Graphics exist to serve aesthetics. You will never convince me otherwise. You can have the worlds most powerful engine, and the highest resolution current hardware will allow, but without a strong aesthetic, your game will still look like deep-fried ass. So many games (especially from larger publishers) forget this completely. A soul-crushing amount of effort is so often poured into the lighting, the water effects, the texturing, and yet so many games end up looking lifeless and flat. The reason for this? Incredible graphics, but a total disregard for aesthetics.
So whats the difference between the two? In simple terms graphics is a word used to describe methods by which game developers can achieve higher resolutions, display more polygons or improve lighting effects. Aesthetics on the other hand is the less technical side of things. This is the art-style, the music, the character designs. It can be easier to understand if you think of aesthetics as being the “Soft” side of a games visual design, everything that doesn’t require more computational to produce, just a talented artist. The reason that aesthetics are so often ignored is that graphics sell games (at least to a more casual audience). It’s incredibly easy to come out and say that your new game is now 75% shinier, and this will get people excited. A lot of PC gamer build beastly rigs purely so that they can experience the highest fidelity experience possible. Personally though, I find this push towards ultra-high graphical quality a little tiresome.
I understand that hyper-realism has its place, Battlefield 1 (at least for now) looks incredible, however compare something like The Division or Mafia III to a game like Fez. Which is more visually appealing? I can only speak for myself, but in my eyes Fez is visually superior by a significant degree. Sure the other two games are impressive from a technical standpoint, but from an artistic one they are nothing short of soul-less. Think about how the developers of The Division went about crafting their world. Did they craft one in the same way the developers of Fez did? Of course not, they simply lifted parts of New York City and recreated them in-engine. After that a bit of debris and a few thugs sprinkled around the place was all that was needed. This approach does not result in a visually appealing game. We’ve seen too many ruined city-scapes for that to be enough to carry the aesthetic on its own, and the game offers little else. The sense of boredom wandering around those empty grey streets was something I hope I never experience again. It was just real life. And real life can get pretty dull sometimes.
Fez on the other hand has a unique, unified aesthetic which has been lovingly built from the ground up by a talented artist and the results are clear to see. The bright, chunky visuals are immediately appealing and there is enough variety to keep things fresh for the entire play-through, just getting to see a new area can be a treat in itself. Note that I said “unified” aesthetic. A consistent and unified aesthetic is crucial in building a world with artistic merit. Fez achieves this through a carefully chosen colour pallet and small blocky characters (and locations) to create an 8-bit feel that is in some ways a homage to Tetris, a classic puzzle game. Every aspect of the visuals reinforces this idea. Fez may only have a fraction of The Division’s graphical power, but nonetheless it is the better looking game. I actually think that the rise of retro style indies may be something to do with a disillusionment of the mainstream audience with the AAA pursuit of better graphics.
Of course none of this is to say that graphics can’t improve a games overall look, just that it must always come after the aesthetic. Games like Bloodborne have done this and produced jaw-dropping results. Everything about Bloodborne’s aesthetic conveys a sense of disease and decay to eventually give way to horrors from beyond the cosmos (classic Lovecraft) and the game also has high graphical fidelity, which raises the visuals to a new level. The Witcher III is in a similar position, its slick high-fantasy style enhanced further by some truly stunning graphics.
The other thing to bear in mind is that cutting edge technology ages horribly. Hyper real games (for the time) like Oblivion now really don’t look so good. On the other hand, we have World of Warcraft, a game that came out two years earlier (2004) and has held up visually much, much better. More recently the cartoony look of Overwatch has proven that Blizzard know how to make a game with lasting appeal. Really though, this isn’t a problem for games that aren’t aiming for a much longer life cycle.
But maybe I’m wrong? Do you love a game that can dazzle you with it physics engine or its 4K textures? If so let me know!