I want to talk about this quote from a 2k executive. I’m not going to deconstruct everything wrong with it. RockPaperShotgun did a pretty good job of that already. I’ll also point to Destructoid for a slightly more irreverent take on it. Instead I want to use it as a jumping off point to talk about a closely related and intertwined issue. Visuals are important to video games because they are a visual medium, but fidelity isn’t necessarily important. Whatever visuals you do choose for your game, they create visual expectation.
What do I mean by visual expectation? The visuals of you game create certain expectations in your players based on them. They are the first thing player’s see and the cycle of input and visual response is reinforced every second of play. When it comes to realism it’s always talked about in terms of how something looks when that is really a lesser factor. Instead how something behaves is much more important. The visual expectation dictates the level of interaction and behavior by how something looks. If something physically impossible or materially ludicrous, like daffy ducks beak getting show off and then still talking only when it is reattached, works only because the visuals are coded in an unreality that allow for such behavior. In game terms, it’s why we accept Mario getting stuck on a block when trying to jump, but not a Call of Duty avatar. Jumping in place in a Super Mario Brothers is a standard behavior, in Call of Duty it looks absolutely ridiculous.
Graphics are all about their use and placement. Bad graphics in one game could be boon to another. The unfinished wireframes of characters and environments may look unseemly in a final commercial release, unless that game is Rez and it uses them to its advantage.
It goes beyond some executive making a dumb comment in an interview. It’s how we all think. We keep looking forward to when games will have great works deemed as the A word. But we already have them; they just don’t look like it on first glance. We’ve had great works for decades held back in their esteem and search for meaning by what I assume a lack of technical sophistication. I keep coming back to thinking about Another World in ways I can’t be bothered with most modern games and it was released in 1991. The highly experimental what I can only call Art game, Alter Ego came out in 1986. Even the big well known Blockbusters have their legitimate critical readings. The great ones are more than just fun games, we only recently have learned how or even tried to read them.
Graphics are only as important as what they represent to the larger whole. More photorealistic graphics create a much higher expectation in what is allowable. The more something approaches looking like reality, the more we expect that we are able to do.
Behavior is why I suspect zombies are such a popular enemy right now. Yes, they are a consequence free enemy, but they also have built in behavioral patterns that make sense in current design. They always charge, do not retreat and don’t stop until their dead (again). That does make sense for real human enemies and is rather ridiculous if you ever stop for a second. It’s why even with all its faults I Am Alive was somewhat a revelation for people. The more cartoony or abstract a game then suddenly these problems disappear, because as their visuals are further abstracted so it their behavior.
Many games have been brought up in response to the quote that have created real emotional resonance despite not having photorealistic fidelity, or rather because of it. Proteus, Journey and the like I don’t think would be as great if they were photorealistic. I’m not really asking for much or even saying something that is so revolutionary. All that has to be done is look at what expectations your graphics instills in a player and then have your game match those expectations. Or alter the look so the expectations match what your game can and will deliver. Either one.