The Surface of Things: Why Graphics Matter in Video Games

A lushly forested game environment.

Graphics sometimes get a bad rap when it comes to discussing video games. Sure, everybody likes good graphics, but it's become something of a pastime to accuse a developer of using good graphics as an excuse to deliver poor gameplay. Graphics are also used as a scapegoat when it comes to discussing whether or not developers are "dumbing down" games. The argument goes something like this: "Developers don't have to make thoughtful, engaging gameplay to sell units. They only need to make something that looks good. Ergo, developers don't care about gameplay anymore, they only care about graphics."

If this argument is true, it warrants some serious reflection. If, as game aficionados are fond of saying, good gameplay is more important than high-resolution graphics, why is it that people so often make their purchasing decisions based on the way a game looks? And why do developers continue to pursue larger textures and bigger polygon counts? Even developers who spurn ultra-realistic trends in game design work very hard to establish a unique, polished art direction for their own games, so while they may be "bucking the trend", they are certainly not ignoring the importance of making a good first impression. In fact, the argument begins to break down when examined under the microscope: implementing experimental rendering technology, which new games do on a regular basis, is probably vastly more expensive and technically challenging than refining gameplay. If appearance wasn't important to a player's enjoyment of a game, there wouldn't be any reason to pursue it. It would be cheaper, and result in better games if they didn't. Clearly there is more to this story than "meets the eye".

The most convenient argument is to shrug and observe that most people are superficial. If something looks good, people will buy it, even if it turns out to be worthless from a gameplay perspective. Customers can see the graphics in ads and trailors but not experience the gameplay directly so they are forced to go by what is immediately apparent. But I think that if graphics were truly irrelevant to gameplay, these presentations wouldn't cut it for consumers. When it comes to dating, looks matter. People can't help but be attracted to certain features in other people. But does this same rule apply to video games? Is it obvious that these "superficial" people who are attracted to good looks are equally attracted to the rendering of specularity on a racing car, the grain in an old piece of drift wood, the play of light and shadow in an abandoned warehouse, and the queasy realism of dismembered gibs? Are these really the same people and are they all just superficial? I find that sort of dismissive generalization a little shallow and unimaginative. There must be some reason why so many different people are attracted to hyper-realism in games. So attracted to it, in fact, that they are willing to risk $60+ USD on a gamble.

Autumnal forest.

Could it be that realistic rendering does more than just "look good"? Could hyper-realism in games serve some other, more fundamental purpose? I believe that it does. In fact, I would go so far as to say that realistically rendered environments and characters are one of the key means of establishing that ever elusive Holy Grail of game design: immersion.

Immersion is achieved through many means, of course, and polygon counts are by no means the only means of establishing it, but they are an incredibly important part and are often too easily dismissed. Take real life, for example. You have no problem being immersed in real life because the sensory signals you receive are very compelling. When you see a beautiful sunset, you feel a thrill of delight. That reaction is instinctive and primary. But what happens when these sensory signals can be replicated through hardware and software to such a degree that your brain can no longer distinguish between a real object in front of you, and a virtual object being rendered on the screen? What happens when it literally looks like you can reach into your computer monitor or television screen and pick up the object that's sitting there? I don't think that's science-fiction. I think that's a distinct possibility. After all, sensory signals are just data, and if there's one thing we know about computers it's that the amount of data they can manipulate and communicate grows exponentially every couple of years. What happens when video games become that good?

This kind of hyper-realism transcends simple immersion and becomes, for your brain, reality. Your brain believes that it can participate directly in the action in the scene. With this kind of super-rendering, the question is no longer: "Is this environment convincing and immersive?" but: "Do I feel like participating in it right now?"

Until we reach this level of verisimilitude, the differences between the way we perceive real objects and the way we perceive game objects creates a sort of barrier between ourselves and the virtual world we are participating in. With a new game, there is always a period of translation in which we accustom ourselves to the game's peculiar mode of revealing itself. With a good game, this period usually evolves into active immersion in which we are no longer consciously aware of this translation process. We "lose ourselves" in the game and forget, to one degree or another, that we are "only playing a game". Occasionally we are reminded of this fact by a badly stretched texture or an unbeveled corner, but for the most part good graphics draw us in and help to keep us there. If only to look around.

A winter wonderland. Good graphics can make an environment feel warm or cold.

Older games, or newer games with lower-resolution graphics, require more "translation time", and require effort on the part of the player. I think that's part of the reason why video games initially appealed to a smaller market. Like reading subtitles on foreign films, not everyone can be bothered to make the effort to engage in a game, even if the end result turns out to be an entertaining diversion. As graphics improve, they gradually remove this barrier and reduce the amount of translation required and appeal to a broader number of people. And the people who are already there are drawn in even more firmly. Graphics, then, are not a superficial component, but a primary strategy of game design. They are the principal means of establishing immersion, even if they don't turn out to be the most important means of maintaining it. And they're the principal means for the simple reason that most people see, and they like to see, especially if what they see is novel or interesting.

Developers who focus on graphics then, aren't doing so at the expense of gameplay; they are focusing on an aspect of gameplay. An aspect which is important for establishing and maintaining immersion. It may not be the most important aspect of gameplay in the long run, and critics may reasonably argue the value of pursuing graphics over other mechanics, but it is not fair to dismiss technical advancements in graphics outright, or worse, accuse them of being used as a substitute for gameplay. They are gameplay, but of a peculiar type.

I can imagine, for example, a game where I do nothing but wander around in virtual environments. If the environments are interesting and exquisitely rendered, I may very well spend a great deal of time playing this game. In this kind of game, you can hardly attribute my reason for participating to gameplay: my only action is to move around...and not very quickly at that. If my enjoyment cannot be attributed to the game's mechanics what can it be attributed to? Stripped of meaningful mechanics, the game may still succeed as an engaging activity, much as taking a hike or driving through the countryside. That's not to say that this kind of game couldn't be improved by adding drama and objectives, only that the mere appearance of a game, all on it's own, has a certain value as a mechanic which cannot be entirely ignored. (In fact, there is already a game like this: Skyrim.) Is it right for us to fault a developer for focusing on the appearance of a game, in this case, at the expense of developing other gameplay elements?

Even the scrubland is beautiful in Skyrim.

Developing highly realistic virtual worlds is, of course, incredibly laborious and expensive. Content development is no doubt one of the principal issues that every developer must address. I have no doubt that other areas of game design do, in fact, suffer for many games because of this. But it is unfair to say that developers are shirking gameplay in order to appeal to the "lowest common denominator". I think it is more true to say that most developers are simply overwhelmed, and that rendering good graphics is simply too important a tool for establishing immersion to be ignored. In a way, this can be compared to good gameplay: good gameplay is critical for establishing long-term relationships with the player; but appealing graphics are what get them in the door and convince them to give the gameplay a chance.

There are many hard-core gamers, of course, who will disagree with this characterization. They can rationalize from their own experience that the best gaming moments they've had, and the games they love the most, are not necessarily the best-looking games. They can cite numerous examples of games that looked good but played poorly and were quickly forgotten. They can cite an equally great number of games that have low-resolution graphics and broad, popular appeal. But my argument isn't that games like this don't exist, simply that graphics can't be given special treatment, can't be reduced to the level of a scapegoat, but must be considered a gameplay element in it's own right, and should be accorded the same amount of respect. There is nothing to be won by declaring how "hard-core" you are by spurning graphics while simultaneously ignoring their importance. If the conversation is to progress, the issues must be handled objectively.

The fact of the matter is that graphics are important. They are as integral to good game design as any other mechanic, and need to be treated with the same amount of respect and objectivity. The fact that high resolution graphics appeal to a broader audience than more esoteric gameplay elements is not a reason to condemn their pursuit, but the essence of how they work. They work by appealing to our senses, by drawing our attention viscerally and holding on to it, by immersing us in their world. Developers who deliver stunning graphics aren't failing to deliver good gameplay because of their focus on super-realistic graphics; they are delivering one element of gameplay very well but failing to deliver on others. And for that reason people will continue to buy their games. On some level, beneath all the intellectual posturing of the pundits and the public avowels to our friends, people know that good graphics matter. If nothing else, there is beauty to be found in the surface of things.

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Last updated December 23, 2011

© 2009-2011 Dave Finch

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