It’s a bit of a difficult one to answer due to the sheer amount of choice we have available to us: advancements in technology mean we no longer have to put up with a simple sprite and can instead take our pick from retro graphics, hand-drawn animations and photorealism.
Everybody has a preference of course, and I’d say mine lies with pixel-art due in part to my age and nostalgia. My fondest memories of gaming while growing up primarily involve classic adventures such as The Secret of Monkey Island, Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars and Simon the Sorcerer; titles depicted in only a low resolution and 256 colours. Playing modern titles with a similar aesthetic still brings back that same sense of excitement and wonder that I felt as a child.
There’s something about a developer adopting this type of visual style that’s quite brave, despite some gamers believing it’s ‘easy’. There’s a chance for their whole game to fall flat if the story isn’t perfect; the plot needs to be one which inspires the player’s imagination and encourages them to fill in the blanks between the pixels on screen. It’s the power of the mind’s eye which takes Guybrush from a blocky Deluxe Paint character to a young, blonde wannabe pirate.
As much as I love the pixelated style of the adventure classics however, there’s something magical about the photorealistic art used in today’s games too. Take Horizon Zero Dawn for example – one of the best releases of last year. Everything in the title has been fine-tuned to make it look as awesome as possible and around 80% of the natural landscape is procedurally-generated. According to Naughty Dog’s creative director, it was ‘simply stunning’ and set a new bar for graphics.
I spent so many hours both playing it and messing around with its photo-mode. It’s the small things that make it so special: the way Aloy’s hair ruffles when the wind catches it and how she hugs herself as she’s battered by rain. The mechanical beasts that interact with their herd while casually grazing, then limp and spark when wounded. The huge open vistas full of mountains and sunsets but smaller details such as tiny tree ants too, if you take the time to look closely enough.
But would Horizon work so well if it was depicted in pixels of 256 colours? Definitely not. We want to see all that detail in Aloy’s metal foes as we go into battle against them because they’re so far removed from everything we know in the real world. And would Monkey Island have captured my imagination as much as it did if it was photorealistic? No again – because Guybrush would be someone else’s creation and not the pirate I see in my head (who I developed a big crush on).
It’s important for the graphics of any video game to be in-tune with the developer’s vision for their project and suit the gameplay. If all aspects aren’t in sync and don’t work together in harmony, they’ll never come together in a coherent form to create an awesome experience. The player is a the tourist in a game’s foreign lands and, just as with our adventures in the real world, each place we’ve visited conjures up a unique image in our minds that is wholly its own.
Thank you to Brandon for being the inspiration for this post – I’m sure there’ll be more questions from him in the future! Now, what’s your visual preference?