Like the girl from mawkish teen drama She’s All That after she scrubs up a bit and loses the dorky glasses, videogames have never looked better. With all the technical might of current-generation consoles, games are capable of looking pretty spectacular, and many recent games are a joy to behold. Even though I’ve not yet played it, the alien invasion shooter Crysis 2 is so dazzlingly beautiful I would be content to just sit and watch someone else play it as the graphics hump my eyeballs. Similarly, while the Assassin’s Creed games have started to become a little tiresome in their refusal to innovate, every frame is crammed with so much stunningly-realised period detail that it’s hard to take your eyes off every new entry in the series.
Surely we must be approaching some kind of singularity with game graphics, because I’m not sure how much better they can get. When you go through a level of Uncharted 3 and the desert landscapes look so beautiful it’s as if the developers rendered individual grains of sand, you wonder how much game graphics could realistically be improved. That said, it’s an unfortunate truism of gaming that three-dimensional graphics do not age well, as a trip to 1997 will verify.
So the current drive towards having better and better graphics, which has taken on the aggression and militancy of an arms race, seems a little futile. Because these advancements come at such a staggering pace, today’s sparkling graphical innovations are tomorrow’s crude, mud-stained visual atrocities. Even if you look back at videogames from the not-too distant past, some of the characters are shimmying polygonal monstrosities of such repugnance they look like the product of generations of inbreeding.
The great irony is that chasing the metaphorical motorized rabbit around the figurative racecourse of graphical progress is unlikely to make videogames much better. Indeed, in some games you feel like the impressive visuals have come at the cost of the overall experience. Killzone 3, for example, is absolutely glorious to look at, but the shooting and story feel very hollow: the gameplay is merely functional and the dialogue sounds like it was written on the back of a napkin in crayon. Killzone 3 actually started to annoy me when it became clear the game was just a showcase for the graphical technology; the reload animations were so long and over-elaborate that it felt like the game was screaming, Look at how beautiful this all is! Admire every single pixel in detail forever! A sneaking feeling crept in that the graphics were where all the time and money had gone, with little left in the budget afterwards to make an interesting game.
This is what I mean about further graphical advancements being unlikely to improve games in any meaningful way. It’s the reason why Battlefield 3 looks so good it could have been painted by a Dutch Master but in terms of gameplay it’s the same tired, mundane modern shooter we’ve been playing for the past five years. If all the effort spent developing lush graphics were used instead to work on the game mechanics or the writing and story, I think we might see some better games. The current state of game graphics means that innovation in this field is becoming increasingly meaningless when the game experience behind the make-up and eyeliner doesn’t hold up. The often cartoonish quality of graphics in past gaming generations means they have retained a certain charm, and more importantly, the games themselves remain incredibly playable. Why do you think Nintendo have recently returned to putting Mario in two dimensions, with only the smallest of cosmetic additions, if not because they realize the core experience of playing a Mario game is near-perfect and the graphics should simply make it appear passable to our eyes?
Don’t get me wrong; it’s important to have good-looking games. I’m not saying we can toss aside the graphical gauntlet and start throwing up the mission accomplished banners. Improvements in graphics will always be required, but only up to a point. Making games more realistic is also not the only direction that graphics should be taken in, either. The mournful monochromatic misery platformer Limbo has one of the best visual aesthetics in any game of the past few years, but the graphical power behind it wasn’t exactly gargantuan. Limbo’s somber, eerie visual style took a less-is-more approach in terms of graphics, but it is one of the most compelling visions of a game world I’ve seen in a while, mirroring the fearful, desolate tone of the game’s story. Borderlands, similarly, used an angular, line-drawn aesthetic to accentuate its bombastic, tongue-in-cheek feel.
It would be nice to see more games like those two, which put graphics at the service of the gameplay, rather than at its cost. The weird thing is that as more games sacrifice strong gameplay for stunning visuals, those stunning visuals become more and more necessary, because the only way you’ll get people to tolerate lackluster game experiences is with pretty shining lights and deliciously-detailed textures. You can’t polish a turd, but you can throw glitter on it.