As we stand on the brink of the next console generation, many developers continue to strive toward more complex, more realistic, and more detailed graphics. This enduring quest has fueled game development for years, but in today's marketplace, the big budgets required to create such visual wonders can make studios very vulnerable. We've already seen many developers shut down because their games could not meet the astronomical sales goals required to recoup their investments. Meanwhile, games that don't push the limits of technology are thriving in great numbers, consistently selling well, and gaining enthusiastic critical acclaim. So is it worth continuing to strive for better and better visuals?
Chris: One of the most powerful things that high-end graphics can do in games is aid in the creation of immersive worlds. The interactivity of the medium naturally draws you in, but lifelike environments can captivate you in a way that transforms your gameplay experience. Subtle details, rich lighting, realistic textures, and long draw distances may be resource-intensive to create, but the results can be truly stunning.
When I stepped into John Marston's boots in Red Dead Redemption, I enjoyed the broad array of objectives designed to let me live his life (people to see, criminals to hunt down, flowers to pick). One evening, riding along a ridgeline en route to a bandit outpost, I found myself slowing down, then stopping to gaze upon the dry landscape awash in the glow of sunset. The sky was a blaze of color interrupted only by a few dark clouds, and the air seemed to vibrate with the quiet liveliness of dusk. As I looked past the sentinel saguaro to the river beyond, I realized that this is something I would do in real life. I would pause in my travels to watch the sunset; I would wade into an icy creek just to splash around (Skyrim); and I would look at a dilapidated building and see the beauty in its ruin (Gears of War 3).
The stunning worlds that these games put on display inspire me to deviate from mere objectives and quests and in doing so, they create a level of immersion that less lifelike games simply cannot match. Isn't that kind of experience reason enough to justify the pursuit of visual fidelity?
Tom: It's true that high-end visuals are a core ingredient for replicating realistic-looking worlds, but if you crave a more imaginative setting, there are a host of inventive locales that won't tax your central processor. Monochromatic aesthetics in Limbo and Closure serve to envelop you in a claustrophobia-inducing nightmare. Death comes swiftly in these downloadable adventures, and the moody artistic design and eerie sound effects further the feeling of despair. That dangerous atmosphere exists in part because these games create situations foreign to our own world, so there's no need for the photorealism made possible in polygon-pushing showcase games.
Dark prisons aren't the only places brought to life by small-scale offerings. A childlike joy of discovery permeates every inch of The Unfinished Swan. The fantastical setting you uncover lures you in as you trek further into the blinding white mystery. Botanicula elevates this feeling of unbridled happiness even further. Controlling charismatic creatures in their arboreal home is an utter delight. Expelling the parasitic evil that has infected this peaceful tree is a cause worth fighting for namely because the cheery visual design makes this a world you want to exist in.
There's no doubt that cutting-edge graphics can create impressive depictions of realistic locations. But that processing might is necessary only if you want to mirror that which you already know. When games focus on imagination and artistic splendor, they can create places filled with just as many awe-inspiring moments.
Tom: Panic struck me when shadows emerged from the ground. Swinging my meager sword with frantic anger, I drove the demons away from Yorda. I needed to protect her at all costs. My emotional connection to Ico was unquestioned, and it came from the forced relationship between my horned protagonist and his foreign-tongued charge.
Smart design can captivate me in ways that raw technical wizardry so often fails…
Interactivity is the biggest advantage video games have over other media. Choosing to betray one of my fellow captives in Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward was agonizing, and that anguish came from the strong writing that made me empathize with the disparate individuals. Journey ensnared me with other methods. Trudging through dusty ruins, with the orchestral score and desolate sights tempering my mood, invested me in this unnamed survivor's yearning for something more. And my connection only intensified when another adventurer tagged along beside me.
Tears trickled down my cheeks in both To the Moon and Persona 4 Golden, though the former came from helpless sadness, while the latter's were from the joy of familial bonding. Smart design can captivate me in ways that raw technical wizardry so often fails, and it's through modest-looking adventures that I have found the most lasting emotional connection.
Chris: Great writing certainly has the power to create moving stories, Tom, but as the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. The human body is the most powerful communicator of human emotions, and that's why realistic human faces and animations are so important to emotional storytelling in video games. It's a rare artistic team that can craft an experience like Journey; lifelike human faces are a valuable shortcut to making characters more believable.
Take the relationship between Elena Fisher and Nathan Drake in the Uncharted series. Their witty banter makes them instantly likable, while tense gameplay moments when each cries out for the other make you feel protective of your AI companion. The writing is great and the gameplay design is great, but the thing that gives this partnership that extra sparkle, that extra charisma is their lifelike animations. Expressive subtleties flash across their faces, revealing the troubled history simmering beneath an uneasy reunion or sharpening an emotional plea with an extra edge of desperation. This visual fidelity to real human expression makes these characters all the more real and the adventure all the more engaging. I get excited to keep playing just to see their next interaction.
The power of facial expressions can also help transform a series not known for its emotional weight into one that tugs at your heartstrings. For all the times I confronted annihilation in Master Chief's history, it wasn't until I saw self-doubt and trepidation written across Cortana's face in Halo 4 that the series made me face the prospect of loss. The range of emotions rendered in rich detail across Cortana's holographic visage made me feel her anguish, and infused my fight against the Prometheans with a sense of desperate energy. Without her expressive body language, I wouldn't have had that extra zeal to push onward.
Chris: We can't talk about high-end graphics without talking about simulations. Even though the medium has been striving for more-realistic visuals since 8-bit games crawled their way out of the primordial ooze, convincing replications of our world still elude us. The goal of truly lifelike visuals is an important one for the industry, and not just because it's fun to look at pretty things.
…the more realistic the games look, the more immediate the experience is.
One of the great powers games have is to let us live vicariously through them. I'll never be able to race a Bugatti Veyron around the Nurburgring, play in a professional basketball game, or BASE jump off a mountain while wearing a wingsuit. Games like Forza Motorsport 4, NBA 2K12, and Far Cry 3 merely let me simulate these actions, but the excitement I feel when playing them is real. It allows me to imagine myself performing these exhilarating acts, and the more realistic the games look, the more immediate the experience is.
The less mental energy I have to spend imagining realistic crowds, overlooking clunky animations, or filling in verdant foliage, the more engaged I can be in my living room adventures. Surely you can understand this reason to strive for realism!
Tom: I freely admit that if you want a video game to look like real life, you need the fanciest technology available. But simulations go much deeper than replicating what you can see. Maxis has been dabbling in simulations for decades, even though you'd be hard pressed to discern its intentions at a glance. The Sims places first-world problems on center stage, letting you pick out the perfect couch for your digital doppelganger in a cartoony world populated by all manner of gibberish-speaking yuppies. If you eye a bigger prize, you can design a peaceful hamlet in SimCity that can withstand an attack from a giant arachnid. And don't forget the insect-farming SimAnt, which transports you to a pint-size monarchy.
Stripping away top-end visuals often leads to a more cerebral simulation. Our choice for the best sports game of 2012 was a game that most closely resembles a spreadsheet. Football Manager may not have articulated joints such as those found in FIFA, but the number crunching that wins championships away from the pitch is replicated here in all of its Microsoft Office glory. And although simulations usually attempt to mimic reality, there are those that veer slightly off the rails to give a more enjoyable experience than duties the real professionals work so hard accomplishing. Phoenix Wright embodies the best aspect of practicing law (being right) while eliminating the crushing busywork. Plus, no doctor alive knows what it's like to hunt for a sentient infection quite like Trauma Center veterans.
Simulations are one area where high-end visuals have a slight advantage, but imagination once again pulls those with modest aesthetics ahead.
Tom: Simplicity is at the forefront of many of the most intense experiences. The relentless speed of Pac-Man CE DX demands inhuman reflexes as you navigate treacherous mazes with a trail of ghosts haunting your backside. Super Meat Boy transports that ferocity to the platforming realm. Sprinting with reckless abandon, you glide past razor-sharp blades through sheer will and minute midair adjustments. It's a dizzying blur where life and death mingle like clashing roommates, and success is snatched from your clutches by your creeping hubris.
Arcade-style experiences excel when complexity is stripped away. But that white-knuckle action can still surface even when reflexes aren't paramount. In Lone Survivor, unnerving sound effects make your spine tingle and your breath expel in sharp bursts. Unimaginable horrors hide within that pixelated world, and it takes all your digital courage to traverse deeper into the unknown darkness. I Am Alive makes you wary of the stragglers who litter the road, forcing you to guess whether they're truly in need or secretly plotting your demise.
The kinetic thrill inherent to video games taps into our most basic emotions. By focusing on visual simplicity, games can emphasize the core excitement that strengthens our investment in these experiences.
Chris: The quest to overcome the clear-cut challenges of an arcade game has resulted in countless sweaty palms, elevated heart rates, and even a few movies. But it's when games go the extra mile to create realistic places and then break them down spectacularly that I think we see what real video game intensity is.
Virtual battlefields may still be a far cry from the real thing, but when true-to-life sound effects combine with environmental destructibility in Battlefield 3 multiplayer matches, explosions and barrages of enemy fire can turn the world upside down in an instant. That concrete wall that I was using for cover a moment ago is gone, my ears are ringing, tracers are flying all around me, and I have to decide to dig in and fight, cut and run, or just go prone and pray. The intensity of these battles is real, fueled by audiovisual stimuli that make everything seem larger than life.
Similarly high-end production values create the oh-so-convincing spaceship environments of Dead Space, and it's the faithful replication of iconic imagery from classic films that makes these places so believable. The cold steel textures on the walls, the dust motes hanging in the all-too-still air, the weak shafts of light, and the deep shadows all set the stage for gruesome abominations to bring my nightmares to terrifyingly vivid life. These are the gifts of high-end visuals, places I can comfortably transport myself to in order to experience a dangerous and exciting new reality. And then flee it.
The Final Word
Tom: The push toward high-end visuals has come at the expense of imagination. Big-budget games so often strive to replicate scenes present in real life that they can sap the escapism that makes smaller-scale games so enjoyable. Emotion and immediacy sacrificed in favor of spectacular-looking, though interactivity-lacking, set pieces is a troubling trend, and I fear that as new consoles arrive, developers will only be more keen on showcasing the unprecedented horsepower under the hood.
Toe-to-toe, modest-looking games hold their own admirably against their expensive peers, and often come out ahead, and the outcome slants even more toward cheaper games when you look at the fiscal impact. Jaw-dropping visuals require a jaw-dropping budget, and big investments kill creativity. When you have to produce a hit, the industry becomes swamped with homogeneous efforts that blend together.
I enjoy great graphics as much as anyone. But we have to question whether the cost of that technology is worth it.
Chris: The drive to create ever-more-realistic graphics has spurred the video game industry onward for decades, and it's a motivating force that should continue into the future. The more believable an environment is, the more we can lose ourselves in that world. The more detailed a character's face is, the more emotional our attachment to that character can become. The more convincing the illusion of reality, the more vividly we can channel the experience.
The profusion of creativity that we see when developers venture off the path towards high-end graphics is a wonderful thing for the industry, a true sign of the health and maturation of the medium. But the technical wizardy and artistic acumen displayed by developers who pursue increasingly complex visuals are vital forces that propel the industry forward, drive hardware and software sales, and entrance players of all ages.
The costs may be high and the rewards not always commensurate with the expenditures, but pushing the visual ceiling even higher is an important investment for the video game industry.