Feature: The Devil’s Graphics Card
I’m trying to decide whether being the Devil’s Advocate is a good job. You’ll certainly never be short of work, what with humanity making several million ridiculous statements a day that someone has to defend, and it’ll always be challenging, with rigorous brainstorming sessions being used to find ways to destroy logic and rational thinking. On the down side, I can’t imagine Hell being a healthy working environment and the dress code (barrister’s robe, wig with little red horns) is a bit embarrassing.
On balance, I think I’m going to apply, so here’s my application. Last week the boss of 2K Games, Christoph Hartmann, said the following: ‘Until games are photorealistic, it’ll be very hard to open up new genres… To dramatically change the industry to where we can insert a whole range of emotions, I feel it will only happen when we reach the point that games are photorealistic’.
Naturally, he’s been soundly ticked off for such comments by anyone whose ever played a game with even a smidgen of emotional depth, with trillionaire pickaxe tycoon Notch among the crowds of critics. I’m one of them – emotion is conveyed through art design, mechanics and writing far more so than through raw visual fidelity – but many, many others have already written that particular feature for me. So if you’ll just let me grab my robe and horned wig, I’ll jump onto Mr Hartmann’s side for the moment. What can better graphics do for games?
A Sense of Scale
We’re used to immense visuals these days, from the fury of some of Modern Warfare’s set-pieces to Nathan Drake’s CPU-straining escapades on the PS3, and triple-A developers are only going to crank up the epic-o-meter as they get hold of new graphics hardware. Scale is one area where clever art design and visual trickery can only get you so far with outright technical horsepower doing the rest. Don’t get me wrong, the battles in Shogun: Total War were brilliant for their time, but Shogun 2 conveys the size of armed conflict between two armies that much better by dint of its superior graphics. I don’t doubt that many veterans prefer some of the mechanics of the original game, but would they prefer those 2D sprites for any reason other than nostalgia?
Let’s look at another series: Tomb Raider. Both 1997′s Tomb Raider II and the most recent entry in the series, Tomb Raider: Underworld from 2008, feature levels with expansive underwater environments. Tomb Raider II’s ‘Forty Fathoms’ is brilliantly atmospheric, working well with the limitations of the hardware to create a hideously dark and oppressive opening to Lara’s exploration of a sunken cruise liner. Underworld goes in the other direction, choosing visual shock-and-awe over seabed claustrophobia. The game’s first level is spectacular: a dive from the sunlit surface of the Mediterranean right down to the depths, with huge draw distances and colossal submerged architecture coming together to create a stunning scene that’s matched, perhaps even bettered by another underwater segment later on.
Both games, split by more than a decade, do brilliant things with very different hardware, getting the absolute best out of what is available – but the sheer scale of Underworld shows that improving graphics can create ever more enormous visual experiences. Getting a player to feel amazed at your game might not be as hard as getting them to feel sympathy for a character or engagement with an important idea, but it’s still an emotional response that ever more powerful graphics technology can only strengthen.
Bring Me That Horizon
If there’s one type of game setting that benefits from scale, it’s open worlds. In Morrowind – which, after last week, I am now banning all mention of in this column for at least a month – the player is greeted by a misty coastal scene. Buildings, trees and fantastical creatures gradually hove into view, but soon enough it becomes clear that the whole world is fairly misty so that the engine doesn’t have to render too many objects. Still, mist suits the place perfectly and is clearly evocative when used in the right places.
In Oblivion and Fallout 3, however, Bethesda made the most of the next-gen jump in graphics power. They start the player off in a sewer system and a nuclear bunker for the tutorials. You exit through the final door to the outside world and POW! The dev team punches you in the eyes with their draw distances whilst screaming ‘LOOK AT ALL THE STUFF!” There’s more ‘world’ than you could ever hope to explore, which only encourages you to do just that.
Open worlds need to keep some things hidden, the little nooks and crannies and secret places that make them real. They need to know when to keep the environment small and enclosed, when to use narrow little streets rather than wide open boulevards.Older games can do this just as well as new ones, but it’s in those moments when you crest the hill and see a whole world spill out before you that games like Skyrim and Red Dead Redemption show just what improving technology can do.
Under the Microscope
Frankly, I’m not going to get this job with Lucifer, Beelzebub and Sons if I maintain that graphics can only give the most enormous games even more enormousness, so I need to zoom in a bit. After all, the rest of Hartmann’s words addressed the issue on a smaller scale, discussing nuanced emotion rather than grand sweeps. His chosen example: ‘Recreating a Mission Impossible experience in gaming is easy; recreating emotions in Brokeback Mountain is going to be tough’.
There’s an easy counter to the argument that photorealism will make this tough task easier – gaming is not primarily a visual medium, it’s an interactive one. There’s no point having Oscar-worthy character acting in your game if it’s only in a cutscene, or if the gameplay isn’t up to scratch. Nonetheless, visuals are still a hugely important part of gaming (and I wouldn’t mind getting to the interview stage of the application process), so how about this: photorealism could open up new genres and it could bring change to the industry.
Actually, I’m going to go all out: it will do those things. Then again, the growing experimentation with mechanics, the increasing understanding of how gameplay and narrative act together and the pursuit of ever-deeper levels of interactivity will do much, much more than photorealism ever will.
Devil’s Advocate? Oh, I never really wanted the job. The office is right by the fires of damnation and it doesn’t even have air-con.