I think the graphics race has entered the last leg of its journey. With tech demos coming out for the new consoles and PC graphics cards, I can’t help but think that they’re only a tiny bit better than what we already have. This next generation seems to be an evolution in graphical quality rather than a revolution. But, I think another revolution is coming. Something has to change in order for gaming to survive and move on to the next level. This revolution won’t be in graphics, but in storytelling.
Think about every console release since the NES. Each time a new console was released, the biggest selling point was the graphical fidelity of the games. They were shiny and had twice as many polygons as before. They looked new, fresh, and exciting. They opened a whole new world of visual opportunities for developers to bring their creations to life. But now the graphical leap is so much smaller that it seems underwhelming. Graphics have become a tangential line to reality. They’re getting closer and closer but only by halving themselves as they get there.
This slowing of the technology race, as it involves art, has happened before, just not in video games.
Film, for example, underwent a number of technological revolutions. From its invention and on through many years, new cameras, emulsions, and techniques were being developed. George Melies created some of the first special effects ever devised. In the beginning, this new technology advanced at a feverish pace. New lenses provided fidelity that people had never seen before and changing film speeds to distort time allowed for some of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin’s most daring adventures.
But technology development slowed for a bit and, with the tools they had, filmmakers began to experiment with what they put on film and not just how they got it there. They began to advance their storytelling in ways that delighted audiences and elevated their medium from entertaining flirtations to explore more fascinating depths.
We’re in the middle of another such low-point in the technological advancement in film and are about due for an upsurge in storytelling innovation. For some time now, computer generated graphics have been at the forefront of a number of blockbuster films. They used to get press blurbs like, “Spectacular Effects!” and, “Outstanding Visuals!”
But now CGI has become so good that they are almost indistinguishable from the real actors on screen. What are directors and writers doing now to engage audiences? They’re starting to use CGI as less of a spectacle and more of a storytelling tool. Avatar was digital spectacle with a less than mediocre story that we’ve already seen before. The film District 9, on the other hand, was focused on using CGI to augment a new and intriguing take on aliens from another planet.
To tie this into video games with an analogy: Avatar is to Crysis 3 as District 9 is to Bioshock Infinite.
Video games are just entering this period of change where graphics are becoming much less important than they were before. Sure, gameplay is also another area due for some innovation, but games are an area ripe for unconventional storytelling that no other medium can achieve.
This change has already been happening and you may have unwittingly taken part of it. Take the Portal games for instance; they’re puzzle games with an incredibly unique and interesting story. A puzzle game has more character than some generic first-person shooters. Take a look at a little game called To The Moon. The graphics are beautiful of course, but they take a back seat to the fully fledged story that will make the most stoic gamer weep. Limbo didn't have any color at all and it still managed to convey one of the most mysterious stories in gaming. It is only when graphics are used along with gameplay to augment an engaging story can the real potential of video games shine through.
Let's play a little game. Think long and hard about your top 5 favorite stories in gaming. Were they all coated in graphics that would make the highest end graphics card weep? Or were they a little more rough around the digital edges?
Now, I'm not saying sharp graphics are useless. They offer a host of new storytelling tools and a way for digital characters to convey emotion (The Walking Dead series for example). But, it is when they get in the way of the storytelling, when companies devote more time to rendering grass than developing characters, that it becomes a problem.
So, if developers are looking to keep us interested in their games, they need to get their storytelling up to par with the graphics we’ve been enjoying. They need to be innovative and sharp and clever in what they choose to encase within their polygons or all we’ll end up with is an empty digital shell.