Opinion: Video game graphics do not entail better gameplay

Do graphics really matter in video games? If you ask anyone who plays video games to tell you about what makes a good game, it is nearly inevitable that they will eventually mention the word “graphics.” That one word summarizes all the polygons, resolution, frames per second and lighting that make up the game. Graphics are the visuals that everyone sees, so of course they matter in some sense; it would be hard to play a game without visuals and graphics (although I would like to see someone make one). But why do so many people care how “good” the graphics are? Does it really matter if you can count the number of hairs on someone’s chin? Do better graphics actually make a better quality game?

Once when I was talking to a friend I mentioned that I play Minecraft now and then. Without missing a beat, his response was: “I can’t stand Minecraft; the graphics are so crappy.” That got me thinking. Minecraft is a fantastically fun game. Would it be better if it had the lifelike graphical quality of, say, Halo 4 or LA Noire? Would seeing Steve or a Creeper in 1080p HD make the game better in any way over what it is now? I would argue that it wouldn’t. Frankly, Minecraft doesn’t need fancy graphics. At its core, Minecraft is a pick-your-own-adventure, sandbox, build-anything game. That would be true whether it had the best graphics around or if it was 16-bit. In many ways, Minecraft uses its graphics as an art style; you don’t focus on them, so instead you focus on what you can make inside the game. After all, if all games had realistic graphics, we wouldn’t be able to get games with great art style like Mirrors Edge or Borderlands. These games have an art style to them that lends the game a stylistic flair and beauty they couldn’t get otherwise.

There was a time when better graphics always mattered. In the 1980s they were clunky, and that made it hard to understand what was going on. This can be seen in the game “Starglider,” a revolutionary 3D plane simulator from 1986 whose screen was made of simple neon lines and was so confusing that the creator wrote a companion novella for the game to explain what the player was looking at. Developers overcame this hurdle long ago. Games no longer need better graphics to prevent user confusion. In fact, our amazing graphics have allowed for a stunning retro revolution.

There had always been a fan base for older games but the idea of designing games has only emerged in the last five years. Suddenly, 8-bit and 16-bit graphics were a hit again. With the advent of games like Fez and Minecraft, the gaming scene changed. Millions of gamers began to stop playing their 1080p HD hyper-realistic games and began to play new 16-bit games. These retro-style games breathed new life into the industry by moving in a different direction.

Don’t get me wrong. Graphics do make or break the game sometimes. Take Halo, for example. Try to imagine Halo 4 with the graphics of Minecraft. The world that you are walking around in would seem very clunky. It would be hard to understand what was going on, and it would be very difficult to be immersed in the game you were playing. That’s because Halo is designed to be a realistic shooter game, where you can feel like you are the character on screen. It’s designed as a first person game for a reason. The developers want you to see everything as if you are actually in the Master Chief’s suit. Halo needs a high-quality HD world because that is what we see everyday in the physical world. The immersion isn’t complete without the world looking that way. Minecraft is not designed to be like the physical world. Therefore it doesn’t need to look anything like it. The graphics are there to be simple and uncomplicated — to allow people to understand what they looking at and nothing else.

People seem to think graphics must be either lifelike and ultra-realistic or stick figures throwing rocks, but they actually exist on a spectrum. Graphics should match the type of game you want to play. If it doesn’t need high-quality graphics, it shouldn’t have them. It’s a waste of time and money. Don’t instantly assume that lower graphical quality is a bad thing. It can help a game excel in other ways.  So I guess to answer my own question, graphics do matter, but only as a part of the whole experience. Ultra-realistic graphics aren’t necessary.