Three Reasons Why AAA Gaming Should Stop Worrying About Photo-Realistic Graphics
Graphics have always been a big part of gaming and visual fidelity has often been used to sell games to the mass market. However, in recent years the larger publishers and developers have become far too fixated on this aspect of making games. I will be offering three examples of why this obsession with photo-realistic graphics is ultimately misplaced, but first I want to summarise the current state of the AAA gaming industry and explain exactly why its current trajectory is harmful.
In February of this year Sony announced the PS4 and properly kicked off the next generation of console wars. During the show David Cage – head of Heavy Rain developer Quantic Dream – delivered a presentation about emotional connection and visual fidelity, handily encapsulating the issue at hand.
In his speech he talks about how the number of polygons used have increased with each game he makes. The implication is that more polygons are better: it’s progress. According to Cage characters with lower polygon counts cannot act as true reflections of humanity because their emotion cannot be properly displayed. He then shows us an old man’s head, without a body, floating in a black void. It’s completely isolated from any context; setting, story and history are completely absent. Yet Cage tells us that we “can see soul just looking into his eyes.”
The presumption that, just by looking realistic, a figure suddenly becomes a deep character, that through polygons we are told “who he is, what he thinks, what has happened to him”, is both ludicrous and insulting. In exactly the same way that Cage dismisses early cinema – apparently the limits of camerawork, lighting and sound meant that these films couldn’t properly engage the viewer – he also dismisses the work of developers who cannot afford to make games in which each character has thousands of polygons.
This isn’t to say that Cage is the only person with this attitude. During Microsoft’s console announcement they thought it was a good idea to devote a ridiculously long time to showing us how amazing dogs and soldier’s arms would look in the upcoming Call of Duty: Ghosts. The trend kept going at E3 and what audiences received was mainly old IP with graphical updates or stuff like Ryse: Son of Rome, offering audiences a more “cinematic” experience: gameplay in Ryse:SoR seems to mainly consist of button-mashing Quick-Time Events and rhythm based shielding if the playable demo is anything to go on.
This attitude effectively boils down to one of style over substance. An attitude where developers are becoming much more concerned with how their games look than how they play, offering us stunning set pieces, life-like environments and highly rendered characters as the norm. Unfortunately the quality of games as games is suffering. Players are becoming pawns that the developer moves from set piece to set piece, our movements and actions restricted because we might not see expensive assets if, God forbid, we play it our own way.
It’s also causing a huge increase in the cost of development for big games companies. Hundreds of people are set to work creating new engines or developing new assets instead of actually working on the game itself and this practice means other companies feel they have to set the same standard, even on titles which may not need it. This attitude has contributed to the failing fortunes of companies like Square Enix and Capcom. Both have replaced their CEOs this year and both have been struggling to make their money back on flagship titles. Sqaure Enix’s Tomb Raider and Capcom’s Resident Evil 6 shifted millions of copies, but both were branded failures.
Why? Because the publishers threw huge amounts of money at them hoping that making them prettier and more epic would automatically make them best-sellers. Not only were these titles never going to be best-sellers – they seemed to expect Halo and CoD level sales- but the extra money spent on them didn’t even improve the quality of the game. Despite the huge cast and epic story, RE6 just played awfully and TR had too much expensive tat packed into it, the multiplayer was pointless and, although the TressFX hair engine looked great, I doubt anyone bought the game because of it.
This dogged focus on graphical fidelity stymies innovation too. Resources are funneled into visual effects, leaving only a small budget to actually work on the meat of the game. The whole process is so expensive that they’re too afraid to do anything interesting for fear of a flop: developers homogenize their games in an attempt to capture the widest possible audience. All this to sell enough copies just to make their money back. This catch all strategy just leads to unfocused messes that please nobody – just look at the myriad action-adventure-stealth-platformer-brawler-shooter titles out there that have slipped into anonymity because they just packed in mechanics from other, more popular, games.
This isn’t to say that you can’t have great games with stunning high-res graphics, you just have to look at the recent successes of The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite for proof, but these games are noteworthy precisely because it’s so rare to get a AAA title with actual emotional depth, not just polygons pretending to be feelings.
There is no point in highlighting an issue and giving no solution or alternative. Therefore I offer three games, developed by small companies with few resources that manage to connect with the player on an emotional level without resorting to Cage’s parameters.
One: Thomas Was Alone
How to counter the claim that emotional depth is directly proportional to polygon count? Oh that’s right, choose a game in which the entire cast consist of a single polygon each… and don’t speak… and are simple geometric shapes. Mike Bithell’s Thomas Was Alone presents us with a touching story of liberty, civil rights, love and sacrifice contained within an excellent platformer, masterfully narrated by Danny Wallace. You take control of a plethora of different characters, using their unique abilities to solve puzzles and making them work together in order to reach the end of each level.
Bithell complements the gameplay with a voice over, giving us insights into the thoughts of each of the shapes – which have names like Thomas, Sarah and Chris – as they accomplish each task. We see rivalries, friendships and love grow between the characters, whose personalities are as unique as their abilities.
The game demonstrates perfectly that soul does not spring from the detailed eyes of a photo-realistic old man. It shows us that a character doesn’t even need eyes for us to empathise with them, that, in order for us to feel emotion, we have to share in a character’s trials and tribulations and feel like what we’re doing matters.
Bastion is notable because, although it’s graphics are more advanced than those of Thomas Was Alone, it shows how character can come about through a compelling story and a well designed world. Now, well designed is very different from the type of graphics most AAA games possess. Bastion‘s presentation is bright, colourful and cartoony, a far cry from the flat browns and boring design of most blockbusters. It’s also gloriously beautiful, such that each screenshot is a work of art in and of itself.
Kid himself isn’t really developed, he’s not given the depth of characterisation that the cast of Thomas Was Alone has. However, the design, music and narration of the game come together to infuse everything you do with a sense of importance. You don’t care because anguish is picked out on Kid’s face in minute detail; you care because when you come across the ruins of a pub and the narrator mentions how wonderful it used to be, you fill in the blanks for yourself.
So I’ve showed you how emotional games can come about with characters who are developed either actively through their thoughts and feelings or passively through the world that they see, but how about a game that has no characters at all? With no characters to attach even one polygon to, how on earth can a player feel anything towards a game?
This choice may be controversial for a number of reasons – the biggest being the debate over whether it actually qualifies as a game at all. There are no discernible characters, you can’t do anything other than walk around and the whole thing has no definable goal. You just explore a randomly generated island and… observe. Yet the game can sooth you, brighten your mood and deeply move you. Despite the archaic graphics and simple chiptune music Proteus will connect with you far more than the majority of AAA titles on the market.
As you wander, the music changes depending on where you are – be it the woods, a mountain, or the sea – and creatures react to your approach. Everything gives off a sound and it all blends together to create a spell-binding atmosphere that will suck you right into the game. Its draw is that atmosphere; it has no characters because the only character in the game is you. All the game does is present this strangely beautiful island and leaves the rest up to you. The result: an incredibly personal experience that evokes a child-like wonder. An effect which is beyond all but a few really special works of art.
What do you think? Leave a comment.