Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Video Games and Graphics

I've wanted to write about this for some time, so here goes.

The game industry as been trying to make better and better looking games for some time now (ever).  I don't think this is going to stop.  Ultimately, it may have done more harm than good, and I think in a lot of ways, the end product suffers.

There have been a lot of arguments out there already.  Those have been said, and that's not really what I want to talk about.  I think we've lost a lot of the story telling that comes with substandard graphics.  You heard me right.  Limited graphics brought something to the table gaming has now lost: The use of the minds of the players.

The basis for a psychological horror movie is that your mind fills in the blanks with whatever scares you the most.  This is what worked so well for Paranormal Activity and many more.  You literally never see what's out there.  Your mind does the work.  It finds whatever scariest to you and fills that in.  If there is a sound - whatever made that sound is the worst thing you can imagine. That scares the shit out of you.

But that's not limited to horror movies.  It works in gaming too.  Your mind can fill in what makes that story work for you.  Your mind makes the connection.  This is probably why the silent protagonist was so popular in old school rpgs.  Even something as simple as your character talking can cause a disconnect with your involvement in the story.  Your mind attaches the meaning that works best for your context.

One example is the fallout games:

Old School Fallout

New School Fallout
Fallout 1 and 2 both fill you with a feeling of dread as you walk through the wasteland, I remember feeling haunted by the oppressive ruined world.  In Fallout 3, I liked walking around, but otherwise didn't feel what I did before.  Fallout 3 shows you everything, and that kind of makes it meh.  The atmosphere, the characters, the harsh unforgiving world was all done much better in Fallout 1 and 2.  Why because my brain took what I thought would be terrible about the end of the world and used Fallout as something to both draw out and project those ideas onto.
But that's just environments.  Surely characters and scenes work better when completely rendered.  When we can see it in express detail? No:

This was in someways intended to be a comedic scene, but it moved you
 Some of the greatest characters in gaming are 16 bit.  It's all we really needed.

Shit! It's Magus.  He is bad ass.

This isn't limited to Japanese RPGs on the SNES.  Minsc is literally the most beloved character in the Baldur's Gate Series. 
Who doesn't honest to god love Minsc?
He's a joy to have in your party.  He fights for goodness.  Maybe I'm crazy, but when I hear "Minsc and Boo stand ready," I often say it back.  He has more great lines, but this is not the place.

This woman
He's not the best example though.  Imoen is.

Imoen was a last minute addition to the game to make up for the fact there was no thief at low levels.  Her picture was probably at random and her voice acting was comprised of lines from a character cut early in development.  As a result she doesn't say much.  She doesn't participate in party banter and only talks to you every now and again.  You'd think this would be something people would forget about.

People loved her.  This composite character with a small sprite and stolen dialogue became the such an important character in the eyes of fans, Imoen was made a huge part of Baldur's gate 2.   There is another article with on the creators of Baldur's gate that talks more about this.  This isn't some isolated incident either, people kind of made up their own stories while playing Baldur's gate all the time.  It lent itself to your imagination.  You connected dots that never existed and ultimately had a good time.

This is in no way limited to RPGs either.  Ask anyone who's played X-com.  In X-com you have squads of soldiers.  They're tiny sprites, but as you can see there name is shown when it's there turn.

Soldiers in X-Com drop like flies - at least they do when I play - so when one survives for a bit, you kind of latch on to them.  You root for them. You want them to succeed.  You want them to live and fight another day.

You care about them.

And then they die.  It's a soul crushing experience.  Let's move on to the greater picture,

There story becomes your story because you're half of the picture.

Essentially what I'm saying is that our brains, are much more powerful than any console, graphics card or render farm.  It does a much better job of building meaning from nothing.  It makes something that matters to us and it does it really god damn well.  It's subtle; it was done by accident, but it works.

The Greatest Protagonist of All Time

Soup Drinking Contest Runner Up

Crono is a tiny sprite, and he doesn't talk; he just is.  You are him on an adventure.  You attach your own meaning to him.

Looking at modern games by these same companies.  Don't you feel like something is kind of missing?  Take Alistair from Dragon Age.  He's funny, witty charming and a really good character, but he's always just going to Alistair.  His explicit definition means that you get what you get.  Take it or leave it.  Not only that, but you may have noticed Bioware is repeating themselves with the same six characters in every game.
Not So Funny Now
Compare him to Locke from Final Fantasy VI.  He as a much more implicit definition, he cracks wise, has a girlfriend in a coma and is a bit overprotective.  For some reason, you take those four facts and make something that really sticks with you.

Can't you see he's troubled? Or doe you see something else?
So I don't expect a lot of people to agree with me on this, but I really think making these really great looking games has tripped us up and maybe taken things a step back.  I think we've lost a lot of what made these games cerebral and lasting.  I think we've lost what made them classics that are still talked about today.  We've traded engaging games that spoke to us for bioware deadface and over the top games which really should be movies (Square!).

Now that's not saying this has been completely lost.  Minecraft is a really good example of using player's mind to make something happen.  I'm also not saying that high quality images destroy this either - Bioshock also plays heavily on the players mind.  It's just we used to get it for free, and now we don't.

We have an interactive medium where players become invested and involved in the product.  We have a remarkable situation were the audience goes the extra mile and makes it work on a whole new level.
Video games are art, but I think it's for a different reason than pretty pictures, compelling storylines or beautiful music. Video games are art because they engage your mind.  They can let you tell the story - your story.  We should try and get that back.

Thanks for reading.  I hope you enjoyed it.  As a reward for getting this far, here is a picture of Magus:

Obviously doing the Safety Dance


1 comment:

  1. Video games with very cool 3D graphics is exciting and interesting to play like Castlevania and Metal Slug.