We've come a long way, haven't we? I chose the images above to jump-start this discussion because they are the first games I can distinctly remember playing as a child (yes, for better or worse, my parents let me play Doom when I was under ten). I suppose there are users here who can remember the 2600, and would kick off such a column with images of Pong in all its pixelated glory.
In some ways, then, I seem to be sabotaging my main point. After all, don't games like Super Mario World, Doom, or (even) Pong attest to the enduring fun of games whose graphics have long since been superseded by more recent titles? Let me start off, then, by disowning an argument that I don't want to make: that games with inferior graphics are not worth playing. Clearly, legendary works like the above two games disprove my point without needing to say any more on the subject.
However, I think there's an equally nonsensical argument that some people make: namely, the claim that graphics don't matter. In this column, I'd like to explain why I think graphics matter. A lot.
A Graphics Whore's Apology
I'm the first to admit that I have a weakness for good graphics. To this day, I won't watch videos of Crysis on the PC - I'd probably collapse into a catatonic state due to the pure, concentrated jealousy juicing through my veins (I have a laptop that couldn't play Crysis on the lowest settings if I shrunk it down to 640*480 resolution). I can still remember going slack-jawed in wonder the first time I played Halo: Combat Evolved on my new Xbox. The moment I walked closer to a bulkhead and saw the texture's bump-mapping, the awkwardly large controller and bizarrely insecure power cable were forgiven and forgotten. A similar sensation ran through me the first time I played Gears of War, and I recently experienced it again when I ran through the first level of Killzone 2.
When people argue that graphics don't matter, I think they're implicitly falling back on two old maxims that we're told as children: first, don't judge a book by its cover; and second, beauty is only skin-deep.
These little bits of wisdom have been around for a long time for good reason. They're quite helpful in any number of circumstances (not least in cases of romantic disappointment...but that's a digression I won't pursue further). But when it comes to games, they miss the point.
When you're looking at a novel, the cover really shouldn't impact your judgment. It's not even made by the author - it's just his or her publishing company's facile attempt to draw the purchaser's eye to the book. Some great books have incredibly nondescript or even corny covers; some stunning covers gloss over works of utter mediocrity. But in the case of books, then, the cover is something distinctly separate from the meat of the thing.
In games, however, the graphics are inextricably interwoven with every aspect of the game. Art design lends the work its tone, atmosphere, and mood; fidelity (high polygon count, detailed textures and lighting) lend it realism and enhance the immersion of the gamer.
What about that second maxim? Is beauty in gaming really only "skin-deep," as the saying goes? The idiom implies that there are other qualities upon which we should place more emphasis. When applied to people, for instance, we might think that kindness, a sense of humor, or some other characteristic matters more than good looks. But graphics - when applied by a good developer - enhance all of those other qualities that we value in a game.
Take the Half-Life saga as an example. By the time I played this series, the graphics had noticeably aged. But one feature which I found remarkably striking was the facial animation technology that Valve developed for this game. Quite frankly, it's still the best I've seen to date (perhaps the videos of Heavy Rain have beaten it, but I haven't gotten my hands on that game yet). Half-Life 2 and the attendant episodes in particular rely on your concern for the character of Alyx Vance as the game's emotional propellant. If you don't feel any empathy for her character, it's hard to care about all of the tasks you complete during the game or all the twists in the plot. This aspect of the series represents the perfect synthesis of high-end graphics technology with narrative and gameplay.
At this point, I should also admit to an important bias on my part. I'm a huge partisan of games that aspire to cinematic experience. While I enjoy games like Tetris that are based not on a narrative arc but on the accomplishment of discrete goals, I believe that the future of gaming lies along the other path. Games have the potential to be a sublime art form, one in which the impact of the emotions drawn out can be amplified by the illusion of one's personal stake in the story, created by the interactivity inherent to the medium itself. That is, games can one-up film and the novel in one very important (and historically significant) sense: they offer the potential for a more highly-realized form of catharsis.
What demands do narrative place on gaming, and where do graphics come in? I'd like to approach this question in a roundabout fashion by looking at where graphics are headed.
Everyone seems to think we want to re-create this world with computer graphics, and it's certainly true that photo-realism has long been the holy grail of graphics technology. Maybe in the next ten years, ray-tracing will become a viable rendering method and we'll actually reach this seemingly insurmountable summit. But valuing photo-realism is a fundamental misunderstanding of what graphics should be doing in games. Graphics aren't meant to re-create this world so much as they are meant to create new worlds, places that might look as different from this one as Okami does from Gears of War.
The big buzzword that everyone throws around in this discussion is "immersion," but I actually think it's quite appropriate. Gaming constantly pushes the boundaries of the real, allowing you to feel something deeply that is (most likely) entirely separate from who you are. I still hear to this day about people who were devastated by Aerith's death in Final Fantasy VII, a game I've never had the pleasure of playing. Graphics facilitate this process of emotional recognition - more than that, they are essential to this process.
To answer the question I posed earlier, then, the central demand of any fictional narrative is the suspension of disbelief. At a fundamental level, a person enraptured by a novel stops seeing it as words on a page and starts seeing it as a glimpse into another world (unless, like myself, you're an English major who has been trained to scrutinize the words themselves to the detriment of reading pleasure). A person watching Gladiator can't think, "That's Russell Crowe pretending to be sad about the death of his son, who's actually another actor!" It's both a flaw and a great advantage of the human psyche that we're capable of forgetting the real in such circumstances, that we can allow ourselves to be absorbed by the story being told.
As a side point, I'd like to disavow games that emphasize graphics over narrative or gameplay. I'm arguing that graphics matter, not that graphics should come at the expense of the things that they ultimately serve.
Finally, I've noticed a tendency for people to complain about games with better graphics as lacking innovation. I disagree with this view. A game like Heavy Rain, for instance, is panned by some as merely a prettier version of The Indigo Prophecy. But it's a perfect example of how graphics work synergistically with the medium. Better graphics technology is innovation - after all, isn't the point of innovation to add something new to the game or improve what's already there? Even watching trailers for the game, I felt shivers going down my spine. Compared to the games coming out in 2005 with the launch of the 360, Quantic Dream's creation looks like it's from an entirely different generation. Only time will tell, but I am confident that the graphical leaps they've made will greatly enhance the already excellent narrative and gameplay qualities that they've retained from earlier titles. Upcoming projects like Heavy Rain will validate the fact that graphics matter - a lot.