The Importance of Graphics in Games: Thoughts

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Very often people debate how important graphics are in video games. People do tend to believe that great gameplay can more than make up for any graphical deficiencies that a game has. After all, it’s important that a game be fun to play, right? However, this perception of gameplay trumping graphics every time tends to oversimplify something that’s more complicated than just graphics vs gameplay.

In one sense, the notion that gameplay matters more than graphics is very true. Here are two games with fairly simplistic graphics that are both fairly well known. The first one is Minecraft. Everyone’s heard of Minecraft at this point. In case you haven’t, the basic premise of Minecraft is that the player spawns in a world and must destroy ‘blocks’ to get resources out of them and build tools and other ‘blocks’ with them to survive the night.

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There’s also a creative mode which gives the player endless resources to create things. There’s all sorts of different blocks, including basic circuitry blocks, to explosives, etc. I won’t get into the details of the game, but one of the things that should immediately jump out at you is that this game does not have very advanced graphics. Here’s some more screenshots:

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A Minecraft game with a Fallout mod/theme/feel.

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Both of these pictures should clearly demonstrate that Minecraft is no graphical masterpiece. Yet it’s immensely popular because of its gameplay. People love the notion of a world where literally everything can be destroyed/built. It leads to all sorts of emergent gameplay. On a technical level, the game is not at the same level as a game like Horizon: Zero Dawn, or Gears of War, but it is definitely a smashing hit.

Another example of a game with very minimalist graphics is DEFCON. DEFCON is like the movie Wargames come to life. It’s a Real Time Strategy (RTS) game that simulates nuclear war/armed conflict between nations. It’s a damned tough game to play to top it off. Interestingly enough, the game uses very minimalist graphics but manages to be extremely engaging in spite of the graphics. Now one might think that the game sounds like a ton of other games that came before, but like I said, if you’ve seen the movie Wargames, it basically replicates that style. Look at these pictures of the game to understand what I’m saying:

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The game looks a lot like the vector graphics computers of the 1980s, hence why I said it looks like Wargames. This game has minimalist graphics but it’s also its graphics that really make the game stand out. This leads me to my next point.

You may think that so far I’ve done nothing but prove the point that graphics don’t seem to matter when the gameplay is better. Minecraft and DEFCON sort of follow that philosophy. DEFCON, however, I’d argue is very successful because of its graphical style. The technical sophistication of graphics does not necessarily matter (to a point, as I’ll illustrate later), sure. However, if the art style is bad, then the game will fail. For DEFCON, it was important to use vector graphics. Even Minecraft, for it’s extremely minimalist technical graphics, does follow a very consistent art style: voxel art. Everything is some form of a block in the game, which leads to an immersion in the game world. Indie games in particular prefer to use simple art styles, but ones that are consistent and work well for the type of game they are making. Where has this failure been observed? It’s fairly tough to see, because most games that fall into this category generally sink without a trace before anyone can take note. Take Crackdown 2, however. There are technical issues, but look at the art style also:
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There’s a clash of art styles. You have semi-realistism clashing with cartoonish styles. It doesn’t work very well. It’s trying to be like Borderlands, but it’s not. It’s trying to be like Killzone 2, but it’s not that either. What is it? The style doesn’t really communicate very well. Fairly straightforward.

Now that being said, technical graphics do matter. If, for example, a game is pursuing realism but doesn’t have technical graphics to back it up, it fails. It’s kind of like using vector graphics to recreate a realistic chapel: it won’t look very good. If the texturing is bad for a realistic style, it looks bad. If the geometry isn’t detailed enough for a style, it looks bad. The game may not be unplayable, but a similar game with better technical graphics has more immersion than a game with worse technical graphics, where both are trying to be realistic.

So in short, gameplay is very important. There are plenty of examples of games that are very pretty but without good gameplay that failed. And many games have been successful without using technically impressive graphics. However, graphics do matter. Art style is very important for creating an immersive world that agrees with the overall vision. And technical graphics can matter for the art style the developers want to express.

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