Graphics: In the Eye of The Beholder

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This article is inspired by the Monday roundtable on editorial “Shine vs. Substance”. At first this was going to be a short comment post on the article. As I started to write the comment became longer. I realized I had much to say on the subject so I guess it made sense to go big with it. Some of the points made by the commentators where spot on. At the same time (understandably) they missed some points I’d like to touch on about “shine vs. substance”.

We have long passed the stage where just gameplay and not graphics matter. We can start with the NES days with this argument. In fact the console wars of Genesis, and SNES were more about this than an argument on which console had the better games. It was about which could authenticate a better experience. “Blast Processing”, “Mode 7”, “The SNES version of Street Fighter 2 is the closest to the arcade version as you can get”, “Mortal Kombat has no blood so it’s not really good graphically on SNES”. I can sit here and find many a quote about how graphics have played a role in gaming regardless of a titles gameplay throughout the history of gaming. ?Yes, gameplay is the only thing that counts, but it counts more when the experience is so unique that graphics have no say. Huh? What? That’s right when a game offers you an experience unlike something you’ve played before then yes graphics are a mute point. Games such as “REZ”, “Luminies”, “Portal”, “Might & Magic”, “Herzog Zwei”, and countless others have set gameplay benchmarks that influence game design on levels that are still felt today. The real question has never been just what looks good, but rather what has been presented the best. ?Art direction has been the real differentiator of what is supposedly better in terms of “graphics” for a game.

Let’s stick with Mortal Kombat for both the SNES and Genesis back in the days. Since back then the most important conversation really wasn’t about pushing hardware, as much as it was about replicating the arcade experience. If a game console could achieve what you saw there, then it was the most powerful system. Even when it was not. The SNES version of Mortal Kombat was in fact a better looking game, in some areas even better than the arcade. The problem was that Nintendo had a policy where they were objecting to violence in games on their console. So they took out the most important gameplay aspect at the time “blood”. Now to make my point about art direction vs. graphics you have to understand how this small art directed dynamic changed an other wise mediocre fighter into a contender.?The use of blood in games really came down to how salacious the use, and viciousness of the attacks were. The way your character could perform in Mortal Kombat that brought it home how violent a fight can be. No lies there were countless games after its release that shamelessly used blood as a mechanic to draw gamers in. No matter how absurd or uncalled for developers pushed it. “Dude that’s so real the way my blades cut off his arms and shit. Best graphics ever. Street Fighter 2 ain’t got shit on it. I mean you can’t tell me that Ryu’s upper cut won’t knock someone?s head off. Look at his eyes. Come on son, there gotta be blood somewhere”. ?Seriously this was the litmus test. Mind you there were other more “graphically” excellent games at the time, both in arcades and home consoles. Yet art direction defines a game, and people?s perception about what are great graphics in a game.

I find it funny in all truth and honesty to hear the arguments now. They are so arbitrary and trite that it’s like wtf are you talking about “graphic slore”? there hasn’t been a bad “graphically” released title since this generation started. Let me clarify. ?All the systems are at a point where graphics although matter it’s really up to the developers not so much the hardware. The PS3 and Xbox 360 for comparison are powerful consoles. ?So the push for better visual fidelity in gaming has always been there. Yet its push has come from those determined enough to want to enhance the experience (developers) of gamers. This generation is less about ability than anything else. There’s no context that we can create that says this to be false. For instance, does Gears of War look bad to you? ?No, but If your answer is yes, you are a dumbass. ?Only when comparisons are made do these mindless debates start, and we get screwed up in what?s real. So let’s say we put Uncharted 2 up against Gears. There will be a rush of people to try and explain their theory as to which one is better graphically. Even though both games play relatively the same, workings literally off of one primary game play mechanic “cover”. I could easily sit here and say well Gears of War would be an even better looking game if Epic decided to focus on one character, and scenery. Instead of a co-op experience. Would I be wrong? Maybe, maybe not. The “substance” dictates what is possible by developers. Along with what they are trying to achieve with a title. Point of it all is I?d be running around in circles beating myself up screaming ?graphics matter all day. It?s relative to what you see, and expect.

You take a single player experience like God of War 3. Where the focus is not on multiplayer aspects, and co-op. What do you have? A much more concentrated experience where the game is centered on scripted set pieces. So guess what, the developers know what they want to achieve in the experience because there are not as many moving parts to worry about. Plus the style, setting, character, and story all play a role in how this games art direction is approached. Function meets form. So the only way a game this generation has been graphically superior is when it is clearly out matched in its expression and execution compared to a competitors. ?In fact this conversation is much more fanboy related than it is game related. PC games have shatted on console gaming for years graphically. You ever wonder why PS3 haters always used the PC as an argument against purchasing an Xbox 360 version of a game. They don’t compare it to their games, even when it’s clear that the same can be said for a PS3 title as well. ?Just like you, I’ve read many a comment where people really in their heart of hearts believe?Killzone 2 to look better than PC titles. They will try to argue a person down. Yet the game in itself is incomplete when compared to the best FPS shooters on PC. That’s a fact that obliterates any argument of graphic superiority. Killzone 2 game play is sacrificed to achieve an art direction so people can feel good about their console purchase. So I can’t sit here and drink the kool-aid that graphics matter. What matter is if the platform you own has games that look good to you? It can’t be what’s best. If so then PC gaming should have destroyed console games in 1996. Real spit.

Again let’s take a look at God of War 3. Since its release is currently the most talked about from a graphic standpoint, and Kratos is just badass. Has anyone noticed that the way the game shows its graphic prowess is based on how big the Titans are, and what you are doing on/to them? They are levels onto themselves. The idea of scale is paramount for in the game, and is much more, again about art direction not graphics. The pace for how the gamers experience will play out each level is the focus. Is anyone really counting the particle effects from the chain blades striking a wall? Hell no. Yet, when you are in a shimmering hall, and you are attacking the undead the visual feast for the eyes is astounding. ?It’s amazing to see Kratos grab an enemy and bumrush them into a wall, and get Greek on their ass. Did it change the architecture of the PS3? No…What?s been in there is there. What?s different is time, perspective, and tools that gave the development team enough to work with that they could give us the definition needed to get the most out of the PS3. This can be said for games like Mass Effect 2, Gears of War 2, Uncharted 2, Fear 2, and many others. We know more than ever that a games engine and what it allows is more important than really the hardware. Again both systems are capable. In fact if you ask me what the most graphically intense game are I’d say it’s a tossup between MLB The Show, and 2k10 basketball. ?In fact I think the sports category gets ignored for this simple fact. 2k10 Basketball alone with what is happening in gameplay pushes boundaries. You have 10 players on the screen, the stadium, the crowd, the visual atmosphere, the amount of execution happening on court all at once, and the A.I. I marvel at the game. To me it is more technically insane than God of War 3 could ever be. Just look at the animation. These sports games allow for you to create moments. God of War 3 and most other titles, developers are creating the moments for you. When it comes to sports games we get so pissed with them, because there are nuances that are missed which ruin the game. We want to have that unpredictable experience that allows us to experience a sport most of us aren?t good enough to replicate in real life. We aren?t pros. ?Mind you most sports games are released every year. Imagine if they took three, four, five years to release a sports game like a Killzone 2. There would not be any game in any genre that could rival them. Name an area; Animation?Please…not even a conversation worth having.

This is the first generation in gaming where I laugh at anyone who spouts off at the mouth claiming what good graphics are. Does each console do things different from the other? Yes, has the Xbox 360 been an easier environment for developers versus the PS3? Absolutely, and this has had an effect on the outcome of titles. There are tons of reasons though. ?Does that make either console less viable than the other? At the end of the day it’s about money, time, and resources. All of which have to be ?factored into what you have, or not have been playing on your console. I can?t be mad at a developer if they say ?Look in order for us to get this game running like this one on this system. It?s going to take a lot of resources we don?t have to consider doing it?. Can you really be mad at a developer who has to take million dollar risks on a game, ?that they are wrong for not focusing on particular platform?? Folks want to get mad at Epic, for the Unreal Engine 3. Claiming that it is a horrible engine for games. ?People either don?t know, or are forgetting that it was the one engine that gave this generation life. ?Developers got their games up running on a new standard, now others are developing their own engines surpassing Epic has done. If it weren?t for the Unreal Engine 3 you think Crytek would care about having the Crysis Engine on consoles? They don?t want to miss out on money that?s on the table, and they want to show they have the bigger tech cojones than Epic. ?If that engine isn’t impressive on all three platforms, then you are a moron +. ? By Epic setting the benchmark for publishers, and developers alike it has benefited them to be solvent with game content. Now by them having their own engines that brings down costs, and fees for developing a game. The Unreal Engine 3 although still viable, is more important this generation because it was the first engine to hone in on a pleasant multiplatform development environment for developers. How disrespectful are we the audience when we label a developer lazy? Sure we are spending our money, but at some point we have to ask are our expectations realistic? ?It took five years, and the pressure of the gaming audience to demand that Sony/GG live up to their claims with Killzone 2. Uncharted series came out of nowhere to stake a truer claim. Are there many titles that have such a long development cycle on the Xbox 360 like Killzone 2? Outside of Alan Wake I don’t think so. Is Metro 2033 one of the best games I’ve laid eyes on? Hell yes. Did I see it coming? No. So what does that tell me and you? It tells us just like in every age of console gaming. Developers will impress us the longer a system is created for. They just needed to get up to speed with the technology. Both the PS3 and Xbox 360 have yet to truly tape their potential fully. Being surprised by that makes you a child who needs a pacifier with your pass credentials.

You have had the internet of fire with people crapping on Halo 3. ?I’ve sat back plenty of times, and just been awed by the game. ?Mention Halo Reach, and you are likely to hear “It looks ok, but I doubt the Xbox 360 can do a game better than Uncharted 2”. I can sit here, and easily say that the upcoming?Kingdom Under Fire 2 is graphically better than Uncharted 2 and God of War 3. ?Having been that way since the first trailer release in August of 2009. What does it mean? Am I right? You see graphics this generation is so subjective that I don’t think people are appreciating what experiences they are having gaming. It’s incredibly sad to me. ?I’m not saying you don’t see some games do things others don’t graphically. What I’m saying is that it has less to do with what these systems can, and can’t do. ?So unless you have 8 games firing up at the same time how many really bad graphic games have we seen this generation? It?s in the eye of the beholder, and for the sake of not sounding stupid with terms like HD, AA, Motion blur, and others. ?I’m going to ask; how much are you missing out in your gaming experience by isolating yourself with the theory that your system is more powerful than the other? ?PS3 vs Xbox 360 vs PC? What are the graphics giving you in Mass Effect 2 that the story and gameplay don’t overcome? When you play with Kratos do you care about the way his muscles ripple, or the fact that you just changed your weapons on the fly killing enemies with a great combo? Did you get less enjoyment out of Halo 3’s Forge because its graphics didn’t look like Crysis on your PC? All I’m saying is take a step back, pop in Uncharted 1, and tell me it looks worse today than the day it came out. Then ask yourself how much does graphics really matter than Nathan Drake existing on your PS3…I’m done.

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