Why graphics still matter

March 21, 2009

far-cry-2I finally made the plunge and updated my PC. After months and months and scrimping and waiting for bargain deals to pop-up online I finally have the components to completely upgrade my gaming rig. Looking back, it has taken over a year to collect all the parts necessary. The final result is I can run DirectX 10. Immediately after booting up the new hardware with the most updated drivers and I checked on a few older games I had in my library to see the difference. Though I was happy with the results it was not until I began running Far Cry 2 that it really hit me: graphics matter.

It’s an odd statement, especially since I have often criticized the technological aspect of videogames. I am still a large believer that design mechanic matters over graphics, that immersion isn’t the path towards the uncanny valley but through player interaction. But I have overlooked the importance of world environment. There is a difference between DirectX 9 and DirectX 10 and though I have yet to determine the specifics, I will say there was a frighteningly different experience, a common reaction when anyone sees next-generation hardware footage.

But I never realized how important graphical optimization is to the Far Cry 2 experience. I recall a review of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey where critic Roger Ebert states:

“The Johann Strauss waltz “Blue Danube,” which accompanies the docking of the space shuttle and the space station, is deliberately slow, and so is the action. Obviously such a docking process would have to take place with extreme caution (as we now know from experience), but other directors might have found the space ballet too slow, and punched it up with thrilling music, which would have been wrong.

We are asked in the scene to contemplate the process, to stand in space and watch. We know the music. It proceeds as it must. And so, through a peculiar logic, the space hardware moves slowly because it’s keeping the tempo of the waltz. At the same time, there is an exaltation in the music that helps us feel the majesty of the process.”

If only videogame boxes could be this charming.

If only videogame boxes could be this charming.

Though this scene is much different from the experience of Far Cry 2, the intention is essentially the same. It hearkens back to cinema theorist Tom Gunning’s proposal of the “Cinema of Attractions.” The phrase speaks to itself as audiences were initially drawn to the wonder of cinema both in its technology and the images that the medium provides to the audience. Whether there are narratives, exotic locations, or even old home videos of the past it was the attraction of not only its content but the mechanic process as well that had audience returning to the cinema.

Far Cry 2 revels in its unapologetic nature toward the player. He must travel through the full 50sq/km of its fictional African country. Though there is the option to take buses for fast travel, the player will often be driven or walking through the terrain. This travel is a menial and often irritating task, but yet I still return to the game despite its faults. The reason is because the lush vegetation, the dynamic weather, the day cycles, the zebras, the birds of paradise, the antelope, and so forth. While I have seen video of Far Cry 2; the game has to be played to be experience—not a big surprise since we are talking about videogames. It is the spectacle in motion the continuously draws me in and returning in this arguably masochistic experience that balances the line between tedium and fun.

I know that as time passes the graphical realism of Far Cry 2 will wane. In the end the foundation of the gameplay will stand the test of time. But we must not forget that despite our constant outcries for videogames as an artistic medium, it is also a technical medium. Like any other gadget or new toy, the wonderment of technology should not be disregarded. Often I have been guilty of that view in the past. Graphics do matter just as much as art design and gameplay mechanic. Its importance does not end at immersion but extend to enjoyment of exhibition. Just as in the cinema of attractions, one can also find pleasure in the awe of technology. Now, I just need to install a copy of Crysis and I’ll be set.



  1. Good post, good reminder. I’d like to note that the “technical aspects” of a game don’t only affect surface aesthetics like the rendering of the game world visually. Sifting through some recordings of GDC rants, you come to understand why so many designers complain about developing for the PS3 and the Wii. In the case of the former, not enough documentation was provided on how to use the Cell processor; for the latter, people like Hecker cite the fact that even relatively simple current-gen games cannot be executed on the thing. Take a look at Braid – the graphics are simple, there aren’t that many levels, etc. But programming the time-reversal mechanic, and storing up to 30 minutes of rewind, takes somebody with an intimate knowledge of the machines he’s working with.

    Game mechanics are the most important aspect of a game, and certainly we’ve seen that super-old, super-weak processors can do wonders with individual mechanics. But when you consider also that the mechanics in games represent real world systems and processes, you realize that the growth of technology also leads to a growth of the degree to which we can accurately model a system (so that it can better be understood and criticized). GTA IV is a tragic figure in this light; they came really damn close to modeling how an actual city worked, how life in a city works. The almost-living, almost-breathing of GTA IV is only possible on a current gen system.

  2. I believe the graphic realism has little to do with the interest you’ve found in the “spectacle of motion”; I’d argue that graphical interest is far more important. The reason you find it enchanting is because of how interesting it is, which is in turn because of how realistic it looks.

    I had the same observation on the oft-criticized boating sections of Wind Waker; sure, the sailing was boring and uneventful, but the blank blue canvas of the sea and the subtle, unique flow of waves combined with the control of the camera always kept my interest, and is still one of the things I remember most about the game.

  3. Brilliant post, and a great reminder that, yes graphics do have a role to play in player immersion and enjoyment.

    I’m upgrading to Vista 64 soon, so fingers crossed I’ll be able to experience the DirectX 10 difference too! =D

  4. If someone were to ask me about my favorite kind of game, I wouldn’t name a genre but would say “anything that creates a fully-realized world and then draws me into it.” Graphics are obviously a big part of that effect. I like your phrase “awe of technology.” That’s what I find myself in when I’m first drawn into a well-conceived virtual world. The look is just the hook, though. Mechanics, art design, personality and story are what keep me there.

  5. This reality hit me like a brick wall when I started playing Ocarina of Time a few days ago. Part of the issue with older graphics isn’t just aesthetics, it took me a while to remember how to read the clunky displays and blocky setups. Spotting holes, switches, and puzzle solutions all still depend on the player being able to interpret the data.

    The better the graphics, the more people who can read it without needing that kind of background knowledge.

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