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Pretty Colors and Lens Flare: Why Graphics Matter
posted by: Shawn Rider
date posted: 08:36 AM Thu Sep 8th, 2005
last revision: 11:28 PM Thu Sep 8th, 2005

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Click to read.By way of disclaimer:

I\'m as skeptical about the next generation of gaming as any indy gaming magazine editor-in-chief worth his \"I\'m a hardass art fuck\" coffee mug. Which is to say that most of the gaming press (and gaming fanbase) is probably more stoked than I am about the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Revolution. Still, I\'d be lying if I told you I wasn\'t planning on preordering an Xbox 360 just in case MS decides to not send us one. But I run a videogame magazine, and you, dear reader, don\'t. So that pretty much sums up my argument.

What was I talking about?

Here\'s the thing: We\'re being asked to buy a new Xbox a scant 4 years after the first. The PS3 is already sticking to a tight 5 year timeline: It doesn\'t take math majors to figure out that if the average \"major\" title takes 3 years to develop, the platform lifespan should be at least twice that. It might be easy enough to upgrade games currently in development to the XB360, and certainly if it\'s possible publishers will probably pursue a dual platform XB/XB360 release, such as we see with major multiplatform titles like Tony Hawk\'s American Wasteland and GUN, both of which happen to be from reknowned multiplatform developer/publisher team Neversoft and Activision. In fact, Activision was the first ever third-party publisher for the Atari 2600, which VG History buffs will no doubt already know.

The question of whether or not it\'s worth it to buy into another $400+ system when the $150 systems seem to be doing just fine is a serious one well worth considering. For a lot of folks, the answer is determined by the price ? they\'ll wait to get their new XB360 or PS3 until the systems reach their buying point, which is dictated by economic factors larger than MS or Sony. Other gamers will buy whatever comes out, regardless of price, so that group is a given.

But there is a large, undecided populous of people who like games a lot, who could afford it if they stretch and call it Xmas, but who will feel very burned if the XB360 \"pulls a PSP\" on us ? delivering sexy hardware, crappy games, and very few titles in general. And the battlecry of this group is: \"Graphics aren\'t everything!\"

And they aren\'t

Graphics are not everything. Anyone who has ever enjoyed a good book knows that the visuals you \"get\" from an experience go far beyond the physical act of seeing. And you could probably match one-for-one the amount of media adoration heaped upon photorealistic innovations (as in Splinter Cell, Doom 3 and Half-Life 2) with the amount of adoration heaped upon non-photorealistic innovations (such as Jet Grind Radio, Viewtiful Joe, and The Legend of Zelda: Windwaker).

Further evidence of how \"not necessarily\" important graphics are can be found in the popularity of puzzle games. Puzzle games often feature simple graphics, which is often appreciated by gamers who would rather focus on the strategy and technique of solving the puzzle than interpreting complex visuals. Anyone who has played Lumines understands the difference graphics can make in playability and difficulty of a puzzle game. To this day any Lumines level with hollow circle graphics just puts me off my game a bit.

When we bought into this generation, we bought into online gameplay, innovative game design using hard drives and wild peripherals (like Eye Toy). Now that the graphical barrier of the home console had been broken in the PS2 generation, we expected to see innovation in game design. We got some of what was promised, but we also got more funny-sounding acronyms like \"NURBS\" and \"HDR.\" We got games that looked a little better all the time, but mostly played the same, with the usual small sparks of innovation and brilliance as we might have seen in the previous generation. In short, a generation after the FPS has been perfected in several different varieties, the RPG has been expanded to allow virtually any possible life to be led, and the online gaming audience has shifted from 30-somethings with engineering degrees to 12 year-olds with Darth Vader voice mods ? a generation after all of this, we are feeling a bit like we\'ve been there and done that.

But they (graphics) are (important, that is)

We were discussing the importance of graphics, and whether or not more graphical capabilities justify a new generation of console hardware. Having explored the \"NO!\" camp, we turn our attention to what makes graphics so important. And, ultimately, the inspiration for this editorial: Project Gotham Racing 3 (PGR 3).

I don\'t even like racing games. But Aaron (my compatriot and assistant editor) posted a link to a 3D render created by Bizarre Creations, who is developing PGR3. It\'s a simple Flash movie of a 3D spin around a F1 something or other. Looks like a Lamborghini to me, but I grew up in the era of Miami Vice and \"Lambos\" so I\'m not hip to the slang. But looking at this beautifully rendered vehicle, completely spotless of dirt, spinning around in a circle in front of me, it became a beautiful thing.

The light glints on the body of the car unlike any light has ever glinted, yet also like every light always glints. It is that point of intersection between the real and the simulated that forms the Uncanny Valley ? the place where one feels as if she KNOWS which is real and which is simulation, but FEELS as if either could be true. That is what PGR 3 looks like. That\'s also what Gears of War and Oblivion look like: Real enough that you genuinely could be fooled, and not just if you squint your eyes.

Yet they don\'t look real. It is a painterly realism, not a photorealism, which is a much more extreme view of the material world. In photorealism, all of the dirt and grime of the world is present. In PGR3, the dirt and grime of the world exists everywhere except the vehicle. The buildings exhibit the scuffed texture one expects to see, and in doing so they become nearly photographic. They approach the uncanny limit. But the vehicles maintain a firmly unreal grounding in their pristine cleanliness. It is as if PGR3 is not just a racing game, but an altar to the vehicle. It is the place where automobiles glide through their surroundings, where you, as a well-trained devotee, can make the glory of the vehicle manifest in elegance and beauty.

Oh, come on, that is so lame

It\'s true ? I\'m not sure many folks really lose themselves that much in PGR3, and I would be lying to say that I do. But the effect this graphical demonstration had on me was this: I found myself paying attention to the light. I found myself looking for small reflections i could identify as tree and building. I could see the sky above reflected in the windshield. The flare-ups of light concentration highlight the curves of the vehicle body. It is very much like looking at a real car in real life, yet not at all, and what strikes me is that I\'ve caught myself realizing this.

Typically, I have to confess, I don\'t think about what I see that closely. I am well aware of the difference between my own perception and that of a more attuned individual. I\'m married to a photographer, and it took me years to build an appreciation for qualities of color and shadow.

But I realized then and there, looking at what I think is a very gaudy car, that graphics do matter. That we care about videogame graphics for reasons deeper than we know, and that the effect of drawing our attention to the details of our visual surroundings is one that should be appreciated. Add to the list of things videogames do for us: aesthetic appreciation. A study a couple summers ago concluded that action games enhance visual acuity ? that is, FPS games made players better at detecting small movements and details in a scene. Studies on doctors have concluded that playing games before surgery enhances manual dexterity, found in a study of laparoscopic surgeons, who conduct their operations via small tools and a video display.

For the average, everyday gamer, though, simply noticing that light looks like that can be a revelation. And on some level, this is exactly the kind of thing that happens in gamers\' minds when they see these new graphics. Instantly we scan for polygonal edges, antialiasing fry, muddled vanishing points, and we latch onto any inconsistency or error with nearly machinic accuracy. Those who do not play games do not see the enhancements. They do not see how much better the games look unless they check in and out of the scene at large intervals.

Pretty colors and lens flare

It\'s a favorite story of mine: I was on my Sony booth tour the E3 before Gran Turismo 3 was released on PS2, and I met the producer of the North American version of the game. At that time, GT3 was \"highly anticipated.\" Remember, a ported portion of Gran Turismo was a popular demo at the PlayStation 2 debut.

So I asked, \"Why has the game been delayed again?\" The producer explained to me that the North American audience is pickier about graphics than the Japanese audience. He said that they were enhancing the textures and refining the antialiasing (a notorious problem in first-gen PS2 games). \"People love pretty colors and lens flare,\" he said.

I always took that as a derisive remark: The implication is that people don\'t think as much as they should. That people are somehow easily led towards the shiny object like so many joystick-wielding crows. That one needn\'t work hard to figure out something NEW to do in a game; rather, one should spend one\'s time polishing graphical quality and adding visual effects. After all, how else does one explain the popularity of a series like Final Fantasy, which defies every possible concept of brand identity and any semblance of connective tissue between installments in the franchise (generally, every Final Fantasy features a different plot in a slightly different world with totally different characters). Common logic would dictate that keeping a common thread of history, lineage, or protagonists would be a sure-fire way of enhancing the appeal of any series.

Yet Final Fantasy remains hugely popular. So popular, in fact, that recent Final Fantasy games such as Final Fantasy X-2 and Final Fantasy Chains of Promethia, and the movie Advent Children, are actual sequels, featuring characters and backstory in common with previous installments of the series. So what is it that makes Final Fantasy so popular? I don\'t know. There are probably several more editorials in that topic. But one thing I do know is that people love the graphics in Final Fantasy. Final Fantasy VII was the poster-child for pre-rendered cutscenes and backgrounds. Recent installments of the series have also set benchmarks for graphical quality and visual effects.

So what are we looking at here?

Basically, there\'s no real conclusion here about whether or not you should immediately invest in a new console system. As we\'ve been saying at GF! for a decade now, buy the system that plays the game that you want to play. But when searching around for the reason why people will NOT buy a new console (XB360 or otherwise), graphics is not a legitimate complaint. The new graphics will be enough to add another level of visual complexity to games, and gamers will eat it up with a spoon. Or with their hands if they have to.

If we want to talk about why gaming in the next gen is in trouble, we need to address increasing development costs and conservative mainstream publishers bent on pushing watered-down franchises and rushed movie tie-ins. Couple that with nonsense political movements to limit the scope and breadth of game content, and we have a serious potential for gaming disaster. The question, in so many ways, is not about whether or not the hardware justifies the next generation. As we\'ve always known, technology does not dictate game quality.

The big worry for the next generation is not whether or not there\'s a big enough jump in graphical quality. The big worry for the next generation of gaming is whether or not we can find a way to keep making games that matter to people.

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