You Don’t Look at the HUD When You’re Playing With The Mechanics
I’ve been playing a lot of Uplink recently. It’s a very confusing, brilliant, terrifying game. For those of you not in the know, Uplink is a game were you play a rookie hacker on your way to the big money. You start out taking jobs to steal files from mostly unprotected servers, and work yourself up to hacking bank accounts and taking over government databases. The most brilliant thing about it, though, is that it creates all the staples of a great game; tension, excitement, strategy and a compelling narrative without ever giving you more than a few task bars, a world map and some text. It’s a triumph of mechanics over aesthetics, and it’s the antithesis to games like Crysis and Call of Duty.
It’s not a new argument. The whole ‘gameplay over graphics’ debate has been discussed, and mostly proved, over the past few years quite often. But it wasn’t until I was playing a game that really had nothing graphically to recommend it, that I really understood how true it is. Uplink is a game that could easily be released today, and be just as good, and just as critically laudable. It’s graphics can’t age because it has none. Even something as styalised as Psychonauts, and something as brilliant as it, has started to show its wrinkles. The game remains just as fun to play, but you can’t help but think how much more pleasing it would be to enjoy if it had a bit more graphical umph.
Uplink denies all that. It presents you with a stripped down display, and a few tools that never get more graphically elaborate than a progress bar. The fact that it’s probably the most nerve-wracking game I’ve played in ages is really quite alien. Just by having that slowly increasing ‘beep’ of someone trying to track me down and throw me in jail is enough to make you rapidly tap your fingers in frustration at how slow your password breaker is going. Even once that’s all over, you have to methodically delete all traces of where you’ve been so you don’t get tracked down after you’ve made off with the important files. It really is a terrifying game.
I can’t think how you could really improve it graphically. Sure, you could up the resolution on the world map, and maybe add a few more effects on the windows, but really, there’s not much more you need from it. It’s the apex of it’s graphical need. Some things could be improved upon concerning the game itself, but such qualms are minor at best. What remains is a game that is, essentially, timeless. At least insofar as the world will have computers, an internet, and people who take advantage of such systems.
It makes me wonder about the desperation to achieve photorealism. Is it really that integral to what we need from games? Surely if more developers were making games like Uplink, that are interesting despite having no redeeming graphical features, we’d have a far more diverse and wholly original range of games to play today? I’m by no means saying we should get rid of games with realistic and advanced graphics. I’m merely stating that we shouldn’t see a PC, say it should be able to manage X, and then try and achieve X. Just because our systems can reach a certain level of graphical power doesn’t mean that all our games need to push that far. What would happen if we decided to lower down the graphical settings and raise the powers of the AI, or the physics? Wouldn’t these aspects create a more enjoyable game?
9 thoughts on “You Don’t Look at the HUD When You’re Playing With The Mechanics”
> t makes me wonder about the desperation to achieve photorealism. Is it really that integral to what we need from games?
You answered it yourself, when you discussed Psychonauts. Uplink is not a graphical game, so this thing just doesn’t apply to it.
Perhaps I didn’t make it clear enough, but I merely meant that the graphics could be slightly soother on Psychonauts. I wouldn’t want to change them for photorealism any day. I value style over imitation any day.
Photorealism is just pointless IMO, art style and artistic flow / continuity throughout a game is much better as not only is it far more engaging and doesnt age so much as supposed ‘photorealistic’ graphics do, it actually requires a team to really think about the artistic impetus of the game with relation to the storyline. In short more quirky stuff rather than war shooter 2.3 or w/e is next and sells tons would be nice.
As I see it, graphics are there to draw you in, but gameplay to keep you in the game-world, where the devs want you. Crysis may have stunning graphics, but after a while, you’ll probably tire of it and move on to something else. Uplink focuses almost exclusively on gameplay and keeps you immersed for much longer, but has far less initial appeal to start with. Hence the lower numbers of people playing it years after launch compared to, say CoD4, which has both polished graphics and honed gameplay and is essentially gaming crack for many.
I’m probably overly simplifying the difference between the two, actually. Graphics contribute to a sense of immersion, but through the proliferation of visual media to the average gamer/consumer, the aesthetic qualities of games is emphasised over its gameplay qualities, since they can’t be shown as easily unless you watch lots of footage and/or play the game. They’ve been developed to provide the hook for potential players to buy the game, as well as generally progressing with the advance of technology and software.
Marketing has played an increasing role in how game are made. The need to make your game appealing is linked to sales, so the more bells and whistles your game has, the better for the producer. While some devs, like Valve through Steam, have achieved financial stability and independence and so can largely make what they want, the vast majority are still reliant on big publishers who want x number of games sold in a year. The result is a glut of graphically intensive games that don’t innovate or move any of the other major areas of game development like AI forward, but sell well.
I think that photorealism is something that modellers and map designers have a right to pursue, just as much as painters and sculptors have a right to pursue that ideal too. The industry obsession with it isn’t bad, as such, it’s just going to tend to create a need for better graphics cards and games that use them. It’s going to increase dev time and dev costs, and that’s an issue.
Uplink was a great game, I played it and ate pop tarts for a month, but I never even found the main storyline until I bought it again on steam a few weeks ago. It’s pretty timeless, but sooner or later progress bars and menus will be obsolete. It already looks silly at my native resolution.
The past year has given us a particular dearth of really great indie titles for this reason actually. World of Goo is the most obvious one I guess. I think in general though, photo-realism, or rather, photo-synthesism is an attractive and important goal. I think part of it is the Holo-Deck pipe dream. People want to be able to one day step into a room where it recreates reality, only the reality you choose. Bringing to our currently lower aspirations, it would certainly be nice to have some Crysis or Farcry 2 level of graphics that actually did something interesting. It would be great if the weird and wonderful took that graphical power and created something stylised, distinct and interesting. It’s certainly why TF2 works. Graphically, it’s a very highly powered engine, but it doesn’t use that technology to create a bland soldier-shooter like Battlefield (as I may note, was originally intended). But it does create one of the most instantly recognisable places in gaming.
I managed to finally articulate my main problem with games like Crysis and the whole gameplay vs. graphics debate when talking to a friend, who brought up that her boyfriend seemingly played Assassins Creed just because of the stunning graphics.
It was obvious of course to mention that the game looks great, but is not much fun to play, which the graphics can not redeem.
In my book, Bioshock has MUCH better graphics than Crysis: it may not be as crisp but it has an art direction which is actually interesting, whereas Crysis is just… Sand and water and trees and corrugated-iron huts. It’s an uninteresting place.
Graphics technology can only be genuinly bad for a game if it hinders the artists vision, If he can not create what he would like to because he is limited in his resources. The Unreal technology powering Bioshock is said to have great tools, and I suspect one of the key ingredients to what made that game look so great is that the artists didn’t have to fight it much?
Crysis will have aged alot as soon as the next of it’s kind is out there, upping the ante on photrealism; Bioshock’s technology will come of age, but will keep its style forever(same as TF2, like Greg said); and Uplink will always be as addicting as it has always been.
Wow. Thanks for saying so eloquently what i was trying to say in my somewhat rambling, tired postage the other day, i think you have collectively articulated the gist of the whole argument. Cheers.