What Makes A Game… Look Good?
By Nathaniel Liles
When Mr. Greg “The Wonderstallion” Micek approached me about writing a column, I was mildly stumped about what I should do with that opportunity. I’m a musician, so at first I wanted to talk about music, but I subsequently realized that I’d rather just review soundtracks (which I’ll be doing here soon). After that lead ran out, I turned to the skies. “Aries!” I shouted, “What should I write about? Please grant me the power to write… Things.” The skies remained silent, so I’m going to talk about what makes games what they are. Now, please folks, don’t take offense if I disagree with you or leave something out. I am a stupid fleshy human with only one plan to take over the world, and it doesn’t include inciting rage in my readers, so please, my fellow Cliqiteers, let’s be constructive in the comments and help add to what is sure to be an imperfect column, both now and in the future.
So what makes a game look good? I mean, nowadays it apparently begins and ends with how realistic a game looks, and when we’re not teetering on the edge of the uncanny valley with that strategy, we can’t seem to make up our minds about what does and doesn’t look good. Wind Waker was met with massive fan upheaval at first because it went in a different, more cartoony direction, as if realism really is the only goal, and it simply isn’t. Because Wind Waker went in that direction, it still holds up fantastically because although our means of emulating realism back then weren’t the best, the actual tools game developers worked with were well suited to making a game look more simplistic and stylized. I mean take a look at the first Metal Gear Solid. That was realistic as all fuck when it came out, but now it looks like a game about sneaky potatoes. I love the way Wind Waker looks, and it will age well because it was stylized. Realism has its place now, with all our 1080ps and RAMs, but I don’t think stylism is losing its place. Each has its own application and place, and in the same way we’d never want Team Fortress 2 to suddenly look disturbingly true-to-life, we’ll always want Titanfall to be crisp and realistic. These two styles can even be great friends. Look at Tearaway for the Vita. It’s based in realism, yes, but it’s stylized. In the same vein is Little Big Planet. Everything’s made in its own image, but it’s all made out of things that really exist. I love it when realism and style can coexist like this, and it allows developers to impress while still expressing as well.
That is what makes a game look good. It’s not a matter of realism versus style, it’s a matter of expression. A good looking game isn’t the game that best emulates reality, it’s a game that was designed well. Yes, Titanfall is a really great-looking game, but think about why. The game looks realistic, yes, but without the fine design of the Titans, the breathtaking environments, and the unique creatures (from the art book, Google it), the game would just look like… Well, real life. If the giant robots looked stupid, no matter how clearly you could see it, it would still look terrible. We’re getting to the point where photo-realism is almost commonplace, and how will we make things look better and better when we hit the point where everything that wants to look completely realistic can? It’s not far off, people, and we might already be there. The things that really impress me and stick with me are things that transcend clarity and really seem inspired. Games like Psychonauts, Jet Set Radio, Super Metroid, and even the mobile game Infinity Blade all made huge accomplishments with technology that seems laughable by today’s standards. It takes a skilled artist to make something look completely realistic, but it takes inspiration and creativity to make something that nobody’s ever made before, and neither is better or more impressive.
What’s the point of all this? If I were you, I’d be wondering the same thing by now, but believe it or not, this rabble all has a driving message, and that message is this: realism isn’t everything. It really isn’t. Just because a game is on a system that isn’t a powerhouse doesn’t mean it’s a shite game, and when two of the three current-gen systems are just mediocre gaming PCs, we need something more than photorealism to make games relevant as an art form. Realism can be intensely boring without a creative mind behind it, and zany creativity can be stupid if it’s not inspired. Two things make a game look good: clarity and inspiration, and neither of these things are the end-all Alpha and Omega of how games should look. A picture can be interesting or it can be a total borefest. What matters is what you take pictures of.
“What Makes A Game…” is Nathaniel’s regular look into what makes games the way they are. Feel free to let him know how wrong, or right, he is in our comments section.