When a new game is released, I try like many of my colleagues to talk intelligently about my impressions based on abstract but meaningful concepts of narrative structure, gameplay mechanics or world building. Eventually I toss in a passing aside to the relative quality of the visual engine as though it were itself an afterthought. I do this because to dwell to long on the visual qualities of a game is like asking whether your blind date is hot -- it's shallow, a little tacky and reveals you as just another mouth-breather in a world of skin-deep beauties.
The reality is, however, that video gaming is primarily a visual medium. To avoid the topic is akin to trying to describe a painting without talking about color, texture or visual interpretation. No one ever said of the Mona Lisa that it smelled nice. I understand, and have long shared the mantra that gameplay is king, and perhaps it is, but if so then graphics are its queen. If I may abuse a chess metaphor for a moment, the game is certainly lost without the king, but much of the time it is actually won with the queen.
The problem is not when we judge video games based on their visuals. The problem is those who assume that graphic awesomeness is measured in polygons. In fact, I think if we accept how vital the visual component of gaming is, then we've actually made the job of game makers much harder.
Visuals are the sensual gateway for a player. It is how you will interpret the world into which you are thrust, and it will be the primary vehicle for interaction. Even a music game like Rock Band or Guitar Hero relies as much if not more on the visual beat cues as it does on the music being played. But, it is a common mistake to assume that a successful visual presentation is built on the back of advanced technology. The skill of programming advanced visual engines and the skill of making compelling visual landscapes are not the same.
What good is technology to me if it doesn't create a world or gamespace that stirs my imagination?
Skip to the end — the worst sin a game can commit is dullness, which is why I think a game like Geometry Wars or even Psychonauts is in every meaningful way better looking than a Fallout 3 or Resistance 2. I ache for the end of gaming’s obsession with realism, and long for the industry’s Claude Monet, Salvador Dali or Pablo Picasso.
I don’t want to flirt too strongly with the video-games-as-art-debate, and I definitely don’t want my next game to be set at some Victorian lakeside picnic or in a desert of melting timepieces, at least not without a good video game conceit for being there which probably has to do with blowing stuff up. My point is simply that art direction can and usually will trump technology, which is why I think a game like World of WarCraft has better visuals than Everquest II.
There, I said it.
Game developers have at their disposal systems that are nearly magical compared to just a dozen years ago. My impression, however, of a new game is rarely improved by virtue of technology alone. The naïve desire for photorealism in games, which has been virtually achieved, needs to be set aside as the gold standard. I’ve seen the real world successfully realized in game form and frankly this muddied mirror was not nearly as inspiring as I might have originally hoped.
Dazzle me, game developers and art designers. Show me something I’ve never seen before, whether set in the scale of the galactic or mundane. Stop wasting time seeing if you can pack a few dozen more polygons into the architecture of a bus stop and instead paint the unexpected. As I looked recently on the artwork leaked from Warren Spector’s studio and their daring direction for a Disney game, of all things, I stopped and marveled. If they achieve even part of this vision it will likely be a spectacular visual achievement regardless of how many layers or models are shoved into a given frame.
I am, frankly, encouraged by the trends of late. A game like Braid which was completely captivating as a visual masterpiece deserves, I think, greater praise than Gears of War 2 or its ilk. If I never see a smattering of red on the gray and brown desolation of post-apocalyptia in any form, then I may die a much happier man for it. I love action and shooters as much as the next sociopath, but I’m ready to take that game to a more interesting place.
Gritty realism isn’t why I play video games anymore. Maybe it was once, probably back when such a thing wasn’t really possible. You have the power to create worlds. Why would you just make one that already exists?