Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Graphics or Narrative? The Age Old War.

Since time began (presuming that time began in the mid to late 80's) there has been the never ending debate about what matters most within Videogames. Graphics or Narrative.

It's a dead cert that as you read this, you've instantly thought to yourself "Why, it's clearly narrative! Graphics don't matter diddly squat to me, the well informed, well educated Gamer that I am", and I don't blame you for saying that. I do however, think you're a complete liar. You do care about Graphics. If I told you to back and play the original Timesplitters for instance, you would flinch at the sight of it. We all care about what our games look like, all of us, me included. I challenge anyone to say to me that they've never purchased a game without at least considering what it's going to look like. We all care about graphics, but this doesn't necessarily mean we need them in order to enjoy our game.

First let's look at two examples. Crysis, released on the PC in 2007, and Bioshock released the same year. Now, Crysis is a pretty game. In fact it's a very VERY pretty game, to the extent where it's established itself as almost a tool of measuring the performance power of a computer instead of the joyous, sci-fi romp of which was the developers original intentions (I presume anyway). Everyones played it, everyones cooed over the photo realistic graphics.... But how many people have finished it? I never finished it, nor do I have any intention of finishing it either. I played as much I needed to play, and as soon as the novelty of the graphics had worn off I was gone. Never to look back again either. Now I know this doesn't apply to everyone, but it's the same for most good looking games released recently. Crysis, Far Cry 2.... pretty much every game released on the Unreal 3 engine. They're all nothing more than bland, two dimensional videogames that don't really ever have the potential of being anything great.

Bioshock on the other hand, released the same year remember, may not have been as visually stunning but had a far more intelligent storyline than in Crysis (which, I may add, could have been partly due to the over saturation of "A Big masculine male in a big masculine suit goes to shoot Aliens/Zombies/Other big masculine men in big masculine suits" games being released as of late). The world of Rapture was intriguing, dark and disturbing and the underlying morals found within Ayn Rand's classic novel "Atlas Shrugged" made Bioshock an absolute literary classic, never mind a cracking good game to boot. However, it cannot be denied, the graphics were very very good.

This is the problem with modern day videogaming, all games are graphically, very impressive and it's as if great narrative is simply an optional extra that the developer decides upon. Mirrors Edge, a very technically superior game, did not need the dystopian future plot in order to sell itself. The gimmick of first person freerunning was a good enough selling point as it was, and this is proven in the time trials mode (perhaps a look at what Mirrors Edge almost was, if magazine previews from the pre-release phase are to be believed). In order to truly understand which is more important, you have to look back to around the late nineties and in some cases the eighties.

I have a task for you. Go find a ROM or a real copy of the original Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy or.... let's say the original Fallout. Go on, go do it.

Now I bet once you've finished tutting over the horrendous graphics (or in the case of Hitchhikers, no graphics) you're going to get completely into it, to the point where graphics no longer matter. That's the beauty of older games. There was a distinct point where games designers released that there was more potential within the medium than simply making Object A destroy Object B and started writing in depth narratives that were as compelling as they were entertaining. The great thing? Because graphics were so uninspiring back then, the developers tended to focus more on the story aspects instead the visuals onscreen. Sure, time was spent on them but not as long as today, which is my point. In some cases, modern day technology has killed the great videogame narrative. I believe that if videogames were still the 32bit pixel mash ups that they were in yesteryear, a higher percentage of new releases would be inspired and original pieces.

In conclusion? Well what is there to say? Graphics are important, no matter what people claim otherwise. If it's visually pleasing on the eye, you will enjoy it more. Imagine if Team Fortress 2 had dropped it's cartoon style in favour for a more COD4 approach for instance. Think it would be as fun? However, this isn't always the case. Bioshock for example has a narrative that is so ingenious that you literally stop caring about the narrative and it's the same with classic adventure games and most Playstation 1 titles such as Metal Gear Solid and PC classics such as System Shock 2 and Half-Life. In these cases, great visuals are not needed for they rely on narrative so much.

Still, it has to be said that Videogaming is a visual format. Visuals are required, and as are narratives of all various degrees of excellence and intelligence. But as Uncharted 2 has recently proven, breath taking visuals and incredible story telling can sometimes, on rare occasions, be found within a single game.

All in all? Well, it's all down to one simple thing isn't it. Gameplay. A game can have a great narrative, it can have stunning graphics but if it plays like a dead horse? Then it's worth nothing in the eyes of the modern day gamer.


  1. I liked the story on Crysis :(

  2. i still play the original timesplitters quite often...... i dont like shinye graphics as much as friz
    yours frostie