Good Graphics are Bad

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No wait, let me explain! I like my games iconic and clean. I don’t want a cinematic experience, I want to be challenged. If you love the fancy eye feast offered by modern games, that’s great… and you should probably skip this article. Chess and Dwarf Fortress are more my style. So, that’s where I’m coming from; That’s also where I’m going.

Graphics should clearly present the game state and indicate the player’s options. Visuals which lend a sense of place, atmosphere, and proper gravity to a game world are admirable. When I say “‘Good Graphics’ are bad” I’m talking about facet count, normal projection, specularity maps, lens flares, and pre-rendered cutscenes. That stuff is great in movies. But games don’t need it. Games don’t need “good graphics” to be good games.

Here’s one reason why. “Good graphics” disconnect interaction from presentation. Games are all about the experience of interaction. “Good graphics” are all about presentation. When the graphics are much more detailed than the game they represent, they disconnect the visuals from the mechanics and ultimately impede immersion.

In a game, over-emphasis on graphics turns it into fluff on top of the mechanics. The visuals trick you into thinking the game (the experience of interaction with the mechanics) is more sophisticated than it is in reality. After a while, a focused player sees right past the visuals. They see the game system, the underlying rules. The fancy menus and flashy cutscenes can help the player to ease into the game, but it actually detracts from the game play. The visuals obscure the “real” game world that the player interacts with.

Games are not movies. They don’t need to look like movies. Games should look like games. Chess is a great example. The pieces can look different, but the game is the same. A fancy looking set of pieces can be interesting, but ultimately it’s just a skin on top. “Good” graphics are only good for selling fluff, not gameplay. Really good graphics represent the underlying mechanics of the game. If the knight looked the same as the rook, chess would become an exercise in frustration. So too if all the pawns all looked different. The visuals are at their best when they indicate as much (and only as much) as the game really supports.

Representation raises expectation. High poly count requires excellent animation, physics, etc to sell it to the player. Many detailed objects requires those objects to behave rationally, and respond to the player. Too many games to count have settings with beautiful visuals, but layered over gameplay which falls sadly short of the rich world they represent. By themselves they would be excellent games, but coupled with hyper-realistic visuals the mechanics come off as incongruous.

Visuals should be representative, not elaborative. Distinction, not realism, is the point.

EDIT: An excellent video on this topic can be found here:

3 thoughts on “Good Graphics are Bad

  1. So, as I understand this post, Bit Trip Runner has “very good graphics” as defined in the 5th paragraph. In case you haven’t seen it, here is the Steam product page:
    In this game, all of the graphics communicate something about the mechanics. The proper response to an obstacle is indicated by its appearance. Even the background is designed to give a sense of progression. Am I understanding this correctly?

    • Yeah, I didn’t go into much detail on what I consider to be the utility of graphics, but it seems you have the right idea. However, I would say that even “Bit Trip Runner” has significantly “more” graphics than it needs. The running animation is completely unnecessary (unless you want to stop running at some point?) The backgrounds, too, are fairly elaborate. Maybe that’s a necessary part of the game for a sense of space, but if the player can’t interact with it then it seems like the detail is misleading or at worst distracting. It seems that even Minecraft has too much “good graphics” aspirations going on. On the other hand, both of these cases could be easily justified for the sake of “visual comfort”, and they are pointed in the “right” direction as far as I’m concerned, so I won’t complain too loudly. My game-ward sensibilities are more ascetic than aesthetic.

  2. Pingback: Visual Fidelity and Familiarity | Project Fledgeling

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