How much do gaming graphics matter?

31 January 2014

Twenty years ago, the gaming industry was a technological arms race. Corporate juggernauts threw millions of dollars into squeezing every last polygon out of the strained hardware and, in the extreme cases, short-sighted developers neglected gameplay and funnelled their resources into having the best technical stats. Sometime around the turn of the century valuing graphics became a stigma. Saying you liked a game because of its graphical fidelity would immediately relegate you to being a "casual" in gamers' minds, and undermine all of your opinions. To this day, I hear people proudly declare that a game's visual quality means nothing whatsoever and that those who say otherwise are shallow.

But the fact is, graphics are one of the most important elements of a game. Look at The Last of Us, widely regarded as a landmark game for its tense atmosphere and emotionally-fraught story. Everything it achieved was dependent on its graphical fidelity. Ellie's plight mattered to us because she looked and moved like a living, breathing girl. The sense of dread and tension came about because of the sickening-looking spore clouds and disturbingly believable monsters. The ruined urban environments didn't seem like a distant alternate reality: they looked like the world outside your door.

Even games that are "pure gameplay" depend on graphics to make them compelling. Consider a side-scrolling game like Resogun, where you shoot enemy space-ships and fight giant bosses. The same game could have been implemented using sprites that simply disappear when killed, and a plain black background, perhaps with some stars floating by. Would the game be just as enjoyable as it is now? Or does the sight of an enemy exploding into tiny blocks or a boss smashing through a tower to charge at you transform a simple ruleset into an intensely thrilling experience?

Some people reading this will be jumping up and down by now shouting "Minecraft!". And it's true, there's far more to graphics quality than polygon count. But don't make the mistake of thinking that games with simple graphical styles are any bit lacking in skill or effort. The textures in Minecraft were very carefully engineered to look aesthetically pleasing: after all the whole game depends on you building stuff, and you'll only do that if the stuff you can build looks cool.

It's true that visual quality alone can't make a bad game great. But neither can a great gameplay idea translate into a 10/10 realisation without a very thoughtfully engineered external appearance. So before you dismiss graphics as irrelevant, ask yourself whether you'd really enjoy your favourite games quite so much if they had rough animations or ugly, blurry textures.