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Graphics in Video Games: Function Follows Form?

/ Dec 27th, 2012 1 Comment

Crysis 3

 

Crysis 3

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say Crisis heavily relies on it’s stunning graphics

Graphics, or a games visual esthetics, are often the main focusing point on any new game, and developers know this. Be it E3, PAX, or the Tokyo Game Show, developers assemble polished demos or vivid trailers all in an effort to display their games beautiful/retro/life-like graphics. But as technology increases and graphics become more and more realistic, have we focused too heavily on the visual element of gaming at the expense of design or story?

The increased interest on a game’s visual imagery is no new phenomenon, and for good reason. Love it or hate it, when checking out a game the first thing people notice is the graphical component. People are visual creatures and games are a visual medium, so it only makes sense that we will notice a game’s stunning backdrops, beautiful cities, or realistic characters. Sure a game may have revolutionary mechanics or a gripping narrative but it’s difficult to instantly demonstrate those elements without extensive experience with the game. Really, can we blame ourselves for drooling over the computer-frying graphics of Crysis or the dazzling cut scenes in Final Fantasy?

The Good

Graphics are more than polygon counts and texture layers. Believable surroundings and realistic characters help immerse players into the gaming universe. Would Skryim really be as great of a game without the vast terrain and beautiful landscape? Combined with other elements of a game—story or sandbox mechanics for example—graphics help take a game to whole new level of engagement. L.A. Noire is a perfect example of graphics and game design working hand-in-hand to create a unique and compelling experience.

One of L.A. Noire’s most talked about achievements was its use of the new MotionScan technology. Actors would have their facial reactions recorded by multiple cameras and then these expressions would be transferred over into the game. What resulted was more life-like characters with a never before seen range of facial emotions. The importance of this graphical achievement was pivotal to the game’s design. Throughout the game players would have to interrogate suspects and go off facial clues to determine if a person was lying or telling the truth. Without the improved realism in the character’s reactions, the interrogation mechanic would be impossible.

When used appropriately, graphics compliment the underlying mechanics of a game—helping to immerse the player into the overarching experience.

The Bad

Crysis 3

Sure is pretty though.

Unfortunately, graphics are often used to cover up or replace poorly designed games. Players will often forgive design errors or weak plot points if a particular game offers fresh or exciting imagery. Frequently developers will get so caught up in the visual characteristic of their game that they neglect the more basic, fundamental workings. Would Crysis really have gotten as much attention without the cutting edge realism? Probably not. As a result of this preoccupation with increasing realism, developers become reluctant to have their games stand solely on solid designs or innovative features. It’s as if the industry has gotten itself into an arms race to see who can produce the most stunning visuals.

Why It Doesn’t Really Matter

The Nintendo Wii, with its unorthodox controller and outdated graphical limits, outsold the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 and won this generation of console wars. How? Rather than focusing on sheer power, the Wii instead relied on pioneering technology and the causal gaming niche. The moral of the story: graphics aren’t everything and when offered, players will choose innovation over skin-deep aesthetics. Even the rumored Xbox 720 and PlayStation 4 will unlikely compare to suped-up computers available today. Ultimately, consoles are only restricted computers. If graphics were everything, then the majority of gamers would be PC gamers. Obviously, that is not the case.

So where does that leave us? Are graphics over-hyped? Sure, maybe to a degree. But in the end what matters most to gamers are not the shiny visuals but the appealing gameplay. From the casual nature of Angry Birds to the social characteristic of Farmville, gamers flock more to games that offer something new rather than hackneyed titles with updated looks.

Stephen Vinson

Stephen Vinson

Contributor at Gaming Illustrated
Stephen is a contributor to Gaming Illustrated and part of the editorial team. He regularly reads game reviews, keeps up with gaming trends, and follow news stories about the latest game or console rumor.
Stephen Vinson
Stephen Vinson

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  • Ben Conrad

    I agree wholeheartedly, and I’ve been arguing this point for years. Playing games on older computers that didn’t have the hardware of today forced designers to do a double-take on the plot and story. There’s even a gigantic cult following of text based MMORPGs. Don’t ask me how I know that.

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