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It wouldn’t be fair to blame any layman-of-videogames for taking the image on the left for a vista. Correction:a photograph of a vista. Scour the internet for a high-resolution version of it, or something close enough, and in minutes you’d have a sharp wallpaper to spread across the digital workspace most of us gravitate to when we’re “home”. Take it how you like, but what we have is a still an image, a .jpeg, of the game Flower for the Playstation 3. Try again. Not a flower, not a vista, not a photograph. This isn’t about the art theory of abstraction, though, or how literal of “pipe” this is – I’ll let Magritte and a lot of art history books tell you how treacherous images can be. This is about the affect aesthetics have in modern game design, the interactive images in motion – are they just as guilty? The natural progression of technology in games ramping towards photo realism more and more each year has given space for wondering what it says about the function of the medium. Simply, I’m talking about graphics.
Sound and film reached the same natural conclusion as the audio-visual experience of today’s games. Innovation will come on a conceptual front until the technology behind it changes. Games have this situation of optimization that makes things especially tricky. Sculpting a 3D model for a game is not the same as for an animation. An engine’s performance isn’t as easily controllable as playing a movie file would be, for example. In the worst case scenario, frames will drop, pixels will be jaggy, and playing the role of the player we will weep and moan. Why? Because it might result in our digital self perishing, and us going back to the start screen. What a terrible thing to happen when you were just about to find out if the hero will live to see another day – and of course they will live, you just let them die and brought them back to life! 1-Up, and still so attached to the hero, still so invested in their world. No matter how realistic, it’s not likely you’ll ever meet them in this world. Take Sony’s old words for it, “Live in your world. Play in ours.”
The more we talk about games being like an interactive movie, the more photo realistic they seem to get, and the more complex their stories become. What’s to say for stylized games though? Consider this: how many games can you name that are photo realistic for their era, but don’t have much to any storyline?I asked a group of my artist peers at The Cleveland Institute of Art this the other day, and the only one we could think of in recent memory was Flower. Conversely, the situation is different for games that take a more stylized approach. Not only have they proven to age better visually, but they can be as story driven, or void of it all together.
Peggle and Okami (two very, VERYdifferent games) are not photo-realistic – but that doesn’t mean they fail at conveying significant things to us. In fact, they’re quite exceptional at it. The Zelda series is a nice example because of how many art styles it’s chosen to pursue. Look at the differences between Wind Waker, and Twilight Princess. To a younger audience, Ocarina of Time might even seem to have a visual “flare” to it after a decade. It’d be interesting to see a new gamer try out a classic from the late 90’s and see how they enjoy it, removed from the context of its era.
Some may consider "graphics" a definition of polygon-count and bloom-lighting, but it isn't. It's a tool for servicing a game's visual language, however successful that may turn out to be. Tetris doesn’t need a story, nor does Audiosurf. They also don't need the most technically bar-raising graphics to convey what is significant to those experiences. Beyond all the terminology, can these traits be an “un-suspension” of disbelief? Do our actions always have to make sense beyond pressing the A button and things reacting, when more highly-rendered graphics are in place? Does realism mean story, and style mean play?