Monday, April 2, 2012

A Hardware Problem

Videogames have a problem that other media don't seem to. Maybe it has to do with their origins as technological oddities, and their primary fanbase of geeks and tech nerds (among whose ranks I count myself), but games have always struggled with an odd duality; they are designed, enjoyed and critiqued as both technological and aesthetic entities, with inordinate attention paid to the technological side. Perhaps it started with the bit wars, with all parties fiercely promoting their products as having the most. That no child at the time new what a "bit" was didn't matter.

The Genesis proudly displayed its now-laughable bit-count on its front:

And Atari marketed its Jaguar with one of the more bizarre videogame ads, which is saying A LOT!

Perhaps because the Jaguar was such a tremendous failure both commercially and, well, graphically, people eventually caught on to the fact that more bits didn't necessarily mean better games, but that just meant developers needed to be a little more subtle about their message, which has become tacitly accepted by review sites and used as ammunition by fanboys the world over. The message: "better tech equals a better game."

I've wanted to write something addressing this for a long time, but for me it came to a head with the recent HD re-release of Silent Hill 2.

Despite being a workhorse with more longevity than perhaps any other game console, the Playstation 2 had its limits, and the environments that Team Silent wanted to create for their game simply would not have been able to run smoothly at the fidelity they needed. Their solution, surround the player with fog and cut the draw distance down to as little as possibly, thereby allowing things within the player's limited field of view to be rendered with clarity, with the added bonus of providing the signature element to one of the most atmospheric and well-regarded horror games of all time. Sometimes necessity is in fact the mother of invention.

So what did they do for the HD remake? Get rid of the fog of course! The PS3 can do way better draw distances!

Left: HD remake - Right: good version

When Masahiro Ito, the game's art director, saw the graphical "upgrade," he was understandably upset. Aside from being an iconic element of the series, the fog also did a few other things such as cover up unfinished textures and map edges(!) I imagine the monsters are also a little less frightening when you can see them coming a mile away.

This example of putting tech ability ahead of aesthetic consideration is inexcusable, but it is hardly unprecedented. Across the industry games are defended on the basis of their technical specs rather than their actual visual appeal, let alone their gameplay.

Tell me this:
 is visually inferior to this:

This phenomenon is not limited to graphical processing either. None of the "respectable" review sites would dare leave out game length as a crucial evaluation criteria. As I mentioned in my rant about pacing, videogames are the only entertainment media where longevity is reliably cited as an important positive attribute. In the end, you are buying a piece of entertainment and, despite the sometimes hefty price of admission, if the hours you spend with it are less enjoyable because the experience has been stretched out to meet an arbitrary consumer expectation, then there are plenty of amusing things on the internet that may be more worth your time. You buy a car or toaster on the basis that it will last a long time, but nobody chooses to buy a novel because it has over 800 pages.

Yet because fun and innovation (and apparently visual appeal) are difficult to market, publishers end up falling back on technology (and content) as something reliable to pour money into, and then they just need to convince the rest of us that the tech is something worth bragging about, and we tech geeks buy into it, argue fiercely about whether Battlefield 3 looks better than Call of Duty 3, and try to ignore the fact that our "non-gamer" friends seem to love clicking on 2D pictures of corn in Farmville or flicking birds who have about four frames of animation in Angry Birds. We act smug and say they're not real gamers. But your Grandma, or your Boss or your sister doesn't care about HD graphics or blast processing, they just want to have fun. And isn't it possible that, in a way, this makes them the purest gamers of all.

Farmville still sucks though.


  1. I think Portal managed to kick everyone's storytelling in the junk. They did almost everything right. And that I think opened the doors for Braid and so forth. Simply because people ALLOWED game design to make the game.

    I am now thinking about the idea of Gimmicks. And constant comments that gimmicks don't make games. "You can't have bad graphics, and a gimmick, and expect to sell". But aren't gimmicks a good game? Is that not what portal said?

  2. Yeah, Portal's like the greatest game ever. I'm really looking forward to The Witness, the next game by the guy who did Braid. (You're stranded on an island...)

    Yahtzee half-heartedly tries to define "gimmicky" mechanics here
    and basically shows that the term, applied to game mechanics, is pretty ill-defined. I definitely think it gets thrown around way too much though.

    I mean when people everywhere refer to Angry Birds as "gimmicky," the word has lost all meaning. Or rather, it means "any mechanic or game meant to appeal to non-gamers."

    I won't argue that many Wii games use motion controls in what I would call a gimmicky fashion (i.e. adding nothing), but I don't believe all motion controls are gimmicky (take Wii sports). And as you say, because a game is built on a unique mechanic rather than graphical prowess, that doesn't make it "gimmicky," that makes it "good."