Theory: “I don’t care about graphics.” You should

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7 mins read
Ico: Proof that aesthetics can make the experience

Spend enough time around various gaming forums, and you’ll inevitably come across the old debate “graphics, or gameplay?” And of course, “gameplay” will always win in those debates, because a video game is all about the gameplay, right?

Well, not really. It’s an utterly pointless debate when you start to consider what actually makes a game fun to play. Ultimately, these graphics that people are so quick to dismiss as being tangentially important to a game’s gameplay are actually vitally important to the experience of multimedia art, and thus quality of a videogame.

To get around to explaining why, we’re going to first need to look at what, exactly, constitutes a game’s “graphics.”

What is ‘Graphics’?

When people talk about graphics, they’re literally talking about what they see when they’re playing a game. Taking that logical starting point one step further, when they’re looking at a game’s ‘graphics,’ they’re looking at a dynamic screen of moving colours (animation), and in the case of 3D games, tiny building blocks stitched together to create things like characters and environments.

From that basic start, we can start to consider what makes for ‘good’ graphics. There’s two ways you can take this; you could take ‘good’ graphics to simply mean highly technically developed graphics with photorealistic backgrounds and characters. Or you could take the more aesthetic interpretation of what ‘good’ means; that is, ‘good’ graphics are graphics that are pleasing to the eye.

I believe the former is an irrelevant point of view to take. Visuals that are merely technical advanced don’t achieve any actual purpose; that is, they exist for the sake of existing. It would be like having ‘good’ controls for a character, but no environment or other characters to interact with.

No, a game’s graphics serve a single purpose – to create an appealing world on the eyes, and one for the other’s game’s elements – music, story and interactivity to exist within. So in other words a game’s graphics are only worth discussing as part of a broader discussion of aesthetics, as it is the ‘frame’ that holds everything else within.

Art Style games look great, but are not technically brilliant

So why are aesthetics important?

Aesthetics are somewhat more philosophical and subjective, but good aesthetics is absolutely critical to the experience – and enjoyment – of a game. Technical proficiency, or the quality of a game’s raw building blocks is more-or-less objective; it’s easy to tell when one game is pushing more polygons than another. Aesthetics are much more of a subjective discussion, but in that they’re also more core to the actual experience of a game which is, of course, a subjective art form.

The interesting thing about aesthetics is that technical prowess isn’t necessarily equivalent to good aesthetics. There’s an entire field of art – minimalism – that seeks to break aesthetics down to its bare minimum, focusing on what is visually pleasing rather than complex. This view of aesthetics translates to video games in many places. Think of the classy, minimalist Art Style or Wii Sports games on the technically inferior Nintendo Wii and DS consoles. Or, think about those games that deliberately use pixilated characters and icons to deliberately evoke the early eras of game design. Games that do this, such a Groove Coaster or Dot Game Heroes, are incredibly attractive games. They’re not pushing billions of polygons, but no one could claim the visual style of the the game isn’t ‘good.’

Conversely, there are games that have been considered technically impressive back in the day, but look just terrible. I’m going to use Final Fantasy VII as a famous example. It’s not a bad game by any means, but as cutting edge as the blocky polygons and clashing colours were at the time, it’s at the point now where the game is no longer welcoming to newcomers; aside from being driven by nostalgia or curiosity, there’s not many that would be drawn to play this game. Indeed, many would rather play through Square Enix’s earlier Final Fantasy games that used sprites to a far more pleasing aesthetic end.

FFVII: poor aesthetics can hurt the experience

Aesthetics will always remain subjective, but there are those games who have been held up as artistic breakthroughs years later – think Ico or Zelda: Ocarina of Time. There are others, such as Final Fantasy VII, that are important games, but many new to the party look back and wonder what the fuss is about.

But at the most basic level; a game’s visual style is critical, because if you’re playing a game and it gives you motion sickeness, a headache, or the frustration of not being able to see something because the colours are poorly done, or too dark (or bright), or the text is too small to read, then you’re not going to enjoy the game.

Ultimately the game experience is what’s important, and that encompasses everything – sound, visuals and interactivity. Get any of those wrong, and the game is not going to be as enjoyable as it should be.

Do you believe aesthetics are important to the experience of a game?

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  • It's late so I'm not going to get too wild with a post, but one analogy is that the meal you're about to eat needs more than one magic ingredient. Does it make sense to cook your top ramen with $20 worth of Saffron?

    I'm glad you brought up Art Style as I think it's a great series that's so clean and delivers a tremendous gaming experience. I only have AS: Orbient for Wii and I've been meaning to look at the others. For me the overall aesthetic of playing orbient in the dark with the sound turned up is really enjoyable. It's like the Steve Miller Band of gaming. πŸ™‚

  • It's late so I'm not going to get too wild with a post, but one analogy is that the meal you're about to eat needs more than one magic ingredient. Does it make sense to cook your top ramen with $20 worth of Saffron?

    I'm glad you brought up Art Style as I think it's a great series that's so clean and delivers a tremendous gaming experience. I only have AS: Orbient for Wii and I've been meaning to look at the others. For me the overall aesthetic of playing orbient in the dark with the sound turned up is really enjoyable. It's like the Steve Miller Band of gaming. πŸ™‚

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