Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Correlation: Good Graphics = Bad Graphics

Much has been written about the poor quality of the graphics in the new Alice game, Alice: Madness Returns. Indeed, it seems to be about the only thing concerning the game which has been discussed in any depth. Now, I haven't played it. But I still know what it looks like courtesy of screenshots and YouTube. And to say this game is ugly is utter bunk. Not only those uncharitable (or hopelessly rose-tinted) souls who've claimed it wouldn't look out of place on the original PlayStation, but anyone who's dismissed this game for not having cutting edge graphics: you're kidding, right?

Remember the advent of true 3D? Remember when dynamic lighting was the brand new in thing? Or curved textures, bump mapping, per-pixel shading, HDR lighting, particle effects processing? All of those things were new once. And all of them improved gaming, but - here's the thing - only as much as the developer's care in applying them. Advanced visual technology used intelligently to enhance gameplay, that's great. Enhanced visual technology for the sake of waving your engine's dick in other developers' faces is a waste of development resources which could have been spent on something else. More draw distance in a game with a sniper rifle, smoke effects which obscure the battlefield, lighting which alerts you to an enemy's presence via shadows: YAY! These are all Good Things. Yet those things don't preclude a bit of style. Too many games - even some great games, with Gears of War instantly springing to mind - expend vast resources on (apparently) making games look as grey, bland and repetitive as possible to no discernible gameplay effect.

This has always been a problem - think back to the "too brown" Quake - but the trend seems to be on the rise with every generation. Even games which by today's standards have a striking visual flair are often murky to the point of eye strain, with that plasticy clingfilm look to them. Consider: Arkham Asylum, Bayonetta, any recent Lego game. Technology moves on and one era's photorealism is the next's retro kitsch; truly great graphics come from imagination and art.

Although that might be a bad thing, if reception to Alice is anything to go by. Apparently for a big chunk of gamers, if it doesn't feature all the latest graphical wizardry then it's an archaic throwback not worth another joule of thought beyond the first screenshot. It seems that this is the same crowd who dismiss anything with the slightest bit of artistry or originality, or which contains more colours than Grey, Brown, and A Different Brown, as 'casual' - that catch-all word of contempt for anything which isn't the latest edition of Like Halo But In WWII, or of course its spinoff, Like Modern Warfare But In Space. Oh the crippling irony. I can't blame them for the bitterness of it being lost on them, though; after all, they're used to swallowing Bobby Kotick's semen.

Sadly, these people who think that 'hardcore' means dutifully sucking down whatever garbage IGN tells them to like represent not only a major proportion of the buying power in the market, they also represent a major proportion of the population of message boards and review sites out there. Graphical fidelity shifts units and encourages hype. Innovative gameplay and artistic flair do too, but not half as much. It's a common complaint that nobody's innovating in games anymore; well, lots of people are, just not on the cardboard standees in HMV.

By all accounts, Alice is a pretty mediocre, bland game once you look past the visuals. But those visuals are stunning. As with the original, this is a game with a huge sense of style, a huge commitment to showing you sights you've never seen before. So what if they're not taking full advantage of modern processors? Does that really matter that much? Some people have actually called Alice's graphics 'criminal.' That's insane. It looks better than any FPS released yet this year, latest technology be damned. So can these people physically not play games more than a couple of years old without feeling sick? Show 'em Wasteland or the original Civilization and what, will they have an anuerysm?

I'd better stop now before I ask even more rhetorical questions. But suffice it to say, I'll take graphics which are technically outdated but inventive and stylish over graphics which are cutting edge but creatively moribund, any day of the week.

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