Proof: Gameplay is More Important Than Graphics
In the world of modern, large-scale game development, absolute photorealism and similarly immersive environments seem to be the overall goal. The gameplay doesn’t seem to change at that same pace (The Last of Us notwithstanding), but that’s always been a major factor in the eternal struggle in video games: graphics vs. gameplay. Is one better? Which is the bigger driver of sales? Does anyone really care? Well, if history can tell us anything, it’s that high quality gameplay will always outlast high quality graphics, even if it doesn’t outsell it.
So, let’s break it down! I’m not a huge fan of “Top 5” lists, so instead here are a few general categories that will hopefully settle the issue once and for all (it won’t) of why graphics may be a vital element in a game, but cannot measure up to much of anything besides great art design without the core mechanics of gameplay to stand upon.
Indie (Braid, LIMBO, Organ Trail)
Everyone's a Game Developer
Today’s DIY approach to the indie development scene has proven a great many things about what it takes to make a great gaming experience. That is to say, gameplay wins over graphics every time. But the graphics are becoming less a way to communicate the style, story and gameplay, and more an artful co-star of the gameplay itself. In these instances, however, this is usually because the developers and players alike know full well that the graphics do not have to be realistic or expensive (in terms of time or money).
In fact, experiences like Braid or LIMBO were made perfect by their aesthetic appeal. This isn’t just small indie hope, either; LIMBO was one of BAFTA’s top 10 titles for award selection in 2011, alongside the likes of Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty. The entire industry at large now recognizes just how graphics of simple gray, black and white can stand strong and proud alongside the ever-increasing photorealism of triple-A titles.
This game (above) was nominated by these guys (below) in 2011 for Artistic Achievement, Gameplay, Use of Audio, Best Game, and the GAME Award (voted for by the public). They were beaten out by triple-A titles in every category.
Developing the Balance
As indie development tends to lend itself quite easily to the artsy approach, this seems like a match made in heaven. What was once seen as a flaw in indie games is now its main attraction. What’s more, we’re reaching a ceiling of photorealism in the bigger scenes that is a clear indicator of what good art direction and cinematography can do for a game, and what it can’t do. Organ Trail, for instance, is of such low quality on purpose, harkening back to its inspiration. It’s all about intention, and focusing on what is needed to perfectly communicate the designer’s vision.
Whereas just about every great game in ages past was created by a team of artists, programmers and sound experts, a good amount of today’s most well received titles were built from the ground up by a handful of developers, if that. As such, lo-fi graphics (sometimes presented as an intentional retro-nostalgia) are more commonly matched with modern game design sensibilities. The end result is a huge community of games where sprites and code are freely shared as a simple means to a much more complex and beautiful end. This freedom from the restraints of high levels of realism allows for a great breadth of creativity and open design.
Dust: An Elysian Tail is the exact opposite of this, destroying much of my point here in general. Save for some elements of the narrative design and score, this much loved indie title was crafted solely by one man, Dean Dodrill. And so it is with indie graphics, which are vastly important, though not on a sliding scale from realistic to blocky. The gameplay still reigns supreme, but indie standards allow for an artistic, hand-drawn approach rarely seen outside of the community.
Old School (Goldeneye, Final Fantasy, Super Smash Bros., Dragon’s Lair)
Time, Stand Still
One of the best litmus tests for good gameplay is in its longevity. In the realm of triple-A development, or in any realm for that matter, titles that see sales or even competitive play decades after their release are a very rare sight. Highly polished repeats like Call of Duty might outsell, but they tend to be replaced by a successor within a short matter of months at which point the multiplayer servers empty out and the poor thing is put out of its misery save for a handful of hardcore fans and perhaps a nostalgic replay of the campaign.
There’s not a 90s kid around who wouldn’t love the opportunity to remember how terrible they are at Goldeneye. The frantic pacing, the great level design, the punches flying into your friends' arms from left and right. But, even in the 64-bit era, Bond, James Bond still had a rather flat and blocky appearance. Superman 64 isn’t remembered as one of the worst video games of all time because of what we see now as blocky graphics and poor visuals. Yet, Super Smash Bros., which was just as blocky, still sees competitive play to this day. Cartridges sell online and in specialty retailers for more than a pretty penny.
These weren't bad graphics.
These are just better.
Every Star Had Its Chance to Shine
There’s a huge difference between bad graphics and old graphics, however, and to judge these by today’s standards won’t result in much progress. Final Fantasy VII had great graphics, though that’s no longer the case as we’ve seen so much more from the franchise. That said, the critical approval seems to diminish as the Final Fantasy franchise grows in numbers. Hell, they just rebuilt XIV from the ground up solely because of the horrific gameplay, despite on-par graphics. FFX-2, oddly enough, turned many off through its “girly” aesthetics (despite intelligent political drama, well crafted characters and story, and a positive critical reception). What’s more, the Dressphere was one of the finest combat and RPG systems in the franchise. Still, how many times have Final Fantasy’s 1-5 been remade, renamed, rebranded, and resold to the tune of millions in profits? Aesthetics do have a huge part to play in presenting the game, but rarely do they influence the game itself so far as to redeem poor gameplay and shoddy mechanics.
This retro aesthetic cross-pollinates with the realm of indie games quite often. When a new indie game might have 16- or 32-bit graphics because of the lack of time, artists or ability, it is often placed in the category of “new retro” to gain value from a player’s previous experience and nostalgia.
Let’s close this section by again negating exactly what I’m trying to say. Dragon’s Lair still holds up as an absolute classic. Here is a game that hasn’t lost an ounce of its aesthetic appeal. Cartoonish aesthetics often flourish for just this reason, and tend to stand up to time very well. The animation is still quite dated, but it is of no less quality for its age. Graphics will deteriorate if they’re presented in a style that relies on then-current technology instead of timeless design.
Was this any less scary for the chunky graphics? They weren't chunky a few years ago...
Scream Like a Man
Mechanics in these games are absolutely essential. The immersion required to keep a good horror feel going can easily be broken by bad controls, camera failures or poor level design. More than anything, these games rely on believable worlds communicated by good graphics, not the good graphics alone. We’ve all been scared by good games of yesteryear, and they accomplished this without 1080p.
Penumbra and Amnesia certainly stand out as the most frightening and disturbing experiences in gaming today. Yet, their graphics are relatively sub par compared to other titles released in 2007 and 2010, respectively. Anyone who beat these games with clean drawers is a liar or a sociopath, or they just weren’t doing it right. Simple mechanics like requiring the player to physically pull back the mouse as they opened doors or chests, as well as the sanity mechanics, provided huge amounts of immersion and realism that have nothing to do with the graphics. I hope that one day we’re able to experience Amnesia through the Oculus Rift, so that I can play for five minutes and say goodbye to ever sleeping again.
8-bit Bioshock Image, Courtesy ZePoink
Fear and Loathing in Rapture
Bioshock is one of a kind in terms of environment having an impact on the player. But, how much of this impact was derived from high resolution enemies, and how much was derived from superbly crafted story, brilliant world design and other elements that have nothing to do directly with the level of the graphics? So long as the graphics are at a level where the player can see what’s what, Bioshock would have revolutionized our standards even if it had been a SNES title. We would all still be longing to see it in the modern 3D presentation, but it wouldn’t have been of any less quality. It’s certainly true that the level of detail elevates the immersion and atmosphere by leaps and bounds, but these other elements matter more.
Text (Zork, DragonRealms, King of Dragon Pass)
Roll for adjective!
Here’s an easy way to settle this: games without graphics! From the classics like Zork to modern MUDs, these are to video games what books are to movies. Your imagination has no budget to consider, no hardware restraints, no limits whatsoever. Though far from the top sellers in any category, text-based adventures are beloved by many, if only as a thing of the past. Some newer takes on the text-based game do include visuals, but these would fall more into the category of art, maps and information rather than what we think of as “graphics”. King of Dragon Pass, for instance, does have a graphical interface, which greatly enhances what would otherwise be a black and white wall of text. Yet, the entirety of the game revolves around presenting scenarios and decisions to the player, and then proceeding accordingly from there.
Nonetheless, many text-based games of every variety still appear from time to time. They’re a niche selection, but beloved all the same. Adventure games, strategy, MMOs, world-building; everything but shooters, really. These titles truly distill what it means to be a game: to accomplish something, to progress and to build, to enjoy ourselves and find immersion in interesting new worlds. Some of today’s most popular games don’t even utilize a screen, only a pencil and a couple of dice.
So We've Resolved Nothing... Hooray!
To quote my good friend Scott Johnson, "So, how were the grAYphics?"
The game is in the gameplay. The rest are just the tools that let us experience. Graphics simply communicate what, who and where we are in the system of the game. This is vital information, and can be the single largest factor in our enjoyment, but if the core of the game isn’t there, beauty means far less, almost nothing.
So where do we end up? Where this discussion always ends. Great gameplay can easily be ruined by horrific gameplay and camera. The two aren’t exactly the same, clearly: good gameplay with bad graphics can succeed, whereas the opposite cannot. Yet, art and aesthetic can turn a good game into a great one, and can be used as an integral element of the overall package. Both are necessary, for any experience, in any format, on any platform, from any era.