Here, let me put my head on the chopping block: I think graphics are incredibly important in videogames.

Before the axe falls, however, let me explain my reasoning.

First and foremost, good graphics – even excellent, bar-raising ones – will not save a bad game from being a bad game. Gothic 3, I’m looking at you; it doesn’t matter how much you tart up a whore, she will still be a whore. Unless you tarted her up as a a maid or Lady Liberty or something and she actually became one of those and ceased in her whoring, then she’d be something different – but if the shifts in appearance are merely cosmetic, then she’s still a whore. Similarly, dressing up a terrible game in the trappings of an excellent game will not make it an excellent game.

Hell, games are even disparaged for succeeding on account of being attractive and not a whole lot else – because the worst thing in the world is something that is vile and terrible that’s pleasant to look at, isn’t it? There’s something incredibly offensive about the idea of Hitler having actually been a beautiful, elegant, but coyly attractive woman.

Further, it isn’t just the graphical implementations of a game that make it beautiful and stunning; there have been many games that, while attractive and easy on the eyes, are nonetheless visually awful. East India Company, I’m looking at you – you may have been optically charming, but boy, did your interface and overall design suck.

That last bit – the design part – is where the importance comes in, and is vastly more important to me than how realistically hair follicles sway about in the setting sun. Are those human-tendrils drifting about framed by golden rays, or are they just kind of hanging around attracting computerized ions? Do the hairs caress the face of the avatar, speaking to some higher purpose, or are they merely .. just there, popping around at random?

Crysis is an excellent example of a game that succeeds on all graphical measures – as well as gameplay ones. The twisted contortions of a North Korean’s (is it more PC to just say, “Korean”?) face as you strangle him show a weird, oxymoronic care and love to design, as well as the interface encasing your visual field. The explosions, even though developed years ago now, remain among the most realistic I’ve ever seen, demonstrate not only enormous technical accomplishment on behalf of Crytek but also of their understanding of aesthetics. From a design point of view, trucks and men under grenades do not just explode without purpose – each injection of fire-red and burning-flesh orange into the visual field bring balance with them, highlight something, or merely contrast the calm blue of the sea and verdant green of the jungle.

Crysis would still be a good game if the graphical slate was wiped clean and replaced with primary colors and black-and-white smoke from the explosions – but it wouldn’t be a great game. Nomad’s often-desperate leaps from cover object to cover object to unfortunate North Korean would still be thrilling, and that first battle with the nano-suited guys would still be harrowing and demanding of the player. But really, would it be so compelling if it didn’t look as .. well, as bloody real as it does?

I don’t think so. Fallout 3 is a pretty good example of a graphically excellent but blandly-designed game; repetitive, post-apocalypse-red-and-orange environments, generic hills, and childishly violent mutant-man-explosions are pretty for awhile, but certainly got boring. The HUD, Pip-Boy or whatever Bethesda called it, was a nightmare of utility; while the aesthetic matched that of the yesterday-technology so prevalent in the game and looked nice, it was a nightmarish bore to use and the ion-green-refresh stuff became more of a hindrance than a utility, distracting from the damn thing’s purpose: to read stuff about the game. Design aesthetics, then, are about more than just looking good: there should be an actual /purpose/ to each design choice, and this purpose should innately reflect itself in the game.

A game doesn’t need, by any means, to be on the cutting edge of graphics technology. World of Warcraft certainly wasn’t, but it used low polygon counts and a dated engine to its advantage – Blizzard built a game that would run on damn near any computer, and would almost always look at least “alright” while doing so. But WoW’s beauty wasn’t in its textures – its beauty resided, and even resides, in superb color choice and shape implementation. Every set piece and costume item accomplishes something; it draws attention to an important area, lightens a dark-and-evil Whenever playing WoW, it was almost always painfully apparent to me that the guys that designed the game managed to get way further through design school than I ever did.

That’s part of my problem, I think – I was a design student. It taught me a love for aesthetics, an adoration for stuff that looked good, and that often, simple things have the most visual appeal. Right now, I’m playing two games; Heroes of Newerth, and Champions Online. While both are elegantly attractive, I’ll return to why the latter is successful shortly. Heroes of Newerth, like World of Warcraft, makes use of a dated graphical engine. In fact, it looks, at best, like a souped-up version of Warcraft III. Given that WCIII is like, I don’t know, almost a decade old or something, it’s hardly surprising that S2 games managed this – but what /is/ impressive is that they managed to retain Blizzard-level design.

Each of the almost-60 characters has a unique profile and color set, similar to the classes of Team Fortress 2; great care has gone into ensuring that each look not only unique, but are immediately identifiable when viewed by an experienced player for a nanosecond. Even when two full teams of five converge and spells begin flying, the difficulty is never in figuring out which blob of polygons is which character, and this holds true for their skills, too. Rather, the difficulty comes in figuring out how the hell to survive and maybe just maybe kill the enemy motherfuckers – and really, shouldn’t that /always/ be the difficulty in a game? Sure, part of this is because each character has, on average, only two activated skills that need a graphical implementation – but still, that’s almost 120 fully differentiated bits that, at any given time, are immediately recognizable not merely as specific spells, but of also belonging to specific characters.

So – to present a question. Would Heroes of Newerth – or even Team Fortress 2 – be the game that they are without having had the benefit of incredibly talented design teams? I genuinely doubt it; one of TF2’s biggest selling points (at least for me) was the extraordinarily individualistic character design and even the amount of personality that went into each of the classes. It’s pretty much impossible to mistake the smug-bastard expression of the Scout – and even the smug-bastard way he swings his bat – to the belligerently maniacal laughter and minigun of the Heavy. These are the sorts of things that I mean by bits of design that actually /do/ something – every object in the TF2 world was developed to facilitate an ease of immediate comprehension that shames almost any other FPS-sort of game around.

I think a game that pretty much everybody in the world thought was awesome was Portal. Really, I’ve never seen a game sweep the gaming world in such a fashion – can any of us nerds hear “Still Alive” and not grin like a new father holding his newborn for the first time as if to say, “Look at how awesome this is!” Now – would Portal have even been able to /function/ without high-level design aesthetics? Would the heart cube have been half as charming if it was a mere cube, rendered grey-and-white with a heart? Would it have been nearly as panic-inducing had the final conveyor belt leading to the “cake” not looked and felt convincing? I do not think so.

Great design and well-executed visuals permit gamers to become more engrossed and, to use the buzz word, immersed in the game world. No longer are we required to imagine that we’re a chainsaw-swinging psychopath, because we can, through visual trickery and cleverness, actually be that chainsaw-wielding psychopath. This is not to say that things have to look real; Team Fortress 2 hardly looks like real-life – but just the same, everything meshes so well together that it feels like we really are a cartoon soldier rocket-jumping our way to victory.

To return: I’m playing Champions Online at the moment, and find myself compelled to continue playing, for more than any other reason, because everything looks so godamn wonderful. Nothing actually looks real, not the way Crysis’ Korean-jungle-valley-forests-at-sunset looked real – everything looks like a damn cartoon! But a wonderfully rendered and thoughtfully implemented cartoon, with just enough detail to be, inexplicably, immersive.

And it’s a weird feeling to feel immersed in a world of repressed-homosexuality supermen, fascist-fuck-half-man-soldiers, and cyborg-ninjas. The last, incidentally, is what my character is. One of the choices I found most initially jarring was this little black “horizon” line that appears on the exterior edge of most surfaces. It’s sort of like the kind of drawings us average dudes make – every object has a clear outline. This is why most of us can’t draw a nose or a hand for the life of us – these things are defined by their shadows, not their outlines.

Yet, somehow, the outlining in Champions Online works beautifully, drawing attention to game objects and making them stand out in contrast to one another, differentiating one building from the next, and even allowing giant lightbulbs to exist without looking like giant polygons. That, really, is the huge accomplishment of the system – the game doesn’t look, generally, like a computer game. It looks like a comic book! – and this is exactly why, on a visual level, the game succeeds so well. Cryptic knew exactly what aesthetic they wanted, and the designers followed up on this beautifully.

This – an actual /knowing/ of what the overall aesthetic of a game should be – is what makes or breaks a game for me. Knowing it alone isn’t nearly enough – the designers must also be able to determine if the design actually /works/, as often – like with Fallout 3 – I find that it does not. Heroes of Newerth, World of Warcraft, and Crysis have something in common – each game knows exactly how it wants to look, and knows that the idea works.

As said earlier, wonderful graphics cannot make a terrible game a great game – but they can make it an experience worth having. I’ve found that, over the years, far too many gaming writers just love to shit all over graphical considerations for games, stating the now-cliched idea of them not being important and don’t make up for bad gameplay. We know that. Everybody knows that. But to push them to auxiliary considerations so frequently is madness – if image quality isn’t important, why aren’t ‘Graphics-Aren’t-Important’ folks still using VHS? Fallacious argument, to be sure – but I feel it makes my point, if one assumes that all new films are available in VHS as well as DVD and whatever other new-fangled formats are out now.

What I will say is this: terrible graphics, design, and overall aesthetics will, to me, ruin an otherwise good game. I thought that the newly-released indie title AI Wars was a fascinating concept – but absolutely terrible visuals made the game such a chore to play that I just couldn’t get into it. Similarly, the still-in-beta Fallen Earth had such muddied and dated graphics that, even if the game was good (it was mediocre at best, alas) on all other counts, I just couldn’t have taken it seriously. Partially, this is because I spent a thousand fucking dollars a year ago, and I want to feel like I’m getting value out of that investment and pushing the old rig as far as she’ll go.

More than that, however, its because I feel that game developers that don’t hire talented designers simply do no respect gamers. If your interface is a chore to navigate and actually makes the game harder than intended, you’re doing something wrong. If a player cannot look on-screen and immediately identify everything he ought to be able to, you’re doing something wrong. If, at least once in awhile, a player does not stop and stare in wonder and awe at a clever bit of scenery, charming character design, or a humorous sign, then your game has aesthetically failed.

Good design is eternal, and can elevate games to legendary status. Poorly designed and implemented games are temporary and illusory, even if they sell well. Look back on your favorite games of times’ past, and ask yourself: how many of them are poorly designed? If you’re anything like me, then that number is very low indeed.

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Comments

  1. Daric on 10.18.2009

    I think you are setting standards that you can’t really back up objectively. Fallout 3 has a huge following, including myself. I loved almost every aspect of that game. Fallen Earth has a following, including me, and may very well be successful enough to run for a while. WAR, which you did not mention but had a ridiculous amount of issues, is still online. While the player base isn’t humongous, it has managed to hold on to enough players to maintain stability.

    You are arguing from a subjective standpoint which is not generalizable. You even say, ” Partially, this is because I spent a thousand fucking dollars a year ago, and I want to feel like I’m getting value out of that investment and pushing the old rig as far as she’ll go.” Many of us didn’t spend $1000 a year ago, and aren’t getting the most out of a graphically amazing game. And your VHS argument – of course it is a fallacy, which you acknowledge, but then you attempt to put a metric on it by creating a scenario which does not exist and therefore can’t actually be tested.

    You also conveniently leave out other video games – what about the Nintendo DS? The most popular handheld gaming device on the world market has substantially less good looking graphics than its PSP alternative – yet many of the games from that system reach heights of incredible popularity. Off the top of my head – Final Fantasy Tactics Advance II, Advanced Wars, that Attorney game, that detective game, that IQ game – if graphics were really such a hugely necessary function of successful gaming, would the DS have achieved such marketability as well as popular game shares?

    What about other games – StarCraft, Diablo II – still both remarkably popular. By today’s standards, relatively ugly games. We both know somebody who won’t play the game because of its look – but still Blizzard sells the Battlechest for StarCraft, still it is purchased and played tournament-style in Korea.

    There is a market for older games – XBOX, Playstation and the Wii have shown that with the sales of arcade-style games, or older 2d games. Metal Slug, arguably not a beautiful side scrolling 2d game, still gets released with relatively high volumes of sales.

    Interface and graphics are not the end-all be-all of game design. If WoW hadn’t allowed modders to come in and modify it’s GUI, would it have been as popular? Yes, I think it would have been. It matched up on any number of other great features, but initially had a pretty lousy GUI. Would that have stopped people from playing it? I am curious, with their development of a mass appeal game, how common mods are for various populations within WoW. Their interface has gotten substantially better, but even in the past, would players have continued playing it?

    What I am basically saying here is that you’re making an argument based on subjective measures which may or may not appeal to a wider audience depending on genre, the person playing the game, interest in the platform, etc – would Dwarf Fortress have gained the small but strong following it has without people being able to push aside graphical/interface qualities? What about Plants v. Zombies, which is still purchased, played and replayed? Mario-Kart for the Wii? Smash Brothers for the Wii? Your argument comes off as being elitist in ways, arguing as if to say that your standard of what makes a good game is the standard, and I don’t see that measuring up in the gaming world at large. To this day I still want to see a new top-down, 2d fighter plane game that is fun to play because good lord did I love those when I was a kid. People like what they like, and while there are a good amount of people who would like to see great graphics, there are still plenty who just want to see a good game in general.

  2. d4niel on 10.18.2009

    Ugh, Chrome ate half of my first reply. Wonderful. Anyway,

    You’re absolutely right in that I’m using purely subjective measures in this piece. This, actually, is my entire focus – although the theory isn’t quite ready for writing on yet, I believe that game criticism is fundamentally subjective, and must be in order for it to fulfill its purpose. This is because I find that the single most important aspect of any game is the experience of the player, whether that player is the critic or the consumer, and to attempt to separate this experience from the game rejects the entire point of gaming. When listening to an album, you and I hear the exact same songs. The same is true for films and books. Sure, we bring different things to the table, but the input on behalf of the media is identical (assuming we’re both using legal copies). However, this isn’t generally true with games, especially in open-world styled games like Fallout 3. Hell, I never even bothered with the main campaign and ran around the world shooting zombies, and I know you played the storyline – out experiences were radically different, and if I’m to do any justice to the game, this must be acknowledged. Thus, its possible for me to examine a game according to my experience with it; even were I to spend a month trying to dig into every crevice of the world of Fallout 3, my experience with it – as a result of having different experience levels, weapons, etc. – would be different than any other player’s.

    You are trying to use objective measures to a field that, I feel, cannot be objective. The very nature of criticism depends on the critic having previous experience with other elements in the field they are concerned with, and what they are or are not familiar with will shape how they view something new. Can one really objectively remove themselves from what they know about a field to look to something new? If so, then how are they to examine how the piece forwards or detracts from the medium, or speak on how it is significant?

    I’m not sure that it’s fair to say I “conveniently left out other games,” particularly given your examples – the focus of 40oz is primarily PC games, and I play almost exclusively PC games and thus, I can’t really effectively write about non-PC games. Further, this piece was already 2,000 words – far longer than than most people will bother to read as-is, and to include every hypothetical would fill hundreds of pages. As with any other essay, examples are chosen based on the strength the writer feels they will bring to the argument – thus, I made a few selections, and left it at that.

    Although it may have been a problem on my part, I feel that you somewhat missed the point of this piece. The title is slightly misleading, and was meant to be provocative – the focus here wasn’t on cutting-edge, realistic-looking graphics, or beautiful scenery, or even awesome-looking character models. It was about the overall visual design of games in general, although the examples I chose mostly succeed on all counts. Interestingly, I’d argue most of the games that you mentioned – Mario Kart (and pretty much any other Nintendo-developed game), Plants vs. Zombis, Diablo II/Starcraft, Advanced Wars, and so on – are all remarkably well-designed games. For that matter, I found the Metal Slug series to be among the most beautifully-animated 2d games I’ve ever seen, easily deserving to be among the ranks of Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. I’d be curious to hear your argument on how Metal Slug was a poorly designed and not-beautiful game.

    Look to reviews of games like Plants vs. Zombies and Smash Brothers; while they’re likely to acknowledge that neither game is of cutting-edge graphics, they’ll likely all say that the games look damn good and charming – and that the design works very well. (To quote the oft-cited Kieron Gillen: “Everything about this gorgeous cuddle of a game is a daft pun or visual gag.”[http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2009/05/05/the-plants-vs-zombies-review/]) This speaks to what I was getting at with functional design; at any given time during Smash Brothers, an experienced player can immediately identify, without ambiguity, what’s going on in the game world. What ability the enemy is charging, what projectile is heading your way, which bastard Pokemon came out of the Pokeball. This ease-of-understanding is not a goal unto itself – the ease-of-understanding removes the interpretative layer from the player, and leaves them responsible only to respond, in the game world, to it.

    Again: the point isn’t great graphics for the sake of looking pretty – it’s great /design/ for the sake of aesthetics and adding to gameplay. If the visuals of a game do not forward gameplay, then they have failed – even if they are beautiful. This is why I chose the examples that I did – they’re all beautiful in their own way, but they also embrace the games they’re found in and add to them. I mentioned Fallout 3 because I hated the item/stat/etc interface – it looked cool, but moved clunkily and I often felt like I was struggling with it more than it was helping me understand the game. The VATS thing, while certainly often awesome-looking, did more to slow the game down for me than anything else after the initial glee of shooting off arms grew dim. After awhile, I just wanted to kill the damn thing, not watch it slowly and agonizingly die from a shotgun-blast to the leg – but in order to effectively move through the game, I more or less had to use VATS to maintain optimal effeciency in monster-slaying. Again, subjective, but I didn’t find it to my taste.

  3. Daric on 10.18.2009

    I think it is fair to say you conveniently left them out – regardless of whether or not the blog here is dedicated to PC or other games, this particular issue is met in every gaming market. When you leave out particular items which may not work well for your argument’s advantage, you have conveniently left out other facts, especially with a topic such as this which is trying to generalize subjective measures.

    Regardless of media, opinions and observations of any form are wide and varied. The experiences you list with music or reading are no different from video games, otherwise you would not have the great debates as to the meaning of lyrics, the images generated by sound or the arguments about plot that you see in the realms of critique and debate on those issues. The game is being presented in the same medium – you are just taking a different experience. All the devices are there – how you interact, how you target – your review of the game could be just as applicable to my playing as it would be to anybody else’s. You choose to bring the subjective measures in, you choose to decide which are more important features to review. Our experiences of music or reading can be as radically different as our experiences playing a game – in pronunciation of words, in interpretation of feelings, in an imagined landscape of fictional experience.

    I played Fallout 3 – I found the Pip Boy charming and neat. I don’t recall being frustrated with it, and thought it was an interesting part of an immersive game. If you are focusing not on just graphics but overall design, you have to acknowledge that your focus on VATs and the Pip Boy are not generalizeable to everybody’s experience, and therefore isn’t a reliable unit of measure by which to size up the game.

    Again, in your response, you hint again at elitism. “This speaks to what I was getting at with functional design; at any given time during Smash Brothers, an experienced player can immediately identify, without ambiguity, what’s going on in the game world.” Are the vast majority of people reading your review of a freshly released Smash Brothers going to be experienced gamers? The vast majority of players are casual gamers, are they not? Taking that into consideration – will all of them be able to see the elements you are looking at? Take for example any number of people who come over to my house and may play Smash Bros or Mario Kart – they may have played it before, but they have no idea that when a POW hits in MK you can jump to avoid it – they may not even know that you could jump to begin with. What you seem to be saying here is that there is a segment of people who appreciate aspects of games, and it is these people who for some reason should determine how a game functions and is designed.

    Again I return to WoW – it’s UI was awful. Personally, I couldn’t play WoW effectively with the original UI. Yet it was a game that had mass appeal, it was a game which had an immense amount of casual players and a smaller population of hardcore players. Blizzard didn’t design a game to appeal only to one group of people – they made a UI that could be understood and used by a vast array of people. To many it may have been perfectly fine – were I to review WoW with a heavy bias for design, I would have mentioned that the UI was crap, with mods being necessary to make the game playable (I honestly felt this way throughout most of my WoW experience). That is a legitimate concern to me and others who were in a similar situation. It was not a legitimate concern to anybody who thought WoW’s UI was working as intended XD.

    You cannot remove subjectivity from nearly any experience. That is ultimately true – objectivity is merely a living fiction that some of us chase with regards to our fields. However, with acknowledging subjectivity so too comes the acknowledgement of your limitations. Your view is limited, not generalizable. You cannot generalize your experience to mine, you cannot tell me what is important about a game. You can write a review about a game which focuses on experience through design/graphics, but I will read it, not be affected, and move on finding something that tells me about a game in terms that I care about.

    Using the example you choose to focus on at the end of your response, Fallout 3 – you did not need VATS to get through the entire game. In fact, I played the first part of the game having no idea that VATS existed, or once I realized it existed, how it functioned. Once I realized what I had been missing, I loved the element. Arguing that a game design must have necessary functional representations within the structure of the game isn’t really fair because game features, like VATS, weren’t meant to drive the gameplay forward. It’s just a neat thing you can do. Even in the original Fallout games, VATS existed but wasn’t really essential – it was an added thing you could do and use AP on during fights. Neat, not necessary. In fact, in Fallout 3 – when you are out of AP you can’t even use VATS, which would seem to indicate that using VATS as a measure of whether the game is good or not unfairly taints your review, especially if you are regarding it as something which should drive the gameplay forward. VATS was not an essential part of the game, but it was a neat part of the game which people could act on if they really wanted to use it.

    Games of any sort are enjoyed for any number of reasons. You acknowledge your subjectivity, but make such grandstanding remarks as, “If the visuals of a game do not forward gameplay, then they have failed – even if they are beautiful.” Ideas such as this cannot be backed up subjectively in a generalizable way. This is my issue with your argument – the inherent subjectivity is fine, but the idea that through subjectivity you can fairly make a statement like the one quoted above would likely not be vetted from a generalizable, statistical sampling of the entire gaming population. When you make general remarks on what elements of gameplay are more or less important, or even essential, measures of objectivity are the only verifiable methods through which to back up and represent that view as realistic. Otherwise, it’s just your word versus somebody else’s.

  4. d4niel on 10.18.2009

    I’m not exactly sure how you would have me proceed then, Daric – as I said, I simply cannot address the visual elements of every game that is and has been for obvious reasons. You’d have been more effective had you instead mentioned that I “conveniently left out” other PC games that follow what you had in mind as, like I said, this is a PC-focused blog. As my interest was in games that actually met some of the criteria I set forth, I wasn’t terribly interested in exploring games that did not; I’m not sure why following a set path ignores, er, “facts.” Finally, “left them out” kind of implies that it was intentional. I made mention of games that I thought succeeded on specific counts and some that failed on some counts. Again, if the focus of the piece was games that actually succeeded on this basis, why would I give equal time and space to games that failed? This isn’t an academic essay; it’s an opinion piece, as I made pretty clear throughout.

    Ah, well, to avoid accusations of elitism I must turn to abstractions. Think of it like this, then; does a game make it easy to immediately understand what is going on in the game world, or is there an extra layer of interpretation required? Would a new player understand something is a threat, why, and how to counter it, or would it require delving into the manual and in-game FAQ system? Does the game, in general, facilitate play through its interface and overall design, or does it make the game more difficult? I used the example I did due to common ground; I think you’re looking for elitism where it is not. I am not at all understanding why “ease of understanding” translates into “Only higher-skilled players need apply/appreciate,” as even a new player to the Smash Brothers franchise will at least have a basic understanding of what is happening at all times. (Barring when the camera zooms out too far, ofc.)

    “What you seem to be saying here is that there is a segment of people who appreciate aspects of games, and it is these people who for some reason should determine how a game functions and is designed.”
    …well, I’d imagine most game developers aren’t writing massive story arcs for the sort of players that skip all plot segments of games in lieu of action, and most developers aren’t building elaborate crafting systems for players with no interest in crafting. I’d guess that not all aspects of all games are designed for all players to enjoy and appreciate; not every gamer is the same, and if a game is to appeal to many gamers, there must be many different things worth appreciating. However, as I said in the OP, good design is universal – both the novice and the expert can appreciate when what a game is trying to tell you is clear and easy to understand, and both can become equally as frustrated when a game fails in effectively showing them what’s going on. Top-tier graphics, surely, aren’t meant for everybody – they’re meant for people with top-end systems. There isn’t really a way around this – the PC that I have sitting idle in my closet simply cannot run Crysis, and it would be silly of Crytek to dumb their engine down enough to run on the old PC when one of their focuses /was/ cutting-edge graphics.

    Here’s the thing with all reviews and criticism of any field: it’s always going to be “your word versus somebody else’s.” Just in the context of this article, we both have clearly different opinions on the successes and failings of Fallout 3 – and neither of us are wrong. In that sense, I’m not writing, thinking, and publishing specifically for you – nor any specific individual, as I cannot know their tastes. Rock, Paper, Shotgun is a personal favorite of mine due to the admitted subjectivity of their work – but as it happens, I find I share similar tastes rather often with many of their writers. Similarly, you may have other gaming writers that may or may not strive towards objectivity in their writing, and you’ve found you share similar tastes with them – so when they say a game is good, it’s pretty likely that you’re going to like it, too. This is a good thing, and is, I believe, why there are such huge quantities of critics with hugely varied voices.

    Part of the purpose of these [relatively] early writings on theory and opinion are to establish the methods by which I, as an individual, look at games. This piece in particular should tell people that, well, I find graphics and design to be important. If a new or returning reader does not, then they should take this piece and immediately understand that we do not have a parallel here – no individual writer could ever cater to the wants and hopes of all readers, and I’m certainly not interested in trying. If readers come upon 40oz and share my views, then they may come back and continue to read 40oz. If not, they’ll move along, similar to how ign.com, RPS, Gamasutra and so on function.

    Just the same, I’m not sure that you can argue that anybody actually prefers poorly designed games (from a strictly visual sense) over very well designed games. Sure, enjoyment of actual gameplay may influence whether or not we play those games, and you and I will both have different opinions on what actually constitutes good design. We may also even disagree on just how important, in the overall scheme of the game, design is – you and I clearly place different values on it. But as you’ve hinted towards in your complaints with WoW, design, at least on some level, IS important to you. You clearly still played the game (albeit with the help of addons), but still acknowledged struggling with the interface. I’d be surprised, however, if you told me you found the design of the overall world – the character models, Azeroth, specific dungeons – to be terrible, however.

    Given that this piece was quite clearly (at least, it should have been) an opinion piece, I believe that I can, comfortably, develop a system I will follow and judge games based on the merits established therein. (see http://www.40oz1game.com/2009/10/a-theory-of-game-metrics/ for an example of this type of attempt.) This is what most critics, whether videogame, film, or print, do. Most criticism fields don’t follow the /same/ system, necessarily, but they generally have a system of their own (even if, as with RPS, it is non-formal). If calling a game a failure for meeting what is clearly a subjective measure is somehow grandstanding then, well, so be it. I’ll have to jump on a thesaurus and edit that sentence to cull the offensiveness of “fail.”

  5. Daric on 10.18.2009

    “I think graphics are incredibly important in videogames.”

    That’s a general statement. You didn’t specify that we are looking specifically at PC games. The rest of your article, which isn’t a review of a specific game, uses language such as “games,” indicating that you are talking about a wide variety of games, not specifically PC. The “criteria” you set forth was not PC specific, though the games you mentioned were. If your subjective “metric” isn’t applicable to videogames as a general rule, then it becomes incredibly limited in scope, further limiting its usefulness. Since videogames beyond simply PC games follow similar ideas of design – the PS3 being capable of producing graphically beautiful games, and all games requiring an interface/design features to make them operate, I fail to see how bringing them into the discussion isn’t a valid argument. If your metric can’t be used to contend with these other games, then it highlights yet another issue of limitation. What is it about DS, console and other such games would prohibit your metric from being applied to them which would otherwise leave them out of this conversation?

    “Again, if the focus of the piece was games that actually succeeded on this basis, why would I give equal time and space to games that failed?”

    You keep changing what this article is about – is it about creating and explaining a metric? Is it about PC games and this metric? Is it about games that succeeded because of this metric? Is it about graphics being “super-important?” You wrote an entire piece about a metric, about how you gauge success/failure – if you can’t demonstrate how this metric is capable of measuring failure/success, you are eliminating the credibility you are otherwise attempting to generate.

    As to elitism – I brought it up because of your language directly. You twice indicated that your position was brought about because you either spent money in order to access better graphics or inexperienced players being outside of your considerations. By using this language, you express specifically what you are looking at – people who have the money to buy nice systems and “experienced” gamers, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Beyond any of that, to your “abstractions” (which are irrelevant to any argument I made regarding elitism) all I can say is that in any game which does not offer a walk-through tutorial as part of the first time playing, no, there is nothing in the gaming environment which any player can inherently assume is dangerous without otherwise being told. Unless a player is familiar with the environment, they have to learn control, habits, and practices through playing. Some of these may not be easily learned, and may take somebody telling them how it works in order to play out. I don’t think I’m looking for elitism, I think it more likely you just didn’t notice it as being part of your normal opinion. Sometimes the best observers of the self are not within but without.

    As far as the rest – blah blah, subjective measures. We’ve already covered this, and we don’t disagree – you are more than capable of establishing measures by which to define good or bad games. This article reads like an it’s making an argument that game design is key in defining whether a game succeeds/fails. Since you didn’t qualify your article by indicating that it was designed to define your metric system, there is no reason I would have assumed it was anything than what it appeared to be: an article which criticizes games as being good or bad based on a subjective measure but doesn’t necessarily hold up beyond your own perspective. You in fact end the article asking your reader to look back at their past games, indicating to me, a reader, that you are looking to generalize your position past subjective measures. Since you asked us to participate, I feel as though I can, comfortably, argue against generalizing that position to my view.

    Also, please don’t mis-characterize my arguments for convenience sake XD. “Just the same, I’m not sure that you can argue that anybody actually prefers poorly designed games (from a strictly visual sense) over very well designed games.” I never argued, once, that poorly designed games would be preferred by anybody – I argued that defining whether a game fails/succeeds based on a subjective metric isn’t fair. Further, I argued that your specific metrics of “good” or “bad” design aren’t fair. I don’t think Fallout 3 was a poorly designed game – I have very few issues with that game, none of which are about interface or graphics. What is immersive to me is apparently bad design to you, further limiting the “design” metric to further subjectivity. Your comments on WoW, again, don’t seem to mesh with me at all – I found quite a bit of WoW to be ugly. This explains why I only leveled characters in very specific areas and did not play specific races/classes – I thought they were ugly/boring. So yah, design does matter to me, but as you rightly observed, it didn’t stop me from playing the game, putting other aspects above design features.

    Despite taking the position of writing an opinion on a subjective measure, you make grand statements. Your most recent violation?

    “good design is universal – both the novice and the expert can appreciate when what a game is trying to tell you is clear and easy to understand, and both can become equally as frustrated when a game fails in effectively showing them what’s going on.”

    There is a difference between the novice and the expert which makes game design not universal. Beyond that, game design, as I think I have effectively established, is interpreted differently by different people and is therefore again not universal.

    I guess the tl;dr is – I think you should be careful with your wording – this piece comes off, to me, as being assumptive, generalizing and elitist in places. If you are going to write something about your subjective measures, you should be quick in noting that instead of making statements that sound as though they are saying something a bit more.

  6. Amy on 06.03.2010

    Ugh, Chrome ate half of my first reply. Wonderful. Anyway,

    You’re absolutely right in that I’m using purely subjective measures in this piece. This, actually, is my entire focus – although the theory isn’t quite ready for writing on yet, I believe that game criticism is fundamentally subjective, and must be in order for it to fulfill its purpose. This is because I find that the single most important aspect of any game is the experience of the player, whether that player is the critic or the consumer, and to attempt to separate this experience from the game rejects the entire point of gaming. When listening to an album, you and I hear the exact same songs. The same is true for films and books. Sure, we bring different things to the table, but the input on behalf of the media is identical (assuming we’re both using legal copies). However, this isn’t generally true with games, especially in open-world styled games like Fallout 3. Hell, I never even bothered with the main campaign and ran around the world shooting zombies, and I know you played the storyline – out experiences were radically different, and if I’m to do any justice to the game, this must be acknowledged. Thus, its possible for me to examine a game according to my experience with it; even were I to spend a month trying to dig into every crevice of the world of Fallout 3, my experience with it – as a result of having different experience levels, weapons, etc. – would be different than any other player’s.

    You are trying to use objective measures to a field that, I feel, cannot be objective. The very nature of criticism depends on the critic having previous experience with other elements in the field they are concerned with, and what they are or are not familiar with will shape how they view something new. Can one really objectively remove themselves from what they know about a field to look to something new? If so, then how are they to examine how the piece forwards or detracts from the medium, or speak on how it is significant?

    I’m not sure that it’s fair to say I “conveniently left out other games,” particularly given your examples – the focus of 40oz is primarily PC games, and I play almost exclusively PC games and thus, I can’t really effectively write about non-PC games. Further, this piece was already 2,000 words – far longer than than most people will bother to read as-is, and to include every hypothetical would fill hundreds of pages. As with any other essay, examples are chosen based on the strength the writer feels they will bring to the argument – thus, I made a few selections, and left it at that.

    Although it may have been a problem on my part, I feel that you somewhat missed the point of this piece. The title is slightly misleading, and was meant to be provocative – the focus here wasn’t on cutting-edge, realistic-looking graphics, or beautiful scenery, or even awesome-looking character models. It was about the overall visual design of games in general, although the examples I chose mostly succeed on all counts. Interestingly, I’d argue most of the games that you mentioned – Mario Kart (and pretty much any other Nintendo-developed game), Plants vs. Zombis, Diablo II/Starcraft, Advanced Wars, and so on – are all remarkably well-designed games. For that matter, I found the Metal Slug series to be among the most beautifully-animated 2d games I’ve ever seen, easily deserving to be among the ranks of Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. I’d be curious to hear your argument on how Metal Slug was a poorly designed and not-beautiful game.

    Look to reviews of games like Plants vs. Zombies and Smash Brothers; while they’re likely to acknowledge that neither game is of cutting-edge graphics, they’ll likely all say that the games look damn good and charming – and that the design works very well. (To quote the oft-cited Kieron Gillen: “Everything about this gorgeous cuddle of a game is a daft pun or visual gag.”[http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2009/05/05/the-plants-vs-zombies-review/]) This speaks to what I was getting at with functional design; at any given time during Smash Brothers, an experienced player can immediately identify, without ambiguity, what’s going on in the game world. What ability the enemy is charging, what projectile is heading your way, which bastard Pokemon came out of the Pokeball. This ease-of-understanding is not a goal unto itself – the ease-of-understanding removes the interpretative layer from the player, and leaves them responsible only to respond, in the game world, to it.

    Again: the point isn’t great graphics for the sake of looking pretty – it’s great /design/ for the sake of aesthetics and adding to gameplay. If the visuals of a game do not forward gameplay, then they have failed – even if they are beautiful. This is why I chose the examples that I did – they’re all beautiful in their own way, but they also embrace the games they’re found in and add to them. I mentioned Fallout 3 because I hated the item/stat/etc interface – it looked cool, but moved clunkily and I often felt like I was struggling with it more than it was helping me understand the game. The VATS thing, while certainly often awesome-looking, did more to slow the game down for me than anything else after the initial glee of shooting off arms grew dim. After awhile, I just wanted to kill the damn thing, not watch it slowly and agonizingly die from a shotgun-blast to the leg – but in order to effectively move through the game, I more or less had to use VATS to maintain optimal effeciency in monster-slaying. Again, subjective, but I didn’t find it to my taste.

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