How We Talk About Games: Graphics

“A visually dazzling masterpiece with bright backgrounds”

“Beautiful and unsurpassed graphics.”

“Few games look as lush and refined … Colors and textures are sharp and rich.”

T

he above three quotations are typical sentences that you might hear in any review of Uncharted 2. If you’ve played the game, you likely agree with them. Most reviewers certainly do. If you haven’t played the game, you’ve still probably heard statements very similar. The only difference between the above quotes and every other review of Uncharted 2 is that these quotes aren’t talking about Uncharted 2. They’re from reviews of 1998′s Nintendo 64 game Banjo-Kazooie; and, with the benefit of a decade of hindsight, they seem almost laughably dated.

Uncharted 2 is undoubtedly a visually impressive game. Banjo-Kazooie, despite the limitations of the Nintendo 64, is also a visually impressive game, though in different ways. I don’t bring up these quotes to make any statements about the games themselves, but rather the way we talk about them.

Gamers love to talk about “graphics,” a catch-all term that encapsulates both the technical quality of a game’s visual design (texture resolution, polygon counts, etc.) and the aesthetic quality (art direction). Games, being such a strongly visual medium, give us a bounty of graphical topics to talk about. From the processor-melting fidelity of the latest blockbuster to the arresting stylization of an off-beat adventure game to the stark elegance of so many indie titles, there’s no end of interesting and often amazing visual design for us to wrap our keyboards around.

So why can I quote decade-old reviews of a game that’s only distantly comparable to Uncharted 2 and find the exact same statements, almost verbatim, that I find in today’s criticism? These statements aren’t wrong, but they’re shamefully insufficient. Critics are still speaking in vague superlative, as if they’re auditioning to be blurbed on the back of the box. I’ve read a lot of reviews of Uncharted 2, and they all say the same things in nearly the same way – which is to say, almost nothing and with a very limited vocabulary. I could quote from almost any review, but I want to briefly look at four in particular: one from IGN, one from 1UP.com, one from Giant Bomb, and one from Eurogamer. I believe these four sites represent a wide perspective of popular gaming criticism, but their similarities in this regard are both striking and a little troublesome.

We start at the bottom: with IGN’s review. In all of these reviews, I went through and wrote down every statement relating to visual design and quality. IGN’s review, as is typical for them, is a four-page monster – nearly 3000 words. The game received a perfect 10 out of 10 for graphics, and the reviewer even states, “It’s impossible to talk about Uncharted 2 without mentioning its visuals.” That said, there are roughly 250 words (less than 10% of the review) dedicated to discussion of visual design, and most of that is comprised of phrases like, “stunning visuals,” “some of the best graphics I had ever seen,” “Your jaw will drop,” and, “The graphics. Holy crap … the graphics.” The reviewer does once try to substantiate the above claims, yet can only say things like, “the texture detail is astounding,” or “the amount of random stuff everywhere is mind boggling.” I promise that these quotes aren’t taken out of context; the review simply does not elaborate on them.

In fact, the reviewer’s most specific comments about the game’s graphics are prefaced with, “The world is packed with bits of detail that do nothing for gameplay” (emphasis mine). It seems bizarre to me that the only substantial paragraph relating to the game’s visual design is about how that visual design is divorced from game design. Are we really to assume that the most important thing to mention about Uncharted 2‘s flawless 10/10 graphics is that they don’t serve the gameplay? Are we really going to say that Naughty Dog, in their attempt to push the PS3 to its limits, didn’t stop to consider how they might enhance the gameplay with all of those “bits of detail?” I’ll return to this point later, but I want to emphasize that I’m not casting judgment on IGN’s assessment of the gameplay, but rather the shallow depth in which they discuss the graphics. Not only do they use the same insubstantial vocabulary that critics used to describe Banjo-Kazooie in 1998, but the visual design is treated as distinct from game design. The graphics are perhaps complementary, but only complementary – not part of one singular vision.

We move on to 1UP’s review of the game. This A+ review, though much smaller in word count, contains even less content related to the game’s graphics. We find statements like “bright and beautiful colors” and “absolutely gorgeous visuals” (sound familiar?). The writer draws our attention to the “fantastic production values,” the “visual spectacle,” and cites “how the snow clings to Nathan’s clothes” as one such example. The game is “a perfect ‘this is how much money I dropped on my HDTV and home theater setup’ demo.” Feel free to click on the link above and read the review yourself, but I’ve already quoted every single statement regarding the game’s graphics. Why do the visuals in Uncharted 2deserve an A+? I guess because they’re really impressive. Nothing is said about how they enhance – or don’t enhance – the design of the game. We know the snow clings to Nathan Drake’s clothes, but we don’t know why that’s good or important. We’re only supposed to care that the game is gorgeous.

The Giant Bomb review endeavors a more in-depth discussion of Uncharted 2‘s visual design. While we still find the obligatory statement about “better graphics” – the sort of relative, competitive comment that plagues game criticism – we also find a few comments about how the game’s graphics enhance the “cinematic flair.” The reviewer says, “It feels like there’s no end of inventive camera moves and angles, unexpected special effects, and smart, directed visual design all drawing your attention to exactly how incredible the action is .” Aha! This sounds juicy! Could it be that we’re actually going to touch on how the game’s graphics are part of the thematic design of the game? Well, no. We’re not. The review fizzles out. “These sorts of thrills are hard to describe in words,” we’re told by the person whose job it is to describe difficult ideas in words, and we should, I suppose, rest assured that what the reviewer says is true.

Finally, we come to Eurogamer, a prestigious gaming magazine as far as those things go. This review even begins with high praise for the game’s graphics: “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is beautiful,” the first line says, “and Naughty Dog knows it.” We even get some specific description of the game’s visual quality: “the dark outlines of the clothing on the ground cast by the brilliant sun soften at their extremities, which are devoid of the jagged serration typical of game engines being pushed to their limits.” But here, again, we’re focused entirely on technology. We might as well be reading benchmark specs. Again, we’re told “the attention to detail is beyond compare,” but what does this accomplish? We’re never told. For a review whose very first line introduces the game’s superb graphics, why isn’t it talked about more, and with more specific language? Why is Eurogamer making the same insubstantial statements that IGN makes? That 1UP makes? All of these reviews make it abundantly clear that the visuals are a major part of Uncharted 2’s appeal, but they barely describe that appeal or help us understand it.

I poke fun, but I want to make it clear that I am not saying these reviewers are bad reviewers. We find more detailed and specific discussion of other elements of Uncharted 2 in all of the above reviews. (Most of them dedicate a healthy chunk of text to a breakdown of the game’s multiplayer modes, for instance.) Nor am I saying that graphics should be emphasized over other design elements. But I think the above reviews highlight a major deficiency with gaming criticism: we aren’t well equipped to talk about graphics. We haven’t developed a sophisticated vocabulary to describe the intersection of graphics and design. We still focus too much on, and are perhaps too easily impressed by, advances in technology – a focus that badly dates our criticism.

We could talk about a lot in regards to the graphics of Uncharted 2 (or any game). We could talk about the graphics in a thematic context. We could talk about how the usually bright, vibrant colors reinforce the pulp sensibility of the game. The game never descends into the grittiness of many other modern shooters. The game’s buoyant mood is kept afloat even when Nathan Drake is slaughtering enemy goons by the dozens, and this is largely due to the strong visual design. When the game does take a darker turn, the visuals enhance the melodrama. A dark scene may be made darker by a pouring rainstorm; the vibrant colors become washed out, become grey – a color we already associate with danger.

There are more tangible design considerations related to graphics as well. As I hinted above, the game uses a greyscale effect to indicate Nathan Drake’s heath. The vibrant visual design makes that possible. The loss of color in Uncharted 2 is so prominent because the game is so colorful. A similar health system would be impossible in a game like, say, Resident Evil 5, as the base image is so relatively dull that we’d be unable to quickly perceive gradations of color. The game’s many “bits of detail” also serve the gameplay. Uncharted 2’s focuses on climbing, platforming, and cover-based shooting. The game’s incredible attention to detail lets us identify interactive objects versus non-interactive objects in a way that doesn’t strain suspension of disbelief. Often, the difference between a section of wall you can climb on versus a section you can’t is nothing more than some tastefully colored bricks that we intuitively turn our attention to. Because the rest of the wall is still so carefully detailed, because the interactive bricks are only distinguished by subtle color differences, those bricks don’t feel like cheap video game-isms. We progress through levels fluidly and naturally. We don’t think, “What would a video game character do,” we think, “What would Nathan Drake do?” Interactive objects can be made more or less prominent by the designers to speed up or slow down the player’s progression, which is directly tied to the game’s difficulty and pacing.

Beyond the themes and design of the game, we could talk about Uncharted 2 in the context of a progressing medium. While Uncharted 2 is undoubtedly a spectacle of a game, it’s also aboutspectacle. The game begins with this quote from Marco Polo: “I did not tell half of what I saw, for I knew I would not be believed.” The fantastic area design, the attention to detail, is not merely designed to drop your jaw – it’s the central message of the game. Could this game have been made on the PS2? On the Nintendo 64? Would this game be nearly as effective, even with the same core gameplay, if we had to cut the texture quality in half, hamstring the lighting systems, and drop the polygon counts? I really don’t think so.

The above points are only some of my own observations. The reviews I linked above are not insufficient because they didn’t talk about exactly what I wanted to talk about, and I understand that, as pieces of consumer advice, they only have so much room to discuss the game. (Well, with the exception of IGN.) But those reviews – nearly all reviews – focus only on the technical achievement of the game’s graphics and ignore the many implications. None of the reviews above talk about graphics in the context of design, even though graphics have always been of paramount interest in the minds of gamers.

There are many ways critics can usefully discuss graphics. Criticism can help us understand these graphics thematically, mechanically, or historically. But mainstream criticism is doing none of that. For all of our HDTVs and widescreen monitors, we’re not really looking any closer. Critics are still blinded by the spectacle of technology, and it doesn’t matter whether they write for 1UP or Eurogamer: they still sound like they’re writing for the back of the box.

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8 Responses to How We Talk About Games: Graphics

  1. Anonymous February 11, 2010 at 5:43 PM #

    I think you bring up a really interesting point that I hadn’t really thought of. I guess the question it leaves me with though, is why? Is it these sort of flaws that have kept gaming journalism from being anything short of laughable, or is it that fans simply don’t demand this sort of rigor out of their reviewS?

    • Grayson Davis February 11, 2010 at 8:20 PM #

      I think blaming the fans is misguided, and I think blaming any individual reviewer isn’t productive either. I suspect that this is just a result of gaming’s constant improvement of graphical power. I mean, in 25 years, we’ve made huge leaps in technology. Games have often been lauded – and rightfully so – for pushing the envelope and progressing the medium forward. But I think we’re at a point where we need to stop being impressed by the mere spectacle and start asking what we’re doing with all of these improvements, because designers ARE doing really interesting things.

      • Anonymous February 11, 2010 at 11:10 PM #

        I think you bring up a good point, but it makes me wonder if we’re starting to hit a point of diminishing returns, or if in 10 years games will make uncharted 2 look like pong. The point is, a game can only be so realistic, can only require such and such hardware. I only bring it up because once we hit that point, it’ll be interesting to see what the next big grab is, if another one exist. Like you said, we need to get away from the mere spectacle…but what is going to take us away from that? Is there a point of diminishing returns where people stop caring, because graphics got “good enough”? Maybe it’s impossible to speculate, but graphics have been the real measure of “bleeding edge games” for a long long time and that’s a shame to me. Imagine if “innovating UI’s” was the new measure, or “believable choices” or whatever. Not that I think those would do it, but I am definitely wondering what direction game design will go into when we hit a point where stunning graphics are the norm, most gamers will have sufficient hardware, and designers take well designed levels as a given.

  2. Anonymous November 28, 2010 at 3:34 AM #

    You make a really good point regarding how people talk about graphics and how it may contribute to a review.

    What needs to be written I think is precisely why Uncharted 2 has amazing graphics for it’s time (or platform) and how that contributes to the game overall.

    One of the most important things is that Uncharted 2 is one of the only games to successfully use ambient occlusion on the PS3 and uses it quite well. I own Crysis and see Uncharted 2 as possibly the only console game worthy of comparison to it.

    The best place I’ve seen talk specifically about graphics is the DigitalFoundry blog at Eurogamer which does detailed tech analyses of games.

    • Grayson Davis November 28, 2010 at 1:18 PM #

      I’ll occasionally see Gamasutra publish more tech-focused articles and features. I feel like it’s almost certain that they’ve done one or two about Uncharted 2, since they’ve published a whole lot of pieces on Uncharted 2 (often with a very heavy design or tech focus). But you’re right, it would be interesting to see articles that look specifically at the technology and techniques used.

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. Anonymous January 6, 2011 at 7:40 PM #

    You’re right, let’s do something about it. Want to start a video game art review website?

    • Grayson Davis January 6, 2011 at 7:54 PM #

      Thanks for the comment, but this site is already taking up my writing time! If you ever get something going yourself or find a game art site you like, feel free to link it here.

  4. Anonymous January 11, 2011 at 2:15 AM #

    I agree completely. I think this sort of criticism for graphics is the right direction for modern reviews. Either graphics commentaries fall in line with the reviews you’ve quoted or dive too far into the technical wizardry that most readers will never understand. I think by the same token though most mainstream reviews could reexamine how they critique almost any aspect of the game design. How the gameplay reinforces the fundamental goals or mood of a title, etc. We see a little of this investigation in terms of sound design, but I think that is only because ‘the music is great’ somehow feels even more arbitrary than ‘amazing graphics’.

    Great piece though, I hope to reexamine how I talk about graphics in my work.

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