#oneaday Day 828: It’s Time to Get Over the Graphics Thing

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I read this piece on Game Informer tonight. It made me cross. If you can’t be bothered to read it yourself, the gist of the piece is that Xenoblade Chronicles, one of the best games of the generation (in my humble opinion, anyway) “deserved better than what [Nintendo] forced [it] to be.”

To be fair to the author Chris “Warcraft” Kluwe, he does commend the game’s strengths: its excellent world, its inventive, creative ideas; even going so far as to say that the game had the potential to be “this generation’s Final Fantasy VII“. But to say that the Wii “laughs at [developer MonolithSoft's] dreams… and flushes them down the toilet of GameCube-era hardware Nintendo likes to call cutting edge” is a spectacularly blinkered viewpoint.

The fact is, it’s unlikely that Xenoblade Chronicles (and its spiritual successors The Last Story and Pandora’s Tower) would ever have been released had it not been for the Wii. The Wii’s lower demands in terms of asset production means that a sprawling, ambitious game such as Xenoblade Chronicles can be produced on a fraction of the budget of an HD title. Even then, though, MonolithSoft had to cut corners; the “gasping fish mouths bobbing up and down through beautifully crafted dialogue” that Kluwe refers to are a symptom of this.

The sad fact is that Japanese role-playing games are not the unstoppable juggernaut they once were. Where once they were a system seller, now they are a niche interest at best. The “mainstream” has shifted well and truly to the West; even Square Enix’s venerable Final Fantasy series is seen as little more than a particularly well-polished curio these days. Big-budget role-playing titles for HD consoles such as Lost Odyssey and, to a lesser extent, titles like Nier (aside: which I’m currently playing and is awesome) struggle to find a substantial audience (compared to “triple-A” titles, anyway) and, by extension, the ability to recoup the enormous spend necessary to craft a beautiful world in high definition and 5.1 surround sound. So developers and publishers simply aren’t taking the risk because it’s, well, too risky.

But the Wii gives them a platform to make these titles without having to spend as much money and time on the creation of assets. It’s not a case of Nintendo “shackling an obviously talented team like MonolithSoft to the ball and chain of the Wii because [they] want to sell waggle” (for just one of many things wrong with that statement, Xenoblade Chronicles features no waggle whatsoever). It’s a case of Nintendo giving talented teams the opportunity to do what they do best and then release them to a market of enthusiasts who are still clamouring for these titles. Yes, the Wii has a lot of waggle-based crap. But it also has an impressive library of Great Games That Absolutely Fucking No-One Has Ever Heard Of Ever Because They’re A Bit Weird Or Nichey And Have 480p Visuals.

Just because JRPGs don’t sell well compared to titles like Call of Duty and Mass Effect doesn’t mean that no-one wants to play them any more. In fact, the audience for the genre is probably actually the same size that it’s ever been; the difference is that the Call of Duty players have sprung up around them and outnumber them considerably. Given the simple choice between making something that will make fans happy and something that will make a metric fuck-ton of money, the vast majority of publishers will take the latter option. That’s simply “good business”, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all — developers gotta eat, after all. But to deride Nintendo for providing a platform eminently suited to developers who actively want to create niche titles for console — games which often provoke intense passion among their fans (as you can probably tell from this post) — is simply ridiculous.

It’s an age-old adage in the games industry that graphics do not maketh the game. Never has it been more true than in this strange period where we have two HD consoles and one SD system. Would Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story and Pandora’s Tower have been better games had they been released on the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3? Absolutely not. (Pandora’s Tower, in fact, would have been considerably inferior due to the fact it actually makes good use of the Wii’s unique control scheme.) They would have been better-presented games, sure, but the core gameplay in all three cases is brilliant — and, to add insult to injury, the graphics for all three aren’t even what you could possibly describe as “bad” — just low-resolution. There’s a difference — sadly, one seemingly lost on many reviewers who describe their visuals as “muddy” or “poor” and, in many cases, knock a point off the final score in punishment. I defy anyone who has stood on the Makna Falls overlook in Xenoblade Chronicles, seen the beautiful afternoon sunlight and shadows in the castle courtyard in The Last Story or stood atop the Observatory gazing towards the Thirteen Towers at sunset in Pandora’s Tower to say that these games have “poor” visuals.

As such, I implore those of you who are gamers to stop caring so much about titles having pin-sharp graphics, fully orchestrated soundtracks and a voice cast of Major Hollywood Talent. Yes, these things make games more impressive and exciting to watch and play, but given the choice between a world made up of nothing but HD first-person shooters starring Morgan Freeman (with the world’s population of racist teenagers on backing vocals via Xbox Live) and a world where I can play 100+ hours of Xenoblade Chronicles in 480p with a selection of unknown (but excellent) British voice actors, I know which I’d rather spend my time in.

That’s just me, though. I illustrate my blog with stickmen, so take my word with a pinch of salt if you wish.

(Edit: Here’s an unedited picture of Pandora’s Tower running in 480p taken with my iPhone camera. Looks pretty lovely to me.)

18 thoughts on “#oneaday Day 828: It’s Time to Get Over the Graphics Thing

  1. cgrajko

    I seriously can’t fathom sharing the viewpoint that graphics are that important. I routinely play games from the 8 and 16 bit eras and enjoy many of them more than current gen stuff. This is just such a non-issue for me, and the more I read your work the more I realize how alike we are.

    Reply
  2. Craig Bamford (@CraigBamford)

    Good grief, who whinges about graphics in this day and age? If you want high-powered graphics, you should be playing PC stuff anyway; 360 and PS3 gamers have no call to get all sore about how backwards a Wii game is when their systems aren’t comparatively much better. But, heck, even PC gamers don’t care that much about graphic detail anymore: witness the indie explosion.

    And, just to be clear, anybody who knocks a point off a game for graphical limits that are due to the console it’s on are doing their readers a grave disservice. Were that at all valid, no 360 game should get above an eight, and no Vita game over a six. The question’s whether they work well within those limits. If Xenoblade, Last Story, and Pandora’s Tower did so, then they should get lauded for that, not criticized.

    Reply
    1. Pete Davison Post author

      Absolutely. I was struck with how gorgeous those three games were in 480p. Sure, they look wonderful in 720p with antialiasing via Dolphin, which is where the discussion on Twitter headed, but the key point is that they do not look “bad” in 480p. If anything, the fact they look great is testament to their well-considered art styles — and each are distinct from each other, too. Xenoblade is colourful, The Last Story is sepia-tinged and high-contrast, Pandora’s Tower is relatively subdued with occasional, striking flashes of colour and life.

      Reply
  3. MattCaulder

    I love that people still think graphics are needed to have a great game. Look at Fez, or Lone Survivor, or Corpse Party. These are great games that don’t have 1080p graphics but they don’t need them. And the thing with the mouth flapping is nonsense. I don’t honestly expect that to ever look good. I wish “gamers” would start to take more stock in the content and feeling of a game instead of just focusing on the graphics.

    Reply
    1. Pete Davison

      Right. The stupid thing is the hypocrisy which comes up any time a developer does *deliberately* stylised low-poly or heavily pixelated graphics. Fez, for example, was lauded for its retro graphics by critics. My girlfriend, meanwhile, who is normally patient with this sort of thing, said “this looks crap… and not endearing crap, just crap”. Conversely, she loves watching Xenoblade. Go figure.

      Reply
  4. Emily

    I’ve never worried about graphics. Only play mechanics and story are important to me and story the most. I’ll play anything with a decent story, regardless of play mechanics.

    There’s no point in pursuing realistic graphics in games anymore as we’re pretty much there and the only way you could improve on today’s HD is by introducing something like Star Trek’s holodecks.

    Reply
    1. Pete Davison Post author

      Yeah, I know. Nice graphics are… well… nice, but the thing with the push towards more and more realistic graphics is that more and more titles end up looking very similar to one another. It’s where “brown and bloom” syndrome came from.

      Reply
  5. Nadia Oxford (@nadiaoxford)

    I don’t even understand why there’s an argument, period. For one thing, I think Xenoblade’s seamless scenery is gorgeous. If the faces are blurry and dubbed badly, big deal. I’ll take it. I’ll take crayon textures scribbled on a flat polygon if I can still have the Guar Plains’ sprawling grasslands and spray of stars.

    As for the Wii not being an HD console, or particularly powerful (two hardware traits that allowed the comparatively budget-priced system to sell in the first place), it’s kind of like, uh, hi, welcome to last week…? I thought we got this all out of our systems in 2009.

    Reply
    1. Pete Davison Post author

      I thought so too. Yet it holds a lot of people back from exploring what is actually a very cool software library. Sure, there’s tons of crap to dig through, but that just makes finding the gems all the more rewarding.

      Reply
  6. nintendolegend

    Amen. Even as a staunch four-eyed dinosaur who is active in the retro gaming, I can certainly cede that amazing graphics can enhance an experience — but to look at something like Xenoblade and say it looks bad, simply because it is not in oh-so-precious high definition? Absolutely absurd, and speaks to the shallowness of the speaker.

    Reply
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  8. RedSwirl

    Sorry I took so long to get here.

    Stuff like this and the fact that Xenoblade is even able to exist in its current form convinces me further that Nintendo kind of called it right this generation in regards to graphics, resolutions, and production costs. They held back on those things and now the Wii is just about the last refuge of middle-class retail games on consoles.

    Reply
  9. RedSwirl

    I’ll also repeat what I just said on GAF:

    I think I understand now why people like this are so disappointed that a game like Xenoblade had to come out on the Wii: they want a good traditional JRPG with modern graphics, which has been all too rare this generation.

    Here we have Xenoblade – a game that retains the elements of traditional JRPGs that made the genre popular, and actually fixes most of the things about JRPGs we got tired of. It plays like a traditional JRPG for the modern era, but it doesn’t have modern graphics. I’ll admit that when I landed in the first town in the Final Fantasy XIII-2 demo the first thing I said to myself was “Finally! A real JRPG with modern graphics!” (Mind you I still haven’t played Tales of Vesperia or Lost Odyssey)

    Outside of being published by Nintendo, I think Xenoblade’s tech and design are really just a matter of budget. If it had the budget I think they could have made a game with the same scale as Xenoblade and the graphical fidelity of a current gen sandbox game like Assassin’s Creed. I guess people who want this are just gonna have to wait for Ni No Kuni, which makes the 2013 delay sting even more.

    Reply
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