If my references to Pewdiepie and Markaplier weren’t enough, most people have been able to pick up that I actually enjoy watching games being played. Like being the passenger in a car, you have a comfy, back seat view from which you can take in some surrounding scenery without being preoccupied with the road for once. While a friend is furrowing his brow or cursing his monitor in language that would make a third world sailor stare shamefacedly at his feet, I am in the back laughing my head off. Also, few things can match the sweet joy of witnessing your most muscular friend’s feminine side when the jump scares come!
I have also come to notice that from the ‘back seat’ you are able to see certain things in games that are normally hard to spot while actually playing the game. This almost ironic vantage point gives you a better opportunity to appreciate the pinkish sun setting in the distance, or the details in the stitching of Aiden Pierce’s coat while he engraves the alphabet on a human trafficker’s cranium with his baton. Everything is just much more gorgeous to behold when you are not directing your hand-eye coordination towards making an NPC’s head turn into meatloaf.
It is precisely in taking a step back from actually playing games when you unexpectedly realise how graphically sophisticated these things have become since the first time you felt the cool plastic of a controller in your fingers. Games can now wield the laws of physics to the extent of making an entire building realistically crumble and crash to the ground, with shards of glass and chunks of concrete flying in all directions, and everything around your onscreen avatar now lights up like Time Square as your character hurls a crackling thunderbolt of lightning (very, very frightening) toward an enemy. You also find yourself now pausing after a frenzied and bloody slaughter of zombies just to admire the game engine working hard at making a tumbleweed roll in the distance, or making the grass and trees react to the stormy wind that howls through your headphones.
All of this would have been nothing but a wet dream in the prefrontal cortexes of developers a mere decade ago, and the result is that all gamers reach that unexpected moment where we catch ourselves thinking, damn, how far we’ve come! This is a thought that crosses my mind almost every year when I watch the E3 presentations in which studios reveal their latest treasures onstage. Now while I have long since shaken my naiveté that video games will eventually look exactly like their first presentations at the convention (hence the birth of the phrase “target gameplay”), I still cannot help but marvel at what developers managed to accomplish in the early conceptual renditions of their games. It is especially thrilling to think that, one day, video games WILL actually look like that!
And if all of the above is still not enough to wet your whistle, I heard through the grapevine that things are about to get even better. Nowadays, we are hearing buzzwords like ‘DIRECTX 12’ and ‘VULCAN,’ and juicy rumours are starting to spread that your CPU and GPU will finally jumpstart what has hitherto been mostly a tottering love affair. They will work much more effectively together, and multiple GPU’s will actually divide up the rendering of portions of the screen to boost your frame rates. Game worlds will look bigger, particle effects will be more elaborate, and character animation will make even Shrek look like a sophomore graphic design project. In short, video games will exceed even our wildest expectations on a visual level.
But, alas, I find myself running with a more sceptical crowd in recent times. It is with considerable regret I point out the fact that we have been promised these exact things for quite some time. All the way back to the initial launch of DirectX 10 in fact, and I therefore cannot help but proclaim myself very reluctant to accept that a new API will make our computers and consoles work better. I reckon they will only work harder
My scepticism was somewhat confirmed at the announcement of the Xbox One S and the PlayStation 4.5. Let me say that if I had bought either an Xbox One or PS4, I would be feeling bitterly betrayed. Matter of fact, I would be wishing flaming death on Microsoft and Sony round about now. Both Xbone and PS4 will soon become invalidated, outmoded even when the two new versions launch. Who the hell would buy a PS4 if its slimmer, more powerful brother was on sale for just a bit more? You would have to be a moron.
It is not simply the fact that these consoles are coming out that bothers me. The original Xbone and PS4 were already underpowered from the get go, so it is good they are getting a bit of a boost. What I now realise is that, once again, it has become all about the graphics. It is all about shiny new words such as “4K!” or “Realistic Hair!” or “Destructible environments!” when all I can hear between the lines are “Help!” and “We are out of ideas” and “This game needs special effects to hide a crappy story”.
Why, why and why? Was everyone taking a nap during the spectacular flop that was Alone in the Dark? Even the most cynical of reviewers agrees the game had some of the best effects to feature in a game up until its release, yet nobody could be expected to forgive the horrid driving physics, laughably awkward script and offensive combat mechanics. Why then is the industry still headed in this direction like a blind person towards an uncovered manhole? We know now, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that a game’s visuals are only half the battle won for acing your (honest) review scores.
I would be the last person on earth to deny that I love watching sparks fly, super realistic facial animations and lush, dense environments keeping me glued to my monitor for hours. However, these little parlour tricks cannot guarantee I will… loose myself in a game. I mean, Beyond Good and Evil has the equivalent of a PS2’s polygon count, yet it is just about the most immersive game I have ever played.
I guess the announcement of new consoles mere years after their predecessors have launched instilled a sense of disappointment in me because I kind of hoped that graphics would stagnate a bit, that we would work a bit with what we have rather than endlessly labouring at the Sisyphean task of trying to make games look even better. Because one thing is certain: The visual department is NOT an area where the industry needs to evolve. We have done it, we are there. Games are looking breathtakingly beautiful and realistic, and we honestly do not need more right now. In fact, I cannot actually fathom what more you can want now that characters have individually rendered strands of hair, and everything from leaves on trees to racoon poop makes soft, dynamic shadows.
It just feels to me as if trying to constantly make games look better or more graphically sophisticated is having the goalposts moved back all the time. Why are we are having dreams of 4, 8 or 16K when so many of our games still chug along feebly at 10 – 20 frames per second in 2K? How can we be bedazzled by DirectX 12 when the developers have only just scratched the surface with the last two predecessors, 10 and 11? Heck, you would be surprised what some have managed to accomplish in DirectX 9.C even. Why do we yearn for more powerful graphics cards, 4K consoles or virtual reality headsets when we should be yearning for better SLI/Crossfire scaling, better resource management and game engines that can actually bring PCs or consoles to their full potential?
I am not saying that gamers are idiots for wanting better graphics in their games. Games are a subset of entertainment media that are first and foremost visual, and this is one of the most important frontiers for the industry to explore. My concern is that this is all moving too quickly only to serve the interest of capitalism. We are far too easily tricked by the corporate world into thinking that better visuals unavoidably make better games so that we end up losing sight of what we really need. It is the same principle of distracting a monkey with food when it runs off with your phone. We want pretty games, but we must never forget that we want effective gaming also.
I say we demand that our games to become BFF’s with our PCs and consoles rather than obstacle courses meant to grind our hardware to the bone. Let us say “thanks, but you can stop. All of these games are pretty enough, and your R&D team in the graphics department can go on holiday for now. They have earned it. Now give me a good story. I want multiplayer with some really innovative mechanics and powerful, dedicated servers. I want to see some new ideas, some risks, even if you know I intend to criticise them harshly later on the internet just ‘cause I have am incapable of having a mature debate about it.”
“I want you to sell the game on its own merit. Give me a full, well-rounded product that will wedge itself forcefully into my memory rather than a safe bet, cash cow that requires a 10Gib day one patch. And most of all, and this is really important: Do NOT listen to fans about how a game should be made. We are consumers, not designers. We will mod the game if it is not pretty enough, so don’t worry!” If we can wait patiently for Half-Life 3 for over a decade, we sure as hell can wait for a time when games look photorealistic without the need for smoke billow out of the back of the console/PC. It does not have to be today.