Visual Fidelity and Familiarity

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I’ve written on this topic before, but I was re-inspired by comments in this blog post.

On the topic of AAA games and visuals. I really like the image of building a monolith of cash and setting it on fire. It works on so many levels. I don’t even resent people doing this. It’s their money, they’re free to do what they like with it. What I resent is being told that watching a pretty currency bonfire is a life-changing experience and everyone should show up. It’s the kind of lie that, as was said, has blatant disregard for the intellect of the audience.

In fact! If games are fundamentally experiences, then I can literally get a better graphical experience by walking out into my back yard! It’s even got physics and breakable objects! If I want to watch a pretty bonfire, I can do that with sticks. They cost less than dollar bills.

I don’t want to be immersed in just any experience; I have that every day in real life! I want to be immersed in a specific experience. The quality of that underlying experience is what we call “gameplay”. Immersion is only valuable if the gameplay is valuable. So (assuming that visuals do in fact facilitate immersion) visuals are only useful to the degree that the gameplay is good. The “visuals first, gameplay second” school is objectively an inversion of reality.

How can anyone pretend that this is even an interesting and valuable discussion? If you want excellent visuals without gameplay, look around at real life.

In short, games are useful in giving us new experiences. Thus the value of a game’s visuals (in showing us unfamiliar things) is inversely related to how “difficult” those visuals are to produce. This is why the “graphics race” is so absurdly misguided.

Most games don’t fall down on the account of “lack of new elements”. They nearly always have some non-trivial aspect of wish fulfillment, fantasy empowerment, or otherwise non-backyard elements. The problem is that the stuff you could see in your back yard are the hardest to make good visuals for, precisely because we see them every day and can easily critique the minor disparities between what the game shows us and what we know (even subconsciously) it should look like. Sunlight filtering softly through translucent leaves and casting colored lighting as the breeze shifts subtly. A light scattering of dew evaporating into wisps of steam in the early morning light. People’s faces, bent close over a meal in earnest and subtle conversation. These are the things that games neither can easily present (being familiar and thus open for detailed visual critique), nor have any need to (since these are experiences that are easily accessible to all of us). And yet these everyday visions of faces and fluids are the constant focus for “graphical excellence”, in despite of the fact that we don’t need games to experience interaction with these things in the first place.

As X2-Eliah says elsewhere, we long for experiences in games in direct proportion to the difficulty or cost of achieving those experiences in real life. Space flight, for instance, or excursions into the very large or very small (difficult). Also, unfettered violence and destruction (costly). But, due to our unfamiliarity with these realms, they do not require “excellent” graphics to be convincing, precisely because we are not prepared to compare them to the appearance of any of our frequent experiences.

The solution to this conundrum is not to draw the quality of graphical presentation upwards, but instead of draw the themes farther away from every-day experience. Unfortunately, since games seem to be viewed as narrative fiction and authors are constantly told to “write what you know” we have games attempting to approach every-day experiences, and thus requiring greater and greater artifice in order to be convincing. This foolishness must end soon.

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