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Game Changers -The importance of graphics

4/26/12 12:00pm
tl;dr

Graphics are a vital part of gaming's evolution and to deny that is to stunt its growth. But to blindly embrace it while ignoring the other more substantial parts that make up a game would be even more detrimental. Let me explain...

There has been a long-lasting debate on the issue of graphics. Do graphics make the game? Of course not! Then how integral are graphics to the overall gaming experience? Let's answer this question by taking a look at the impact that graphics has already had on the way we play videogames.

When I think about why I love my favorite games, usually the graphics have little to do with it. It's no wonder really. With technology ever improving the graphical capabilities of the games that we play, it's very hard for a game that banks on its aesthetic appeal to stand the test of time. With age, stunning works of visual art turn into dated relics of the past. Still, good graphics have been an important asset to many of the greatest games of all time. A game's graphics are akin to a woman's beauty, although good looks can make someone more desirable, if there's nothing else to go on then the appeal will quickly run its course.

Banking completely on a game's graphics is actually a dangerous move for those involved. To make a game that has cutting edge graphics takes a lot of time, energy, and money. It ends up being a very substantial investment and a huge gamble on the game's success. History has shown that when game designers focus their efforts and pour their resources into graphics without ensuring that the gameplay is at the same level of quality, the outcome can be devastating for both the developer and the publisher. Two games immediately come to mind, the ill-fated LA Noire and Sega's Shenmue. These games were developed with the hope that their beauty would carry them and suffered a great loss because of it.

Of course, great graphics have the obvious power to make a game look good. With that power, a developer may even be able to sucker many consumers into purchasing a game that really isn't as entertaining as it looks. Ecco the Dolphin had this type of short-lived success. For the time, it was gorgeous to look at but the gameplay didn't match up. I would go as far as to say that it really wasn't that fun at all. Alas, the beautiful ocean landscapes detailed in the screenshots on the back of its box ensured enough sales that a sequel came about. In fact, two sequels were released. Still, even though the 3D Ecco game was, once again, beautiful for its time, by then gamers knew better and shied away from it. This led to the canceled production of the fourth game in the series. To this day, I'd be hard pressed to find anyone clamoring for this franchise to be continued.

Another example of this sort-of short-lived instantaneous success is Myst. Now, I love the Myst franchise and I believe that it's very well done but there is no way around the fact that it is very niche in its design. That didn't keep the original game from exploding on the market back in 1993. Myst introduced the world to the wonders that CD based gaming could provide and we all ate it up. That being said, many who proceeded to install it and give it a go were left with a sense of bewilderment. They bought the game but they didn't get it. So the original Myst became something that you would turn on to show off your new computer with but it wasn't necessarily something that you'd actually play. Once again, people wised up to it and, although Riven was much more beautiful, the Sequel to Myst came nowhere near the original in terms of sales.

So graphics, in and of themselves, don't make the game and surely don't sell games (at least in the long run). But that's not to say that graphics should be treated as something of an afterthought. As the title of this blog suggests, graphics have continually changed the way we not only play games but the way that we want to play games.

Where the importance of graphics really comes into play is when the graphics allow for a revolution, or at least an evolution, in the design and core mechanics of a game. This has been spelled out and demonstrated on numerous occasions throughout videogame history but, ironically (when considering the Wii), no one has really done this better or more often than Nintendo. There was a time when a level didn't exist past the screen that was displaying it. During this time, the background of nearly every game was the same - nothing, just the blackness of a blank screen.

All that changed with the introduction of the game that saved the industry, Super Mario Bros. The graphical power of the NES allowed for scrolling stages and a world that consisted of several different settings to help differentiate the levels from each other and give the player a clear sense of progress. Not only that, but the revolutionary detail that the graphics provided allowed for Mario to change the way he looked by collecting different types of power-ups. The advanced color pallet also even helped give Luigi a look of his own, so as to keep multiplayer gaming from becoming overly complicated.

Nintendo would continue to use graphics to revolutionize gaming for years to come, especially with a little system called the Nintendo 64. Even Gabe Newell (of Valve fame) credits Mario 64 as having a large and lasting impact on him as both a gamer and a game designer, for good reason too. Both Mario 64 and Zelda 64 used the introduction of true fully polygonal 3D environments to completely change the face of gaming forever. Before, games always took place on two axes. You had your platformer that played on the X and Z axes while adventure games and RPGs utilized the X and Y axes. With the N64, Nintendo knew that they could now make experiences that included all three axes simultaneously and thus 3D gaming, as we've known it, was officially born. 

To be fair, other developers had dabbled with it on the original PlayStation but they had come nowhere near cracking it the way that the big N did. Mario's world was given a new sense of freedom and exploration with the introduction of the Y axis. For the first time, Mario could run around in circles and jump wherever he wanted to. It felt good, real good. On the other hand, Zelda was given the Z axis. No longer did keese (bats) fly in front of Link. They would now fly above his head, like they should. Dungeons were no longer grid-like rooms. They had a height and a depth to them now. Ledges were clearly defined and paths could intertwine and branch off like nothing before.

What makes Nintendo so special is that they were truly aware of the impact that this would have on gaming and proceeded to gently introduce the gamer to these new conventions in a very natural fashion. In the first room of the first dungeon in Ocarina of Time, the gamer is set with the task of climbing. Link had to scale the room in order to continue on, thus helping to spell out the concept of 3D to the gamer. But not only could things now be above the player, they could be below the player, too. With the first puzzle, they taught the gamer to actually think 3-dimensionally. The exit wasn't a door but the floor itself. After climbing to the top of the room, Link would then jump down onto a webbed hole in the floor, breaking through to the room below. None of this would have been possible without the graphical capabilities to fully display these concepts to the gamer.

So, time and time again an upgrade in graphics has meant an upgrade in a game's core structure itself. This continues to be the case, as demonstrated by products like Skyrim. Its lush environments conjure up a feeling of immersion that helps define the experience. Bethesda has created a world that you want to explore and that, in and of itself, is the essence of the game. Then there is Heavy Rain. The game uses the PS3's graphical capabilities to make something that plays like a fully realized interactive film. The idea had been done before by people like Roberta Williams, but it's with the power of the PS3 that the cinematic gaming experience has finally been able to retain the sense of freedom and control that makes us all love videogames so much.

There is no denying the importance of graphics and it will continue to change the way that we game for years to come. In this industry, the canvas for creativity is continually growing and we'll go on to see more fresh and exciting games be released because of it. All developers need to do is not lose sight of all the other facets that make a game exceptional as they dive deeper into the world of endless graphical possibilities. I could not be more excited for whatever is next.

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