Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 21, 2013
While Jay is out of town, some very talented folks have graciously offered to help out with the articles. Today’s article is brought to you by game author Craig Stern. And the letter G. Craig Stern is an indie developer currently working on the turn-based tactical RPG Telepath Tactics. He is the founder of IndieRPGs.com, and can often be found rambling in short, 140-character bursts on Twitter.
Nathan Grayson of RockPaperShotgun recently had the opportunity to ask a question of Bethesda head Todd Howard: how does he plan to make the world of the Elder Scrolls games feel more tangibly alive? Mr. Howard’s response:
“Everybody always wants more power,” he said. “As a developer, you always want more. How good will it look with more memory? How many people can we put on screen if we have more processing power? But even with all of those things, I think people discount graphics. They’ll say, ‘Well, the gameplay’s what really matters,’ and it does. But I do feel that graphics and your ability to present something that feels new, real, and believable puts people in that environment where they can really enjoy what they’re playing.”
This is not the answer I would have given; not for RPGs in general, and certainly not for the Elder Scrolls series.
The fact is, graphics are not necessary to make a player feel that a game’s world is “tangibly alive.” Game worlds don’t feel alive to us because we’re so stupid that we can’t distinguish between realistic images on a monitor and real life—they feel alive because we willingly suspend our disbelief.
In actuality, you don’t need graphics at all to make someone feel that a fictional world is alive. Books immersed people for centuries before the requisite technology for video games even existed, spawning the popular idiom “lost in a book.” Deeply engaging with the characters and setting of a novel makes the world of that novel feel tangibly alive. When we suspend disbelief, our brains play along—no graphics necessary.
Video games have not changed that basic fact about us. The one game most notorious for completely sucking players in also has some of the crudest graphics in gaming: Tetris. It’s nothing more than a bunch of four-block shapes falling, row by row, down a grid. And yet, Tetris immerses players so fully that it bleeds over into the real world in a phenomenon called (you guessed it) “the Tetris Effect.”
So, does this mean that graphics aren’t valuable? Absolutely not! Good graphics are valuable in a game for the same reason that a particularly skillful painting is valuable: aesthetics give us pleasure. In games, specifically, aesthetics can heighten an already compelling experience, giving us shocking and beautiful things to look forward to when exploring the world.
But Mr. Howard isn’t making a broad argument for aesthetics here: he’s aiming specifically for “real” and “believable.” He’s making a narrow appeal to more photorealistic graphics by leveraging computers’ ever-increasing RAM and processing power.
Photorealism represents a narrow subset of aesthetic approaches to games. Arguably, it’s the one approach which demands the smallest investment of vision on the part of the creator (to say nothing of the smallest investment of imagination from the player). It is, in essence, demanding that things look as much like they already look in the real world as possible. It’s a particularly dull approach to take for a game meant to transport the player to a fantastical world. It says to the player: “Yes, yes, we want fantasy, but…let’s just make it as mundane and familiar as humanly possible.”
If the push for photorealism were merely inadequate to make a game come alive for its players, then Howard’s answer could be dismissed as myopic but harmless. However, the nearly industry-wide insistence on photorealism by big studios explodes game development budgets, which is anything but harmless. Like a giant leech sucking blood out of the host studio, a mandate for photorealism siphons off needed resources, directly impacting a developer’s ability to hire people working on other areas of a game—areas which are at least as important as visuals for engaging players.
The Elder Scrolls series itself is instructive. I remember my first time playing The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind. The wide-open nature of the game was striking to a first-time player. The whole world was open to exploration from the word go, and what a world! The changing weather, the way chance encounters felt like organic moments…I spent weeks exploring Vvardenfell, suspending my disbelief without a problem.
Of course, Morrowind’s graphics are miserable by today’s standards. For the time, however, they were good—better than good, in places. I was absolutely floored the first time I saw the game’s water rendering. Morrowind’s use of real-time reflections and displacement effects was well ahead of its time. (Morrowind was released in 2002; one year later, its contemporaries were still rendering water like this or this.)
Still, there did eventually come a time when I stopped suspending my disbelief, when Morrowind ceased to feel like a real place. That moment had nothing to do with the graphics. It was the characters. They had started repeating themselves. I could travel from one end of Vvardenfell to the other, talk to completely different NPCs, and get the exact same dialog in response. They had revealed themselves as hollow marionettes, something that no amount of graphical fidelity could fix. Thinking back, this brought on one of those moments of cold disgust that only a gamer can feel; I’d overinvested myself in this world inhabited by empty nothings. “I’ll never get that time back.”
Years have passed; graphics have improved. Skyrim is far more realistic-looking than Morrowind ever was, but the old flaws remain. The “arrow to the knee meme” exploded because it represents the same old flaw. It’s meant to sound like a personal anecdote to give the game’s guardsmen character, but every single guard in the game says it. It pulls back the curtain, reveals the fraud, erupts the suspension of disbelief. Better models, better textures, normal mapping, facial animations: what does it matter? They’re still just hollow husks.
Perhaps I put it best back in 2011:
Imagination transcends technology. It does not depend, and has never depended, on a 1-to-1 graphical representation of the thing being imagined. To say otherwise is to conceive of immersion as a mechanism by which the game disengages a player’s imagination and replaces it with direct sensory input.
Imagination replaced by direct sensory input. That’s a sad way to think of the role of video games. It doesn’t represent the promise of RPGs, and it certainly doesn’t represent the kind of industry I want to be a part of.
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