But, and this is a big but, there have and there are games with shading and non-realism approach in the first person arena that pull their immersion off as perfectly as their realist compatriots, such as Borderlands, with its wacky setting and cel-shaded visual style.

Another point that grates at my nerves about photorealism is that in the last decade or so, its main representatives have been the warfare shooters, the gray-black-brown graphics, and I still don’t understand how such plain and bland games can be considered the top of the photorealistic food chain, when other such games, like Alan Wake, Crysis, Amnesia, Resident Evil and many others use vibrant colors and deep shadows in much more effective ways than them.

Some think each style has its genre, its place to be, which is a fair point. Sure, Horror tends to work best with photorealism and games such as Amnesia and Fatal Frame are perfect examples, while Comedies and adventures and RTS work well with the cartoon look, yet there are examples of each crossing over into a different visual style, with games like Catherine, a cel-shaded horror game and one of the creepiest in the genre and whose only purpose seems to mindfuck its players, and Uncharted representing the photorealist adventure game; or even the very underrated MadWorld for the Wii, the game that crushes the very idea of cartoon/cel-shading being useless for mature games, with its bloody, and I mean very bloody, gameplay and very mature setting.

I believe every visual style can be used for every type of game, every setting and every genre, but it’s the developer’s responsibility to ensure that the visual style works, that it’s refined enough to convey what it’s supposed to. Both realist and not-so-realist games have fallen flat on their faces when they aren’t polished enough and fail to immerse the player in the situation, either with the visual style not doing its job as it should be, or the gameplay messing it up, like for example Silent Hill Homecoming, where the characters combat expertise and general feel of controlling him ruins what the visuals are trying to make you feel.

See how we always come back to gameplay?

On a final note, and very tied to the previous point, there’s the matter of HD and 3D.

3D is worthless, it’s not worth the money or the effort, be it stereoscopic and migraine inducing like the 3DS or a sell-your-organs-expensive TV with glasses that also induce migraines. In the end the only purpose of 3D seems to make you feel ill, and it’s because of that I agree with Irish comedian Dara O’Briain “3D is a load of arse. It was tried in the 50’s, the 80’s and now in 2010. It’s like TB (tuberculosis); it flares up once a generation and you have to zap it with anti-biotics and get on with your life”

HD on the other hand is a good way forward, with crisp visuals, be it realistic or not, and on that note, it’s amazing how cel-shaded games and in general those with a less realistic visual style make the transition into HD more smoothly, their vibrant colors bringing out the best HD has to offer, while the black-brown-gray shooters look as much as shit in HD as they do in LD.

One thing, one point that Cel-shading has over Photorealism is CS games age much better than their realist counterparts, with games like the aforementioned Wind Waker looking just as beautiful today, 9-10 years after its release, as it did back then.

After reading all this you might get to the points:

  • Visuals should back the gameplay to make it work.
  • Gameplay should work with each visual style, don’t try to do things the visuals don’t let you.
  • Which style you use depends on your choice and preference.

And all of those points come down to the most fundamental aspects of a game: ITS DESIGN AND EXECUTION.

A well-executed game can have horrible visuals and a pathetic story and still be fun as hell and, if the frustration is there, it can become a classic. We have many of those. Contra is an example, crappy graphics even by NES standards and a less than lackluster story, but it’s still, to this day, one of the most fun games ever fucking made. Another example is Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, the first in the series. The game was ugly, fugly even, but both story and gameplay were solid.

On the other hand, a poorly made game can boast breathtaking graphics, an amazing storyline or an orgasmic gameplay and still end up in the discount bin, like one of my favorites, Advent Rising, with some of the best and worst controls in the history of games, but with beautiful stylized visuals and a deep, rich, fantastic story and it still flunked, the trilogy cancelled and me ending up bitter because I couldn’t find out what happened next. Like I said some of the worst controls ever, sometimes they worked, but more often than not, they didn’t. The stylized visuals were amazing, but they were choppy, there were polish issues, and even the amazing story had some pacing problems, with some important stuff being glossed over too quickly.

I hope this has enlightened you in some way, and if there’s a fault or something I’ve missed, please call me on my bullshit in the comments section, I appreciate it.

If you want to know more about the photorealism vs shading debate please watch this episode of the Jimquisition

Thank you for your time, and until the next one.

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I love everything readable, writeable, playable and of course, edible! I search for happiness, or Pizza, because it's pretty much the same thing! I write and ramble on The Mental Attic and broadcast on my Twitch channel, TheLawfulGeek

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