Friday, February 27, 2015

Five Arguments Against Good Graphics in Video Games

Hey y'all.  So as a kid, I dreaded the future of video games.  Why?  Because graphics were getting better.  Sure, the sample display of Star Fox 64 at the video store (yeah, this was the mid-nineties) looked pretty fun, but I didn't like the idea of game consoles having really great, developed graphics. Star Fox 64 was a great game, but it was a sign of the future -- games were going to get more complicated and realistic, and there was nothing ten year old me could do about it.  The future was coming, and I didn't like it!

Granted, I'm not really sure why I dreaded it so much as a kid.  Guess I always was an old fogey at heart.  But now that the age of modern, high resolution gaming has come to pass, I agree completely with my old opinion.  Modern gaming has become a beast, with more darkness, less charm, and just a conglomerate of spend, spend, spend.  My younger friends rant and rave about modern games, but I'd rather not bother anymore.

Keep in mind that I'm not being entirely serious with this post.  While I don't particularly like modern games, that's for varying reasons.  Not the least of which is that I'm now a grown up, so I don't have time to waste playing them.  This is just my reaction to people whining about older games, as well as an expression of my old fogey-ness and love of the aesthetic style of nineties games.


1. Good graphics force games to be more about story.

Growing up in the era were games had little to no story affected me in this area, but the truth of the matter is, games are about playing.  They are about controlling a figure in a fun way, and accomplishing a goal.  People click through cutscenes for a reason.

By adding story to a game, you do several things.  One of which is limiting the replayability of a game.  While a person can play a game over and over again if it's fun enough, there's a limit to how often a person will have patience with hearing the same story over and over again.  Especially when the story is extremely complex or highly dramatic.  Even worse is a mystery story.  Once you've figured out the mystery, why read the book again?  The game had better be pretty good if the player is going to replay a mystery game.

Characters also become really important in a modern game.  They have to be likable, well constructed, and interesting, or else they become a liability to the game, rather than a bonus.  It's sad, in a way.  In earlier games, a game creator could spend ten minutes creating a character (say, a robot master from Mega Man) and players would gush all over the guy even though he's nothing more than a robot with a snake for a helmet.  But they spend much more time on a character in a dramatic, contemporary game, only for the players to possibly hate his guts and mock him for years.

What's more, you can't have ten minute cutscenes with a pixelated person.  Granted, if someone tried, that would be pretty funny.  But it's certainly not something that people would tolerate for too long or on too many games, as it's just a gimmick.  If we're going to be staring at a figure who's saying important things, it should be good to look at.  However, like I said, there's only so many times a person wants to hear a story. There's even players who don't want a story at all, and will skip cutscenes their first time through. And if cutscenes can't be skipped, even players that care about story will be reluctant to replay the game.

I'm not saying stories are bad.  There are ways to tell stories in games, and even older games had fun stories.  But they were limited by the graphical capabilities of their consoles.  Because there was no voice acting, skipping unwanted dialogue was as easy as pressing the A button a few times. True cutscenes were few and far between.

Characterization was more about the written word than body movements, and in games that did have some body movement, say, Majora's Mask, the movements were simple summaries of a character. There's a blathering townsman in Majora's Mask who protests to the Mayor that the Carnival of Time should go on.  The game gives the townsman a simplistic movement cycle of a strangely wiggling mouth and a crack of the neck.  That says all it needs to say about the character, and is so unearthly creepy in his own right that it adds to the haunting feel of the game.

I've already mentioned before in a blog how the silent storytelling of Donkey Kong Country 2 enhances the game, telling the story of Diddy and Dixie's journey with only one room with a note and the pictures in the map screen.  That's sheer brilliance, especially in comparison to the wordy games of now.

Also, I have to say something about modern storytelling.  It sucks.  This isn't just a video game problem.  Movies have become graphics/visual fests, leaving the people who want a good story to be out of luck.  It's gotten to the point where I watch movie reviews rather than watch actual movies because the reviews have more thought put into them.

Video games have gotten to that point too.  They have weaker characters, then use spiffy graphics to make up for it.  They stories they tell are the "dark" sort of stories that are popular today, for some reason, but are just generally dreary and not fun.  They're also full of popular pseudo philosophies, ones written by video gamers/movie writers rather than people who have actually lived an experience-rich life or are particularly intelligent in philosophical matters.  As a result, video games too often make statements about life that are, well, stupid.  Or simply not very well thought out.  To be blunt, most modern people care more about promoting their political opinion rather than historical accuracy, and this love of one's own perceptions bleeds into even fiction, where they use fictitious characters to slander real life people or movements.

It's okay for a game to tell a story, but when a story is sacrificed or weakened because a theme is emphasized too much, or because the theme itself is offensive, a story can prevent players from wanting to play a game that might otherwise be good.  I'm not going to play a game that disrespects my beliefs, and since modern culture in the media dislikes Christianity, there's all kinds of cheap shots done against us.  I don't mind non-Christian games, even spiritual ones like Legend of Zelda, but it would be nice if my beliefs were respected too.  Nobody threw a fit when a Legend of Zelda level was based on a Buddhist story about hell, so respecting my beliefs isn't too much to ask.

It's not even about spiritual differences either.  For a game these days, it's so much easier for a game to be ruined (or appear to be ruined) by storytelling alone.  For example, Mass Effect 3 got a huge backlash when all of the endings for that game were negative and generally unsatisfying.  To this day, I haven't heard a single complaint about the gameplay.  The ending simply killed it, particularly because the players spent three full games making story choices that led to that point.  This is, while a very understandable reaction, it's pretty unfair to the developers too.  Granted, it's a trap they set for themselves, but the fact that the story alone could ruin solid gameplay is sad.

But the worst part of modern storytelling in games is that they take the focus away from gameplay. Visuals take development time.  Stories take development time.  They take development time away from gameplay.  Video games are about gameplay, and when the graphics of a game console give over-enthusiastic programmers the opportunity to do something new visually, gameplay is at risk.

Stories and the visuals that accompany them can be good in games.  People like them when they're done well.  That doesn't change the fact that they are both a distraction from the gameplay and a trap for the developers, making them have to work harder to produce games.  Seriously, expectations these days are really high for a game.

Of course, I'll admit that this isn't my strongest point.  Stories are important in games, and the way they are told does change over time.  It is, however, an example of how greater design capabilities have changed the face of games in potentially negative ways.

2. More realistic =/= more fun.

One of my favorite games of all time is Star Fox for the Super Nintendo.  It's an old game with iffy graphics.  And you know what?  It's gorgeous.  The enemies are so super weird and nonsensical that they have oodles of charm.  Not to mention the first time you see those creepy asteroids grimacing at you.

My point is, graphics that are truly good are the graphics you want to look at, not necessarily the most advanced ones.  Far too often modern games are all dark, dingy, and grey, while I could spend an hour staring at the background of Gemini Man's level in Mega Man 3.  That came out in 1992.

Another example is the Donkey Kong Country series versus Donkey Kong 64.  While the DK Country games were on a less graphically capable console, they are much more fun to look at than the deary DK64.  DK64 was poorly lit, dingy, and cartoonish.  The Country series had detailed, gorgeous backgrounds, fun enemies, and silent storytelling.  This is why I can't take anyone seriously when they say Super Nintendo games, or games on other older consoles, have bad graphics.  The quality of graphic design depends on the design of each individual game, not the consoles that they were on.  Some games took great advantage of the cartoony, blocky look of the Nintendo 64, and by playing it up, they created visually beautiful or creepy things.  Majora's Mask, Banjo Kazooie, and Super Mario 64 all did great jobs on this.

Which means that basically any console's game can look good if a designer can come up with something appropriate and good.  That being said, does a game having more advanced graphics make it better than a game with lesser ones?  No.  People play Minecraft and like it, as well as various indie games that don't have the programming time to create much more than 16 bit looking stuff.  Games are about the gameplay, and if a game is good, questionable visuals can get a pass.

3. High definition hurts the eyes.

There is such a thing as too much detail.  While the eyes in real life soften what we see, and we can focus on things, while leaving other things in periphery.  High definition is all-inclusive, massive detail monster.  It's bad enough we have blu-rays -- I got a massive headache when my grandpa made me watch Avatar.

Video games in high definition are worse, as a movie has a set run time that will end.  Video games last as long as it takes for the player to finish them.  Being forced to watch some super developed nonsense is bound to make people's eyes strain at the effort.

That, and softer things just plain look better. The eyes can relax and just enjoy the image for what it is.  Maybe there's a way of having advanced consoles without turning a river into an eye-straining mass of glowing pixels, but for now, I'm pretty happy with water in older games.

4.  Lower graphics mean more style.

One of the things my art teacher in drawing class said was that we already have cameras.  The implication being that drawing isn't necessarily about replicating reality, but creating something interesting that people want to look at.  Advanced graphics are all about trying to replicate things that actually exist, whereas weaker consoles had to substitute reality with style.  This limitation produced gorgeous work in older games, as game designers had to put greater thought and concepts into the art than they would have had if they had more unlimited art ability.

A great example of this in practice is Dr. Robotnik's robots (or Dr. Eggman's, if you prefer) from the Sonic the Hedgehog series.  The older the game is, the more interesting Robotnik's robots were. They were goofier, comical, and they just tried harder designwise.  Over time, the robots became more "cool" and sterile, and ended up being pretty boring.  When they weren't replaced by GUN's generic shooters.

Basically, lower graphic capacity forces pause on developers.  Since a realistic replica of generic military vehicles or popular monsters can't be automatically programmed in, the designer must spend more conceptual time on his work, rather than quickly diving into executional work.  That extra bit of effort in concept boosts creativity and helps the designer avoid doing a common job.

The only exception to this is the designers who are lazy, but lazy designers are lazy regardless of what console they're on.

5. The loss of innocence is disheartening.

There's a pack of gum at my work with a box that says, "I may be old, but at least I got to see all the cool bands."  That quote, for my generation, replaces "bands" with "video games."

Let me put it to you this way.  I have nephews.  They are both under ten years old, and they're into video games.  The older one is allowed to play crap like Call of Duty.  The younger one is allowed to play crap like Lego Batman and Lego Harry Potter.  These are both the two spectrums that video games dwell at.  On one side, you have the advanced games that are too mature for little kids, and on the other, you have games that are so insultingly easy and insipid that all you have to do is follow the instructions on screen until you win.

I long to flee to grandma's for the Super Nintendo.  Call me a hipster all you like, but that was the single best console of all time.  The Nintendo 64 gets second place.  Xboxes and Wiis rank somewhere below the Atari Jaguar.  ...Eh, maybe that's an exaggeration.  But only a little.

Basically, I just want games that are fun and age appropriate, but at the same time challenging, for my nephews to play.  Nowadays, if it isn't a Mario addition, I can't get them anything.  The Zelda series has decided it wants to go full boob, gun games are bloody and swear a lot, and any game now directed toward kids is a plethora of needless instructions that even an eight year old finds tiresome. Or it's just a franchise-driven cash grab with more thought put into the cover art than in the gameplay.

Why can't it be like the old days where games were all assumed to be for children?  People love and respect Mario, Donkey Kong, and Sonic the Hedgehog, even though they don't swear.  You might blame this on a number of other factors besides graphics, but the fact of the matter is it's a lot harder to have pointless boobery in a game that isn't high enough resolution.  Given that higher resolutions promote visually driven games, it's so much easier to make a game more "appealing" by adding scantily clad women and someone's brain being blown out.  That way they have less time to think about the gameplay.  Now it feels like developers have gotten so lazy that if they can't put boobs and violence in a game, then they don't even bother.

Remember the Mega Man series, particularly games 2-5?  Weren't those great?  Despite the fact that they were 8 bit and had barely any story, they were emotionally moving, and appropriate for kids without being childish.  Is it really all that hard to make a game like this again?

This picture has nothing to do with anything.  I just like it.

P.S. Orchestras are nice, but experimentation is better.

I know technically advanced graphics have nothing to do with music, but modern day consoles have a huge flaw, subjectively speaking.  Music from older games was produced specifically for video games, as those consoles didn't have the memory capability to produce normal sounding music. Thus, VGM was born.  Seriously, it's even a music genre listed on Ishkur's Guide to Electronic Music.

Those bleeps and bloops may sound weird to the young'uns' ears, but it's unique and distinctive. Nothing sounds like NES-SNES era video game music.  Unfortunately, as consoles have advanced, so has their ability to play music that's derivative of movie trailers.  No, I don't think the Mario Galaxy games have the greatest music ever.  It's all Mario-sounding movie music.  Some people like orchestra swells and such, but this strikes me as inappropriate for most video games (it does work for Final Fantasy-ish games, though).  I don't need forty people to create music for a simple Mario game. Modern video game music is no longer a genre in electronic music. It's just generic rock music or emotionally manipulative movie trailer fare.

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