The Role of Graphics in Video Games

When it comes to video game graphics, I’m generally of the school of thought that while graphics are nice, they aren’t the most important part of a video game. I can appreciate a beautiful game when I see one, but I’m no “graphics snob,” obsessed with having the most powerful PC or the latest generation consoles the moment they are released.

Gameplay comes first, I’ve always thought. That’s why I can still appreciate games like Super Mario Bros. (1985), the Legend of Zelda (1986), Super Mario World (1990), Final Fantasy VI (1994) and Zombies Ate My Neighbors (1993), even though these graphics are “outdated” by today’s standards. Even modern games designed to have a “retro” look take certain liberties with their graphics, doing things that actual mid-1980s and early-1990s games weren’t capable of (for example, check out this fantastic explanation of the graphics created for Shovel Knight).

But then, I saw the five-part series on video game graphics by YouTuber Ahoy titled A Brief History of Graphics. In this series, Ahoy charts the evolution of video game graphics, from the earliest games to today’s 3D masterpieces.

As I watched, my view on graphics started to evolve. Maybe graphics aren’t purely aesthetic touches, as I’ve often believed. Ahoy begins the first video by saying, “They say graphics aren’t important. But every game I’ve ever played has had them.”

After watching the series, I crafted three theses about graphics: graphics must not hamper the gameplay experience; graphics should expand gameplay possibilities; and graphics should be aesthetically pleasing only after the first two conditions are met.

The videos have been embedded at the bottom of this post for ease of reference. If you’d like to watch them first before I expand on my theses, feel free to scroll down.

Thesis 1: Graphics Must Not Hamper the Gameplay Experience

Obviously graphics are needed to some degree in video games. Without any graphics, we’d only have games, not “video” games. The lowest threshold that games need to cross is having functional, utilitarian graphics. Can we at least see the characters? Does the game operate without crashing? Does the game accurately detect when we hit enemies? Does the game run at a consistent speed?

Most games meet these minimum guidelines, but there are a surprising number of games throughout history that are “broken,” not because the concept didn’t work (though there are examples of those games as well), but because the graphics are so poor that the game is frustrating to play at best, and impossible to play at worst.

I remember playing many NES games where the graphics negatively detracted from the game. Human characters looked monstrous and grotesque. Backgrounds were muddy. Projectiles launched from weapons disappeared and then reappeared when you least expected them to.

In the early days of 3D graphics, the mid-1990s, it wasn’t uncommon for polygonal characters to walk through walls that should be solid, or fall through floors, or fly over the edge of the map, only to see an eternal expanse.

One of the most famous “broken” games due to graphics was the Pac-Man port for the Atari 2600. You probably know what the arcade version of Pac-Man looks like: little round yellow ball, eating white pellets and colored ghosts, navigating a blue and black maze. A simple game, sure, but at the time it had some of the best (and smoothest) graphics in arcade games.

The game was ported to the Atari 2600, bringing the title into the homes of millions. However, due to the limitations of the Atari, the game didn’t look like the arcade. See the video below for gameplay footage:

Not only are the colors all wrong, but the worst part is the flickering ghosts. The reason the ghosts flicker is that the Atari wasn’t powerful enough to draw all the objects on the screen at the same time. Four moving ghosts was too much for the processor to handle. So two ghosts appear in one frame, then the other two ghosts appear in the second frame, back and forth, back and forth.

I suppose the developers thought they were being clever, perhaps thinking that the ghosts would flicker so fast that your eye wouldn’t be able to tell that only two are on screen at once. But your eye can tell. And the game was a miserable commercial failure, mostly because the graphics severely hampered the gameplay experience.

Thesis 2: Graphics Should Expand Gameplay Possibilities

Let’s assume your game beats the very low threshold of unworkable graphics. The next challenge is to use graphics to expand gameplay possibilities. One observation that is very clear in A Brief History of Graphics is that with advances in graphics come new types of games. When side-scrolling was invented, more expansive games were possible. As game systems got more powerful, they could have more objects on the screen at once, leading to more intense racing and shooting games.

With the advent of 3D graphics, games offered players more directions of movement, no longer restricting them to the 2D plane.

Watching these videos, this is when I had my big revelation. The video games that are often heralded as advancing graphics are often more than just pretty images for the eye. The games that break new ground in graphics technology also offer fresh gameplay opportunities.

Consider the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) for the Nintendo 64. For the first time, Link adventured in a three-dimensional realm. The game was more than just a graphical upgrade of the existing Zelda formula. The third dimension added new challenges to Zelda. Now puzzles had to be thought through in three-dimensions. Link didn’t just push and pull blocks from left to right, but up and down as well.

Link’s weapons, most notably the arrow and hookshot, required movement across the third plane. If the player just ran around with his eyes level, he’d miss secrets, doors, or switches hidden high up or very low.

Or consider the evolution of first-person shooters. Some of the earliest examples, Wolfenstein 3D (1992) and Doom (1993), only allowed the player to shoot enemies along a horizontal axis. In Doom, while enemies might physically appear in a higher location than the player, the player couldn’t actually aim their gun at the enemy. They just needed to make sure the gun was lined up with the enemy vertically, and bam! Enemy gone.

But as FPSs got more sophisticated, so did aiming. Now players had a lot more control over where their shots were going, making the game more challenging.

Too many games, however, have awesome graphics that simply don’t expand gameplay possibilities. I own a Nintendo 3DS, but I never use the 3D feature, for example. Viewing a game in 3D doesn’t offer anything new in terms of gameplay. I’m not even sure it makes the games look better either, as the 3DS has to be held at a very specific angle otherwise you’ll see double images.

Many people say that Super Mario 3D Land (2011) and the Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (2013) do use the 3D effect successful for some puzzles. I think those claims are debatable. I played both games to completion without using the 3D effect and I got through just fine.

Of course, not every game can break new frontiers graphically. Not every game can have a major graphics innovation, such as side-scrolling or 3D movement. With each new breakthrough in graphics technology, it’s acceptable for games to have a period where they figure out how to exploit that technology to the fullest.

Thesis 3: Graphics Should be Aesthetically Pleasing Only After the First Two Conditions are Met

Finally, if a game’s graphics are both unbroken and they expand gameplay possibilities, then fine-tuning the graphics so they are as aesthetically pleasing as possible is acceptable. Graphics can set the mood for a game, and so adding stylistic flourishes is sometimes necessary to set the tone.

One of the most beautiful games that satisfies this third thesis is Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island for the SNES (1995). The game looks like it was drawn with crayons, which fits the more childlike, cutesy atmosphere. I’m sure Miyamoto’s team had to come up with some new graphical technology to achieve this effect. Yoshi’s Island certainly plays very differently than Super Mario World, but that’s due more to the design than the graphics, I think.

Still, working with established graphics technology (and limitations), Miyamoto’s team came up with a very beautiful game that sets it apart for all other games of that era.

If you aren’t familiar with the game, check out the gameplay video below:

When it comes to 3D games, I think developers have hit a plateau where graphics aren’t really adding anything new to the gameplay. I think this happened around the sixth generation of video game consoles (PS2, Xbox, and GameCube). The previous generation was the first generation with 3D graphics, and video games went through a lot of growing pains. Many of them couldn’t satisfy the first condition, let alone the second.

By the sixth generation, 3D games were bigger, making adventures like Grand Theft Auto III possible (2001). Recently I played through Kingdom Hearts II (2005) and was blown away by how good the graphics still looked. I know there’s an HD remaster of Kingdom Hearts II out now, and I’ll probably get it someday, but do the HD graphics really change or enhance how the game is played? Probably not.

One of my favorite games from the seventh generation was Final Fantasy XIII (2009), which I wrote about recently. The graphics are stunning, to be sure, but the same basic gameplay and story would’ve probably been possible on the PS2 and Xbox. Maybe the environments would’ve been a little smaller, and maybe there’d be a few less partial and light effects on the screen, but would that serious hurt the gameplay experience?

Because aesthetically pleasing graphics are now skipping over the second condition I outlined, I haven’t been as excited for the latest generation of consoles. What can the PS4 and Xbox One really do that their previous iterations couldn’t? Will the improved graphics on these systems really lead to new types of games? So far I’m skeptical.

I do have a Wii U, and I appreciate that Nintendo is at least trying new innovations, graphically, with the inclusion of the second screen. Nintendo’s previous console, the Wii, was starting to show its age graphically. The Wii had trouble creating large environments, such as the kind seen in the Grand Theft Auto titles. So the Wii didn’t have many games with massive overworlds. But is that a real loss?

The bigger a game gets, the more I feel lost. I heard somebody remarkĀ  once that Grand Theft Auto V is experienced more through the smartphone “map” display than from the actual graphics on the screen, at least when driving. The world is so big you have to use the map to set destination points, and from there, you follow the yellow line on the mini map to get to your destination, only seeing the beautiful cityscapes through your peripheral vision. The game is so big that such a mini map is needed, but at what cost?

Everybody is saying that the next big expansion of graphics will come with competent virtual reality. Perhaps. But I’m holding my breath for now.

In conclusions, graphics are important to video games, but they are most important when the second condition is met, when graphics expand gameplay possibilities. Aesthetically sophisticated games are nice, but if the graphics come at the expense of gameplay, then perhaps developers should invest more money and time in developing a solid game first before worrying about making it shiny and pretty.

Game on

A Brief History of Graphics

2 thoughts on “The Role of Graphics in Video Games

  1. Thesis 1 seems to be ignored by a lot of designers to the point they chuck in radars and aim assists to help you actually hit a target in all this BLOOOOOOOOM.

    • Thanks for the comment! I’m still a little unsure of what Bloom looks like in action (didn’t play a whole lot of games on the PS3/Xbox 360, or the newer iterations), but yes, when a game has to provide too many aim assists, then maybe it’s time to rethink something.

      Great posts on your blog as well! You really hit on something with your posts about game difficulty. My brother and I have discussed at length the fallacy of “hard” mode, which in most games should be renamed “tedious mode.”

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