A mistake that’s unfortunately all too common in the gaming industry, is to lump graphics and aesthetics together as if they were the same thing. This, needless to say, is false. The difference becomes obvious when one compares, for instance, a heavily stylised, cartoon-ish indie game with a triple-A title that aims for realism above all else. The former’s aesthetic, despite its presumably smaller budget and scope, will most likely hold up longer than the latter’s. This is because, if a stylised and well thought-out aesthetic is done correctly, it will outlast one that merely attempts to make use of the latest graphical technologies. A useful analogy is the comparison between an old painting and old film. Many films from the 80’s, through their heavy-handed use of special effects that wouldn’t age well, look terrible by today’s standards, whereas a painting from even hundreds of years ago can still blow modern gallery-goers away. This is because, rather than simply attempting to use the latest technology, which is doomed to become outdated at some point or another, these painters made a conscious effort with regard to a timeless style.
Stellar graphical horsepower does, of course, have its uses. It allows for more fidelity and detail, which is never, by itself, a bad thing. However, one must bear in mind that graphics alone do not determine whether a game looks good or not, which is, at the end of the day, what most players want. This is done through aesthetics, which are so much more than just visuals. The term “aesthetics” encompasses every aspect of the game; aesthetics refer to a game’s style, rather than simply its technical visual capabilities. For the sake of simplicity, however, this article will focus purely on visual aesthetics.
Take, for example, the visuals of a graphical powerhouse game such as Crysis back when it was released, and compare them to those of Duke Nukem 3D. While the former’s graphics was indisputably superior, the latter stands up better to the test of time. Not only has the aesthetic of the early first-person shooters aged well, but Duke Nukem 3D possesses a unified, unique and highly recognizable art style, in which every enemy, weapon, and prop contributes to the player’s feeling of being an unstoppable badass. In this way, the game’s aesthetic not only looks good but supports and compliments the gameplay too. Crysis’ graphics, on the other hand, is now virtually indistinguishable from the myriad of other shooters, which is a disservice to an otherwise highly lauded game.
When talking about aesthetics, it’s also important to remember that one element can influence another and offset the balance quite easily, ruining the player’s immersion. For example, if the music for an otherwise excellent fantasy game is too reminiscent of a sci-fi title, a player can instantly be jolted out of the experience. Because of this, every aspect of a game must be crafted to fit together and serve the mechanics in a well-executed way. Therefore, the most important learning here is that graphics, while nice, exist purely to serve aesthetics. Regardless of the level of rendering, if there is no unified, clearly thought-out aesthetic, all is for naught.
Important Takeaways: Graphics are simply not the be-all and end-all of making your game look good. In fact, they are only one component out of many, all of which, combined, form a game’s aesthetic. If developers do not design their games with a certain aesthetic in mind, we will continue to see the trend towards excellent graphics and utterly forgettable games. Players, developers, and game reviewers alike should make a conscious effort to focus more on the aesthetics of video games rather than sheer graphical finesse.