Show me one person who does not like pretty things. While beauty is still very much subjective, we are still enamoured by visually appealing things. Besides being a precious metal, gold is so sought after simply because it looks pretty and shiny. We decorate our homes with posters, paintings and carpets of various colours. Companies design their packaging to be as visually appealing as possible because we gravitate towards bright colours and intricate designs. Art is everywhere. From the dollar store landscape painting, to the Mona Lisa, to the little child’s amateur drawing. Art has a rich history dating back millennia and it has gradually evolved and changed with the times
Video games have had the unfortunate disadvantage of being limited by hardware when it comes to art. The space shooters of the late 70s and early 80s only had single pixels to represent stars and a cluster of 10 pixels to represent a spaceship. These were the representations of reality we could achieve on the hardware that was available at the time. With the progress of hardware, we were suddenly able to implement colours, allow for more intricate designs and eventually able to render full 3D environments.
Because of Moore’s Law, graphics advanced by leaps and bounds every generation until we’ve finally reached a point where it can almost be considered photorealistic. I won’t delve too much into the history of video game graphics, but feel free to watch this fantastic video from Ahoy on the entire history of graphics, from the humble start to the present day. He does a much better job than I ever could.
Instead, I want to focus on how video game graphics can improve a game and how it can almost be just as much of a defining feature as the gameplay, the narrative and so on. I view graphics as the personality of the game and this personality can be both positive and negative. Look at a game such as the original Gears of War. Its colour palette was filled with greys, browns and repressive darkness. While it set the tone admirably for the more desolate theme of the game and displayed a fair representation of a near apocalyptic war setting, it was also devoid of a lot of personality. This same principle applies to many of the more derogatory modern war shooters of yesteryear. Brown, grey and simple. There wasn’t much to differentiate these games from each other because they each had the same dull personality.
However, when you look at something like BioShock, it establishes its personality very strongly. It shares a common theme with Gears of War in the sense that it tries to convey desolation and destruction, but it does it in such a way that it makes it memorable and full of history. The happy trimmings of a New Year’s Eve party and the garishly adorable advertisements give a great dichotomy to the horrible events that shook Rapture and turned it into a drug-fueled hell hole. All of the components of its graphics gives the game a memorable and immersive personality, unlike the war shooters that made you struggle to tell them apart.
Graphics cannot really be described in one all-encompassing way. It all really depends on the art direction that a game chooses to go with. For my money, there are two ways how a game can present itself: realistic and artistic. Within these two categories, there’s also a lot of sub-categories. For instance, you can have realistic looking graphics within a sci-fi space epic such as Mass Effect and you can also have realistic graphics in a dark fantasy game such as The Witcher 3. This is the preferred way to go when it comes to most AAA game releases. They try and push the boundaries when it comes to simulating the look of the real world using massive development teams filled with talented artists, the best hardware and all sorts of programming magic to make a game look as realistically pretty as possible.
While we’re not yet at the levels where graphics are indistinguishable from the real world, we’re getting mighty close. Uncharted 4 shows us how amazing realistic graphics can get and it would sometimes take you a few seconds to tell if a screenshot is real or fictional. Racing games such as DriveClub and Project Cars have made it really hard to tell realities apart. Often I looked at a real photo of a racing car and thought “wait, is this a screenshot of a game?”. The much maligned The Order 1886 might not have met expectations, but the visuals in the game are astounding and made the line between movie and game slightly blurry. Let’s not also discount the capability of any big release running on a monstrous PC on full settings.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the artistic visuals. I call them artistic for a lack of a better word, but it basically means graphics that adhere to a unique art direction. This category is much more expansive than realistic visuals and for the most part, they can be much more timeless. Nobody comments on how pretty the original Half-Life looks, but people are still praising the art of a game such as The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. These games are much less reliant on brute hardware capabilities and much more on artistic talent. You look at a game such as the first Monkey Island which released in 1990 and you find its charming pixel art design that still holds up to this day, even if it was released in a very early era of gaming.
Within the artistic category, you will find games such as Borderlands which employs a unique art style that makes it part of its identity. The game could have just as easily worked with realistic graphics, but the stylised nature and cell-shading style made the game stand out from the pack and in turn made the game much more relevant when talking about good graphics, even years after its release. You also find a game such as Journey that utilised a fantastic art direction and made itself much more memorable. The flowing sands, immersive lighting and saturated colours all work together to cement the game’s style into your mind. Similarly, games such as Bastion and Transistor also used their art styles to their advantage, painting worlds that you just wanted to explore and see more of.
Artistic graphics are also a cornerstone of the indie scene. Since rendering ultra-realistic graphics is a huge time investment and indie developers are mostly composed of small teams, going artistic is almost the only way to go. This includes games that use older techniques such as pixel art that work incredibly well thanks to the better hardware. Games such as Fez, Hotline Miami, Papers Please and Hyper Light Drifter all use unique and beautiful pixel art to create their worlds. But not all indie games rely on carefully crafted pixel art to get the job done. Limbo used its dark shadows, contrasting white light and eery silhouettes to craft a depressing and hopeless landscape to great effect.
Indie games have shown us that you don’t need an astronomical polygon count or the processing power of a supercomputer to make a game beautiful. You just need a great art direction, passion and talent.
Graphics are sometimes brushed off as being “not important” to the gameplay experience, which is correct in some respects. A pretty game isn’t necessarily a good game. But like I said, graphics can give a game a personality, an identity of its own and elevate the experience just as much as solid mechanics and a good story can. Graphics can sometimes be the defining feature of the game and what causes you to remember it fondly in your head. Those moments where you just stop for a second, let go of the controller and go “wow”. Where you endlessly wander around, just taking in the scenery. Where the world tells a story of its own, without the need of any words. That’s why graphics are important in the story of gaming.
If you missed The Art of Gaming: Narrative – Imaginary tales, be sure to read up on my thoughts here.