When it comes to gaming, there’s probably not a lot that causes more stir amongst the discussion of gamers than visuals and graphics. Outside of asking a community which is better between Microsoft and Sony, there’s no surefire way to get the passions and opinions of the collective individuals riled up than asking the value of graphics — particularly as they improve from generation to generation.
In turn, this is enabled in no small part by the progression of graphics themselves. Many developers will seek to outdo themselves with such impressive visual improvement on a grand scale and in such minute detail that at a certain point, we may not be able to differentiate between reality anymore.
And no doubt, the visuals as they improve from year to year can be a fantastic thing — both the technological growth, and the creative input. Developers throughout the industry regularly employ no small shortage of artists with talent and it shows; many gamers can speak of the wonders of what those shiny graphics add to the overall gaming experience.
But at the same time, it’s not just about graphical improvement, and it’s not even just about developers going too far with the notion (relying on graphics to sell a game and forgetting to flesh out the other details like plot and gameplay). It’s also about remembering that at the end of the day, visuals in a gaming experience are and should be more the icing on the cake, rather than the main entree.
James Cameron’s Avatar serves a perfect example here – though it’s film rather than a video game. Both are visual mediums, and in this case, Cameron is guilty of doing the same as a few too many amongst the gaming industry: relying on visuals to sell the product.
As many a critic has testified, there’s nothing even remotely special about Avatar‘s story or characters. A rip-off of Fern Gully, Pocahontas, Dances With Wolves? Take your pick. Such criticisms are many. Of course, the archetypal plot and characters aren’t the problem in it of themselves: many stories (in film, in tv, and even in gaming) will take inspiration from what came before. (How many fantasy novels are just a riff on Lord of the Rings?)
The problem is that Cameron doesn’t do anything new with it. It’s that Avatar has a predictable storyline with predictable characters that mean emotional and plot stakes never resonate because the director isn’t even trying on this creative front.
The visuals, on the other hand, are spectacular. Avatar became the highest grossing movie of all time (inflation notwithstanding) by selling itself on the idea that audiences had never seen anything like this before. And we hadn’t. But in the end, did it really matter? Pandora may have come to life visually – but it never did on any other level. Not in character, not in history, not in any emotion. Because it didn’t even try to be anything fleshed out or complex.
Which is to say, Cameron relied on the visuals to sell the film, with story and character acting as supporting elements – when it should have been the other way around.
A game doesn’t need to have the highest-end graphics to accomplish this goal. It doesn’t need to aim for 60FPS or 1080p or what have you. It just needs to remember that the graphics should be a supporting element that sufficiently enhances the the world, the story, and the gameplay as we experience them.
BioShock and BioShock Infinite are both notorious for their gaming environments, and it isn’t because the technical specs are up to par —though it is true to say that the color palette in the opening moments of Infinite is truly stunning. But the reason that the visual aesthetic of Rapture and Columbia resonates with gamers is because of how they work in tandem with the other elements. It’s that you’re standing in a city on the bottom of the ocean watching a whale pass by the glass hallways while genetically modified people around you try to kill one another. It’s that juxtaposition of the spectacle, the scenery, with a world gone mad — all of which is enormously vital to the story at hand.
Any Souls experience can be enormously credited for the build of their environments – and even more importantly, how the environment itself does as much to tell each game’s minimalist story as any lore or NPC dialogue does. It’s the arrival at Anor Londo itself that’s so rewarding — truly a gorgeous aesthetic and the awe of seeing the City of the Gods for the first time. But beyond that, it’s also the immense amount that was required of the gamer even to get there — and promise of what’s still to come in the world and story.
It’s standing atop the church after defeating the Bell Gargoyles and looking out what appears to be the edge of the world. In a place gone mad, where few have maintained their sanity, where most are driven to the point of mindless hostility, and the shadow of past dark deeds lurk around every corner, standing at one of the highest points in the game, seeing that endless nothing is an enormously profound experience.
The key to these visual moments is that they serve to enhance the gaming experience – the established story and world and characters. Rather than having them stand on their own, and expecting gamers to be in awe simply by the technical achievements. Visual moments must have proper context in order to be impactful – and even then, the more pivotal they are to enhancing that particular story and world, the more resonant the visuals (and the game itself) will become.
It’s for this reason why the importance of visuals should perhaps better be underplayed. In this way, it’s best when developers behave less like James Cameron and more like Peter Jackson (back before he made The Hobbit trilogy, that is). Back when Return of the King and The Two Towers offered audience-goers truly stunning moments of visual acclaim that were still soundly built upon the emotions and the stakes of characters and story that were very much the focus — for both director and audience. It’s not just looking out over the Orc army splayed across Pelennor Fields that is in it of itself so stunning — it’s the realization of just how little chance the people of Minas Tirith have in winning this that makes the moment so spine-tingling.
Video games are more prone to walking this tricky line even than film — because more than film or television, the medium is entirely reliant on computers and technology to generate the visual product. All the same, this proud medium is often at its best, creating its greatest visual moments, when those moments are soundly built upon character and story, subtly enhancing what we’re all investing in to begin with.