Graphics have always been part of the gaming conversation. Originally with consoles such as the SNES and Genesis the conversation was about how good graphics could be. How much better than their competition each company was. That conversation has continued to this very day too.
Companies like CD Projekt Red endeavour to push the boundaries of a computer’s graphical capabilities with games like The Witcher 3. To run the game on max settings was going to set you back a few hundred to a thousand in upgrades and whether or not you like their games it’s hard to deny how gorgeous games from Quantic Dream look.
But with the rise of indie games like Shovel Knight it begs the question of are graphics what make a game? If not how much do graphics actually add to the enjoyment of a game?
The first thing to look at is the fact that ‘graphics’ is a pretty nebulous term. Graphics are found in literally every game that isn’t simply text based. Even the most basic of flash games contain graphics to some degree or another. So I think the first question is if there is a bare minimum level of graphical fidelity that a game needs to reach in order to increase the quality of the experience while playing it.
Two good examples of this are The Binding of Isaac and Spelunky.
Above you can see a comparison image of Spelunky Classic and Spelunky HD. And it’s clear to see that everything on the right looks nicer.
Everything on the right is a little more detail, crisper and even has lighting to make it feel a little more like a dank and spooky cave. While the image on the left looks perfectly fine it’s clear to see a few small details for improvement that would actually effect gameplay.
The first being the wee little statue in each image. In the right side image there’s a clear difference in the use of lighting and shading in order to denote that the statue is not an enemy and most likely something to be picked up.
On the left however there is no lighting so all objects look the same in terms of coloration and distinction from the background. So it’s hard to know exactly what’s going to happen when you go near the statue. This is a minor gripe of course but a lot of Spelunky is about making split second decisions so clarity is key in those fractions of a second.
The second graphical issue is the little bat in each image. Now imagine this image a few times less zoomed in and you’re leaning back on a couch or comfy chair playing this game. Compared to that background, are you really going to see that bat before it’s too late. As a pretty bad Spelunky player myself I can recall plenty of times a bat has ruined my run so the more clarity in the games graphics the more it improves the game in this instance I think.
This second image is a comparison between the original The Binding of Isaac and the HD remake version known as Rebirth. Again the two images are pretty night and day when you look at them. However, again there’s a few graphical points you can pick out. The first being the lighting. Binding of Isaac is meant to be somewhat spooky, grimy and upsetting.
You’re playing a small naked boy who jumped into a labyrinthian basement in order to escape his terrifying knife-wielding mother who’s out to sacrifice him to God. Just the edition of the lighting helps push that vibe forward.
The second being the laser. Thanks to the lighting and a bit of extra definition it becomes incredibly clear where the laser is going, what it’s hitting and how far it’s reaching. These are simple changes but they definitely improve the moment to moment gameplay.
Looking at the lighting again it’s rather impressive that even with a dark shadowy filter over the whole game the enemies are just as clear as they were in the original version of the game. Although this does come with the caveat that if something moves in Binding of Isaac then it is most likely an enemy.
So far we’ve looked at two instances where graphics pretty clearly improved the gameplay experience but the question is, are there games that have the opposite or no effect on gameplay?
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night may well be one of the best games ever made. I heard a quote recently that I, unfortunately, do not remember the source and Google has been no help. But it perfectly sums up why a lot of pixel graphics games like Symphony and Shovel Knight manage to stand the test of time and continue to look beautiful years or decades after release.
“Pixels don’t age.”
Symphony of the Night just looks gorgeous. Even to this day. Looking at the image above you can see incredible detail in, not just the enemies, but the backgrounds as well. The skeleton has shading and you can see the thin strands of cloth hanging by a thread from his attire. Everything you need to see on Alucard is crystal clear from his gold-trimmed tunic to his long flowing grey hair. Even the tiny little lemming creatures are incredibly detailed for how small they are.
Koji Igarashi directed an absolutely amazing game with Symphony and started a genre. Symphony was so well-loved that eventually, Igarashi had the opportunity to make a spiritual successor long after his departure from Konami.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night was a Kickstarter game that saw huge success. Just reading the Kickstarter page itself is enough to show you that everyone working on it was passionate about the project and wanted to make the best game possible. Comparatively Bloodstained is a very faithful tribute to Symphony. It has all the same features down to the style of map. The only thing it doesn’t have is that same visual appeal.
Bloodstained is by no means an ugly game. The graphics are perfectly suitable and they do the job. They also do not hinder the gameplay in any way. However, what the also do not do is immerse the player. Everything in Bloodstained is kind of awkward and shiny looking. Each model looks like it was made in a vacuum away from the background and foreground pieces. Overall it just doesn’t feel like there is a cohesive graphical style here.
As I said, this issue does not hinder gameplay in a literal sense. Everything in Bloodstained is easy to identify and you can tell where you are in the scene but the lack of immersion is still an important factor. Immersing yourself in a game means losing yourself in that world. So much so that you start to feel like you are in that world in some way. Immersion is when you go outside and look up to check your compass for nearby landmarks. Immersion is going to grab your omni-tool to open a door. Immersion is forgetting that you can’t actually lift an entire car.
Symphony of the Night’s graphics immerse you into the world of Castlevania without the need for high graphical fidelity. Because the graphics are cohesive and all fit together you are drawn into that world and that then enhances your gameplay experience because everything feels just that little bit more real, that little bit more threatening and that little bit more important.
Graphics are also dependent on the type of game you’re playing. So far we’ve looked at games that are predominantly mechanics based rather than story-based. Symphony and Bloodstained have great stories but most players are there for the Metroidvania style mechanics.
So let’s look at two very different narrative based games.
Who’s this gent? How important is he to the story of the game he features? What are his vices? His issues? Obviously if you’re a hardcore Morrowind fan then it’s likely you know all of the answers to these questions but then also try and put yourself in the shoes of someone playing this game for the first time in 2021. No amount of good writing and story telling can make you empathise with something that looks like it was carved out of a potato then had some playdough slapped on top. Now contrast that with the next image:
A lot of people criticise Quantic Dream games for being predictable, poorly written or just a little silly depending on how far back you go. But I, personally, really enjoyed Detroit: Become Human. Was it predictable? Sure. Silly? Maybe. Poorly written? I don’t think so.
The character in the above image is part of, what I think, is one of the best cold openers in gaming history. With only a little bit of knowledge about the world, you’re falling into you are tasked with literally talking this guy away from a ledge while he clutches a young girl in his arm with a gun pointed at your skull.
Everything that happened in this scene is burned into my brain forever. So much of that, I believe, is because of the graphics. Every character has real facial expressions that tell you how they are feeling. You can read the situation by facial ticks alone and that’s one of your main methods of knowing what to say and how that might affect the outcome of the scene.
Good graphics make you sympathise with a character that only features in the first ten minutes of gameplay more so than any character in Morrowind or perhaps any Bethesda game. Controversial opinion I know so come at me if you like.
Graphics are an integral part of videogames. “High quality” Graphics however are not. Some games work perfectly well with minimalistic pixel graphics. Other games thrive when you’re able to pick out the blemishes on a character’s skin. Realistically it all comes down to the individual. If graphics aren’t important to you then graphics aren’t important. If they are then they are.
As I said this debate has been going on since the NES and Sega days and it will continue on until the heat death of the universe. Though it is interesting to see what kinds of graphics we’ll be comparing to what in say 30 years? Maybe 70? Or will all games look so mindbogglingly good that there will be no need for debate? Who knows?