Eating with our eyes
Visual fidelity is everything in game graphics. To the modern gamer, rocks should convey credible heft. Facial expressions should convince. Lighting effects should sparkle. Volumetric smoke should billow. Explosions should make us gasp. Gaming is a medium eaten with the eyes.
As a child of the 80s and 90s, the fruits of Xmas morning 1992 sorted my peers and I into one of two devotee camps. Once codified as either Sega or Nintendo fans, Primary 5 of Kings Park Primary School began a war of words.
We had endless playground debates about the prowess of the Mega Drive vs. the Super Nintendo. Nobody ever won. Without the technical understanding or vocabulary to scrutinize the facts of Mario vs. Sonic’s graphical feats, we resorted to subjective assessments of their merits.
“Mario is too cute, it’s for babies.” one would cry. “and anyway, Sonic’s levels look cooler!”. “Yeah, but look at Street Fighter II on the SNES” another would retort. “The Mega Drive version looks crappy.”. And on it went.
It would be kind to say our knowledge about the intricacies of computer graphics was crude. The result was our young minds focused on visual quality rather than visual fidelity. It took no extra technical muscle to make Sonic tap his toe impatiently if left standing. Nor did it tax Nintendo’s machine to put little talking heads in the corner of Starwing’s HUD. The effects of these flourishes though, was spellbinding. Such exquisite detailing felt like a marvel.
In hindsight, the SNES was the clear winner when it came to visual punch. The vast majority of third party titles just looked more crisp on Nintendo’s console. But who could argue that Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was a less attractive game than Super Mario World?
The debate raged until 1994. My classmates and I dispersed to the secondary schools of our respective catchment areas. Then came the era of the PlayStation and a new dawn of computer graphics literacy beckoned.
Gamers’ relationship with the technology behind games is more intimate than other mediums. When a new console debuts, it’s the strides in visual progress that command attention.
The PlayStation in particular brands its successive boxes with a numbered suffix. It makes explicit the division between hardware generations and our attendant expectations. A generation of players has now matured alongside six major generations of console hardware. So too has the graphics vocabulary of that generation. Deadpan scientific tear downs have replaced impassioned subjective assessments. Who cares who looks cooler? Are the shadows in Uncharted more realistic than those in Halo?
Spectacle versus craft
Horizon Zero Dawn and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild launched within weeks of each other. They offer experiences that have many superficial similarities. And yet the contrast between these games highlights the extremes of fidelity versus quality.
Horizon Zero Dawn bristles with wind swept vistas and intricate spindly machine characters. It also obsesses over steam, smoke and other complex particle effects. Zelda features stylized characters, an economic colour palette and no attempts at realism. It’s a game that appears to have been cast in an immaculate, seamless mould. If there is a rough edge anywhere in Zelda: Breath of the Wild, it’s well hidden.
There’s no denying the technical splendour of HZD. At the time of writing, it has the power to dazzle players into an inert stupor. Many times while playing I was so awed by the complexity of an enemy model, that I fumbled the battle. It’s a showcase for what the PS4 can do when in the hands of a studio that has always pushed high fidelity graphics.
Zelda BotW’s charms are different. The game’s tyrannical adherence to the highest standards of visual quality make it special. It sports the highest fidelity graphics of any Zelda game, or any Nintendo game to date for that matter. Even so, it’s hard to envisage how to improve the game’s graphics. None of the stylistic decisions appear to be a forced compromise. It doesn’t portend to show players graphical tricks they haven’t seen before. Instead, it offers a crafted tableau that’s both restrained and ornate. Not even the game’s most mundane corners spare in the application of that craft.
Game graphics moving beyond hardware constraints
Crafting beautiful games has broken free of obedience to hardware constraints. Visual fidelity is less permanent than visual quality. One is much easier to qualify than the other. It’s easy to see what Crisis can do that Far Cry can’t. It’s harder to understand why The Wind Waker is more enduring than Morrowind.
The fundamental difference is, visual quality is irreducible. Visual quality is the perfect visual manifestation of a concept. Visual fidelity can always improve. Perhaps that is why going back to a favourite game years later often savours of disappointment. It’s a feeling borne out by how players tend to spend their time. Despite endless calls for backwards compatibility, gamers’ habits skew toward modern titles.
Visual quality may not be immune to the HD makeover (see Journey and The Wind Waker). The appeal of games with high visual quality however, transcend hardware generations. Games that deliver on fidelity at the time of release tend not to survive the ravages of time quite so intact. Irreducible visual quality is more rare than high fidelity. These things make visual quality in games the higher ideal.
Will I feel the same way I do now about HZD after I’ve sunk a few hundred hours into whatever the PlayStation 5 has to offer? Will Zelda BotW’s quality give it the longevity of cultural touchstones from other mediums? Has gaming’s Citizen Kane already launched?
The business case for quality
Mobile games are less bound by hardware generations. For free to play mobile games, visual quality is a better long term strategy than visual fidelity. For service games, the burden of high volume daily user acquisition lasts for years. Betting a mobile F2P game’s long-term drawing power on visual fidelity is risky. It’s like opening a shop in a burning building. Sooner or later, you have to move building which is painful and expensive.
Natural Motion has made exactly this bet with Dawn of Titans. It’s a singular example of trying to subvert the mobile CPI market with flashy in-game graphics. It’s not yet clear if that bet will translate into years of sustainable user acquisition.
It’s easier for a studio to choose visual fidelity over visual quality. Visual quality is hard and distends production schedules and budgets. Only a clutch of studios out there have the talent and freedom to pursue such high minded ideals.
A coming of age debate
What do today’s playground gaming debates centre around? The age of the comparison video provides more fuel than ever to such discussions. In general, gamers are more eager to look forward than to eulogize about the past. It’s likely game graphics will match Hollywood films for fidelity within a few years. Perhaps that will finally bring the debate back around to quality.
One day soon, gaming’s fidelity constraints will be smashed. When they are, the only thing left to discuss will be the artistry of how the pieces shatter.