Visual Expectation

With the next generation of consoles practically upon us, and the Wii-U unveiling set for a Nintendo Direct show tonight (so UbiSoft can talk about it tomorrow at their show!), it seems 1080p will be the default visual resolution for a new era of gaming. But graphics? I expect – nay, demand – good graphics these days…

 

It always amuses me that some can defend an average game by saying things like, “Oh, but it’s pushing graphical boundaries!”

I’ve been playing video games in some capacity now for three decades – it’s been the lifelong constant in a life that has shifted and changed beyond recognition. Whatever I am going through, however I am feeling, I’ve always had a game in my life at some point. From Quartet on the Sega Master System, to Plok on the SNES and Tombi! on the PS1, games have been there to amuse me, relax me and challenge me in ways that I’ve always found to be interesting, intriguing and enjoyable.

Quartet. Circa 1986.

Quartet – why yes, I was hooked on this game back in the 80s!

Graphics and visual technology has changed much over the years. Once, we had rotoscoping. We had animators cut their teeth in the video game world before moving on to find their calling in television and movies. There was no voice acting so stories were told in text, a wide range of fonts and typefaces delivering lines dependent on mood and attitude. When we moved into three-dimensions, Doom was still using sprites and animation. Then came true three-dimensions, where the low polygon counts belied a new-found sense of freedom. These games today may look old, but at the time they were revolutionary and amazing to behold. It’s been a fast-changing decade or so, now we’re in the throws of high-definition and 60 frames a second. And oddly, we’re at an impasse all of a sudden. I can’t think of a game which is truly, genuinely ugly in recent years.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been questionable decisions, but most of the games I find ugly have more to do with lazy visual art style than any meaningful technical cock-up. Daggerdale was ugly, but in a sense the reason for that was in that it was boring – it was the sort of art direction grounded in a horrid cliche of browns and blacks, without actually doing anything with it. The Transformers games of late – they are somewhat pretty but ultimately I never see them pushing the boundaries of visual excitement. To call something “Ugly” now is more to refer to how the art design was messed up, rather than how the developers messed it up. People who thought their vision for how a game should look was a great idea – and it ended up not being so.

Truth is, I expect good visuals these days. I expect it as standard, whether it’s CRT or 720p or 1080p, I want a game that visually excites. Xenoblade Chronicles, on the Wii – not HD, but it’s still an achingly beautiful game set in a gorgeous landscape. VVVVVV – another lovely, charming game. And its basic, retro Amstrad/C64 visual style blends with its charming narrative, fiendish difficulty and decidedly brilliant music to create an overall masterpiece. Even the latest indie game I got, Last Survivor, is retro in visual style but rich, dark and sumptuously played out. It’s no longer a case that visuals of a game hold a surprise – unless they are really, truly dire, but that hasn’t been the case for me since midway through the PS2 era. Suddenly, everyone sort of got it. And games wised up and became prettier, more nuanced and stylised.

Vagrant Story - circa 2000.

Vagrant Story – achingly pretty even this far on from the PS1.

Indeed, it’s going into this next-generation where 1080p is the standard that makes me feel that visual stimulation is no longer the main draw for me as a gamer. I have been spoiled by Okami, by Shadow of the Colossus, by Metroid Prime, Resident Evil 4 and Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, not to mention the current generation of Assassin’s Creed and Dark Souls and Zelda: Skyward Sword. It’s hard to get excited by a games visual splendour or its imaginative art design because, well, it’s been that way for about eight years now. After a while, it becomes less important not because it is less important, but because it’s just expected of a new game these days.

Instead, I’m looking for more. I’d argue these days I’m either looking for a complete package deal, or something that is memorable enough to stick in my head. I’m looking for narrative, for sound and audible stimulation. I want to be engaged, challenged and have my concepts and boundaries challenged and pushed. I am no longer interested in realistic models or enormous boobage – games like that are ten a penny now. There has to be something else about it. An X-Factor. A spark.

It’s arguably the thing that divides opinion between me and others. My extended time in this hobby hasn’t seen me become overly artsy-fartsy, but I have perhaps more of a bar than others do. I have played games like Shadow of the Colossus, and bloody amazing they have been too. These are games that remain with me, deep in my heart, and games that want to occupy that same space have an arguably tougher time of it than you’d expect. It may lead some to think that I hate games today. That would be missing the whole point.

It’s not that I think games are worse – they aren’t. It’s a facetious argument, that. Some claim games are easier because people want easier – but then you have Dark Souls, Bayonetta and the aforementioned VVVVVV that remind you that challenge isn’t dead at all. Some claim games are duller, but even Call of Duty and Doom 3 are pretty games, despite their sometimes generic and solid surroundings. It isn’t that they’ve even become safer, as the latest Hitman shows, and last year when Mortal Kombat challenged the United States governments in what constituted appropriate material for minors. There is still plenty of boundary pushing going on in the world.

It’s just I expect this. It’s a good thing and it is a natural thing. It is like being amazed at how a tree grows – we watch it, we’ve see huge trees, but it’s because of this that we’re never really bowled over by it. Natures miracle is, let’s be honest here, not as interesting anymore. And it is the same for me and the games industry – it’s just… that’s how it is. That’s what I expect it to do. I’ll dish out praise where it is due, but I can’t cheer it on every time it does this. I don’t have the time or energy to devote to that kind of support.

Resident Evil 4 - Classic!

Resident Evil 4 – the moment for me that “realism” peaked.

Instead, I will cheer on great examples and of course, criticise where the industry trips up. It’s important that we all have an expectation, because one it is amazing when someone does exceed those expectations and two, because it also challenges those making our games to focus on other areas to appeal, surprise and delight us. In an era when all games look good, this means I would hope more emphasis is placed elsewhere – on design, direction, narrative and gameplay – so that we can continue to evolve our tastes in games. As pretty as Epic’s demos have been for their new Unreal Engine, there’s a point where you think, “And how much of that budget would be left over to, I dunno, make a game longer than an hour or two?”

Everything is going to be pretty – and as people harness the power of the Wii-U, Next-Box and PS4, games will only continue to get prettier. There is no further excitement to be gleaned for me in pretty pictures.

I want personality now, too. Hopefully, the next few years will surprise me. Because it’s when the industry can’t that I will be the most disappointed.

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