Opinion: If You Value Graphics Over Gameplay – You’re An Idiot
Earlier this week, my faith in humanity was weakened a little when I stumbled upon some rather ignorant forum comments about acclaimed indie title Lone Survivor.
Masterminded by the ingenious Jasper Byrne and presented in old-school, side-scrolling 2D, the game is a shining example of substance over style; a wonderful exercise in genuinely imaginative narrative and gameplay that puts both the ‘survival’ and ‘horror’ firmly back into the neglected field of survival-horror.
Still, that hasn’t stopped some expressing indignance or even outright hostility at its rather basic graphics. I’ve read comments dismissing it altogether on the basis of its appearance, proving to me beyond doubt that some gamers – spoiled by modern-day advances in textures, rendering and technical capabilities – are now so shallow in the way they judge any new title, that graphics matter to them more than anything else. In my opinion, however, the misguided remarks of those knocking Lone Survivor for its visuals are far uglier than the game’s retro pixels could ever prove to be.
It all comes down to one crucial, indisputable truth: a game may boast visuals so mind-blowing that they make God himself weep at their creative beauty, but if the title’s controls, mechanics and general playing experience are frustrating and joyless, then the whole thing is nothing more than a shiny pile of dressed-up, gleaming turd.
Remember Final Fantasy XIII? My God it looked incredible. Beautiful scenery. Astonishing detail. And yet somehow all of that seemed rather like sticking lipstick on a pig when you consider that the game consisted of one, long trek down an extended set of corridors, pausing now and again so that you could enjoy the gripping experience of pressing ‘A’ over and over again until something died (together with your love for the series, funnily enough).
But still, that didn’t really matter to a lot of critics and consumers. Because hey – look how stunning those corridors were!
There’s a reason why Final Fantasy fans so-often hark back to the glory days of installments VI and VII, even though those titles now look like blurry, pixelated vomit compared to the glossy splendour of their more fresh-faced brethren. It’s because the overall playing experience of the older games typically had so much more soul: brimming with gripping encounters, intricate battle and character-development systems, and sublime sub-games among the compelling narratives.
Likewise, Resident Evil enthusiasts will tell you that the more polished graphics of episode five hardly make up for the awkward co-op, unimaginative mechanics and lack of real horror throughout. Playing the re-released Resident Evil: Code Veronica X recently, I was struck by just how much more thrilling it was than the last main series release – despite looking so genuinely appalling that my eyes took at least an hour to adjust to its rough-and-ready exterior.
Part of the reason I feel so strongly about this issue is that I spent my formative years playing platformers, puzzlers and adventure games on the humble ZX Spectrum. It was an era when the graphics for these titles were noticeably atrocious even for the time, so it was always crucial to a game’s success that it drew you in, held you in thrall and captivated your imagination simply by the way it played.
Even the 16-bit systems plied their trade with cartoonish, stylized graphics that had little sense of realism or wow-factor, and it was only really when the PlayStation rolled around in the second-half of the 90s that I genuinely found myself blown away by some of the visuals on offer.
Even then, I rapidly realized I’d much rather spend my time playing a shoddy-looking strategy gem like X-Com: Terror From The Deep (and we’re talking months of dedication there), than a stunning but superficial blockbuster. Truly great games have depth that extends far beyond skin-deep polish, no matter how impressive their exterior may be.
In gaming, perhaps more than any other artform, there is a tendency to value new, groundbreaking technology above all else, to the extent that polished graphics often become seen as an essential attribute rather than a welcome bonus. Of course, we’ve advanced far enough in recent years for big-budget companies to receive rightful criticism when the visuals in their game seem outdated and ugly, and in an ideal world we’d consistently get experiences that offer both top graphics and great gameplay.
However, the salient point to bear in mind is that one of these attributes is so much more important than the other. And when titles with incredible graphics and mediocre gameplay continue to be accepted and praised, while those showcasing the opposite are increasingly ignored or side-lined, it makes you question just where the medium as a whole is heading – and where the priorities of gamers truly lie.