A Sense of Place

Do graphics matter? Bethesda answered this question a couple days ago, saying if you claimed they didn’t, you’re a liar, and your pants are probably on fire.

Well, I’m not saying that’s wrong, but I’m not going to say it that way. Graphics don’t matter, but visuals do matter. More important than any technical achievement is a narrative achievement, giving the game a sense of place and the player a sense of belonging. More than any horsepowered pyrotechnics, this is the most important step, and why, to go to Bethesda’s back yard, I think The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind is a prettier game than its bloom heavy sequel, Oblivion.

I don’t mean to slag graphics or anything. Pretty is nice. Technical achievement is worthwhile, and it gets people interested in games. But there’s a reason why there are so few hardcore Oblivion fans, and why there are a similar number of hardcore fans of Crysis, the original extreme graphics manshoot.

By the same token, loads of people love Morrowind, a game with a very pronounced aesthetic style. Morrowind has houses that are giant mushrooms, massive bugs that serve as mass transit, and completely alien looking environs. Oblivion has pretty pastoral landscapes and bloom. You look at a screenshot for Morrowind (hey, like the ones framing this article! I’m so helpful) and it’s immediately arresting. That’s a cool place, you say! I’d like to go there. You look at a similar screenshot from Oblivion, and it’s just another collection of very pretty quest markers in a western RPG.

The thing about visuals is that they are rarely horsepower reliant. We remember what Braid looks like, we remember what Infinity Engine games look like, because they feature strong elements of visual style. By the same token, New Super Mario Brothers is unmemorable visually, so it is not remembered as a collection of graphics (but rather exclusively for its gameplay, and for killing your friends in hilarious ways).

This is very important, especially in relation to games that rely on their setting. Morrowind calls me back with its visceral setting. To use a modern example, Dragon Age: Origins sticks in my mind because while the setting was generic, it was well executed. It was physical, and it feels real. Its sequel, on the other hand, feels fantastical, like something that could never be a physical place. Physicality is the most important feature of creating a believable visual world: it has to feel like a place we could visit, which could actually exist.

The game that best captured this physical spirit is Planescape: Torment. The architecture of that game is astounding, and makes even a game like Morrowind look awful by comparison. What Torment offered above other games was a sense that cities were not planned. Cities sprung up, and old buildings got pushed aside by the new. What we see too often in games is a unifying architectural style, a single way of expressing a civilization’s buildings, like they have a national house builder who constructed everything last night. Torment felt nothing like that, and that is what makes it the most believable of settings: its sense of place.

Some would say this is a small thing, that it’s more important to get the highest fidelity of graphic than to offer us a real, physical world where you can taste the paint. I’d say that the games I remember are not the ones with the graphical achievement, because those always will get old, like the early entries in the Unreal series. What doesn’t get old are the games where the world feels visceral and alive, and it doesn’t matter how many polygons make up every building, so long as the buildings themselves tell us stories.


  1. David

    I’m one of the minority who likes Oblivion better than Morrowind, but I can’t argue with you over the setting. I remember watching a friend of mine play Morrowind when it was brand new and I got sucked in by the world that I probably sat and watched him for a good 10 hours over a couple weeks.

    As to Dragon Age 2, Kirkwall is interesting, but despite the 10 year time span (though I’m only just starting act two) it fails to be organic. The constant returning back to the overworld map breaks immersion, NPCs fail to have dynamic behavior patterns, and the city’s intriguing political situation fails to show up when simply walking around (in stark contrast to the way BioWare portrayed Orzammar).

    Bethesda’s Radiant AI had a fair amount of quirks, and it was blunted so much by bug-quashing that it never lived up to its potential, but the people at least felt alive. One time it took me 45 minutes to complete the rat quest early on in the Fighter’s Guild because Quill-Weave was two-thirds of the way on a business trip to the Imperial City, lol!

  2. Jake

    I agree on most points. I however liked Unreal, and Unreal Tournament. I like Unreal Tournament 2004 more than UT on most points, mostly because the environments are the same size if not larger, yet the game still has more functionality than UT.

    I’m a believer that large areas are far more impressive than highly-detailed small areas. This is one of the reasons I absolutely love Unreal. You walk outside of the ship and the beginning, and it’s like, my god, where am I (birds flying around, hut over there, waterfall in the distance, steep cliff faces).

    I’ve recently start playing The Nameless Mod, a total conversion mod for Deus Ex. It reminds me of everything I love about large environments: the exploration, the mystery, the events that can play out when everyone’s not in one room. I mean I’m sure I spent 2-5 hours just in the first part of the game, because although my character wasn’t upgraded/experienced at all, the game let’s you explore and try things anyways.

    The lack of large-scale (and the level scaling difficulty) is what ruined Oblivion for me. “Hey look, there’s a shrine right here, a city over there, a cave over there!”. Screw that. I want to bound over landscapes, hearing noises of enemies or peaking over a hill and seeing a campsite with some people walking around. Walk into a city, and there’s buildings everywhere, each one just ripe for the exploration. Oblivion handled cities pretty well, though most of them felt a bit crowded and bland, whereas in Morrowind it looked like the cities were designed to be functional.