Expectations Behind the Visuals

Discussion in 'General Discussion' started by Spartus, Dec 27, 2017.

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  1. Spartus

    Spartus Avatar

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    The Ars Technica interview with Richard Garriott that was mentioned in another thread recently where he recounted the ecology engine in UO, along with those images of his earlier Ultima games, brought back fond memories and got me thinking...

    Some people don't like the graphical style of SoTA, but it seems adequate to me. I wouldn't care if they went back to the crude polygonal models from the early 1990's (Alone in the Dark was creepily cool). To me, the objects are just symbols for the underlying mechanics, like playing chess. I enjoy roguelikes and the voxelated Minecraft, and of course Ultima and UO, and they all have an interesting thing in common that SoTA doesn't:

    In SoTA, the visuals are so realistic compared to previous Lord British games that they imply, and set the player's expectation, that the world mechanics are just as realistic, but in many cases the player finds out that they aren't, as the simulation and sandbox in the open-world is limited (no ecology engine, for example). In Ultima, UO, and Minecraft, for example, the mechanics turned out to be surprisingly more complex than the crude visuals, being gradually uncovered as you play the game, so the world (and your perceived reality) begins to exceed your expectations. It's a great feeling of discovery that makes you wonder what is even possible in the world; it adds a sense of magic. But if you do the opposite, provide too much visual detail, you also provide more places for any defects to be observed, and you must account for this.

    I sometimes wonder, why do some players insist on having such photo-realistic graphics instead of more complex game mechanics? What are they expecting to find? In the art world, for example, photo-realism is not the factor by which you judge a painting. If the goal is to imitate our own visual field in the real world, then a VR headset would be a better tool. But in the 2D world, once we hit 16-bit color and mastered photorealistic graphics decades ago, we didn't continue to make photorealistic 2D games, but still create stylistic art (even pixelated 8-bit art). Who wants to look at photographs all day long? I watch a lot of anime, for example, which is full of stylistic art that evolved from technical constraints (its easier to pan a still than draw a series of frames, it easier to narrate or voice a character off screen than animate that character's mouth moving, etc). And in my opinion, most of it is better than some of the smooth-motion stuff produced by large computer animation studios. In some countries, film and cinema is censored and the filmmaker has to convey their story using different means (often symbols) which can have surprising benefits. And where would the magic of film be without the relatively slow 24 fps? It was chosen for efficiency since film was expensive, but if you didn't run enough film, the sound track suffered.

    I did some research on Minecraft, it turns out that it really did use voxels, which are computationally more expensive than polygons. It's an interesting story about the Minecraft creator Notch being inspired by Infiniminer, which was partially based on Infinifrag, which was created by a guy called Dan Hathaway... But I couldn't determine why it used low-res 16x16 textures. I have a feeling that it was a stylistic decision to mirror the underlying technical limitation imposed by the voxels, and this decision actually had the benefit of allowing the player to focus on structure/building and not obsess over the visual details.

    To summarize: in many cases the technological limitations of a game can actually benefit the game itself, even creating new genres. Roguelikes started with the Unix Rogue around the same time of Akalabeth (circa 1980). Mainframes had a lot of computational power but were often text-based terminals, but 8-bit microcomputers had the nice graphics chipsets but lacked the backend power, so you had these parallel lines of dungeon crawls with slightly different characteristics, but shared fantasy concepts.

    In UO, we couldn't see what was going on around the avatar up close--it added some mystery.

    And in Akalabeth and Ultima, there was a maze of dungeon doors and turn-based action. If older players remember, the screen redraws were slow (due to the hardware speeds of the time), and this just added to suspense and mystery.

    Fast forward to today, when I watch people play games on YouTube or Twitch, a lot of them just blaze through the games at high speed (I watched a lot of players do this when reviewing Hello Neighbor, for example). The player is running so fast, they don't even have time to scrutinize the visuals, which would seem to avoid the pitfall mentioned earlier, yet their sheer speed means that this play style forgoes a certain type of suspense. Contrast this to the type of suspense of the early graphical adventures like Mystery House (8-bit) or Myst...

    It's hard to quantify, but there was magic in the older games with limitations that is frequently (and literally) overlooked when the limitation disappears.
     
  2. Bow Vale

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    Great post.

    It's interesting that with more detailed graphics and visual stimulation nowadays we look fondly to times when we were given less. I think these limitations forced our minds to fill in the gaps, making our own interpretation of what's happening and thus feeling more attached to our character/world.

    The more visual stimulation we are given the faster we go to complete content as it is a story in visuals that we are consuming, our brains generally not trying to fill in the mystery as it all given to us in shiny graphics with 'no thought required'. Minecraft with their bad graphics encouraged players to slow down and produce the story and world how they would see it, their imagination filling in the gaps and producing their own reality/world.
     
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  3. Vallo Frostbane

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    I absolutely agree. Visuals are not the issue. Depth and complexity is key in games like this. If you give the players the opportunity to create their own politics and enforce their own rules, while keeping things balanced you will create something that pulls others players in. It is fascinating if you take a look at EvE lore for example. The politics alone in this game are crazy.
    Same for Darkfall before Aventurine ran low on funds, due to mismanagement. Even the new Albion Online has it, even though IMHO they parted from being an RPG at all ;)

    All those games never had competitive visuals, but competitive gameplay mechanics. Gaming has become too casual in terms of game design, as the current philosphy is that you need to stay hooked, and not having a succesful moment might make you quit. Good thing is not all developers are following this philosophy, but the big companies certainly are.


     
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