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.
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.