Stace Harman ponders the question of whether fancy graphics can make a game better and why video game sex scenes don't float anyone's boat.
The importance of a strong visual identity and graphical high fidelity in video games has been debated for a very long time. A game that is fundamentally flawed cannot make good its shortcomings by way of spectacular particle effects or dynamic depth of field.
Conversely, the overall experience delivered by a brilliantly designed game can be enhanced by a striking visual identity and intelligent application of aesthetic effects. Primarily, it is a developer’s talent and vision that inform the overall visual impact of a title and the effect that it has on the game’s appeal.
The immersive atmosphere of Bioshock’s Rapture captures the imagination thanks to the level of detail delivered by Irrational’s artists and designers; it's possible for Dark Souls contrasting regions to swing from dank and fetid to serene and pure because of FROM Software’s unique visualisation, and Amanita’s hand-drawn visuals lend unassuming point-and-click title, Machinarium, a timeless quality.
However, in some instances, talented teams can utilise technical wizardry to help bolster the impact of their original vision.
Where GPU is king
Nvidia is in the business of helping to make games look good. While indiscriminately throwing additional graphical horsepower at a title does not magically make it a better game, it is surprising just how much difference intelligent use of that power can make.
With the current console cycle deep into its twilight years, even relatively inexpensive PCs are able to pin extra bells and whistles to multi-format titles and the simple act of swapping out a graphics card can have a marked impact on how a title both looks and, more crucially, how it plays.
Such is the case with 2K’s recently released Borderlands 2. Gearbox has done a fantastic job of creating a multi-format title that looks great on all three platforms thanks to the delivery of its unique art style.
That said, extensive play testing of the game on PC using a mid-range GTX 660 GPU supplied by Nvidia for testing purposes, reveals that Gearbox has honoured its promise to take better care of PC gamers this time around.
Extended draw distances, FXAA (fast approximate anti-aliasing), VSync, and numerous framerate options contribute to a suite of tools that, on PC, it's not unreasonable to expect but that is welcome nonetheless. However, its Gearbox and Nvidia’s work with PhysX that stands as the most significant differentiator between it and its console counterpart.
"After an intense fire fight on the console version of Borderlands 2, the scene quickly empties out as bodies and giblets dematerialise; on the PC version with a reasonably powered GPU and PhysX set to high, the scene looks like a warzone."
PhysX fluid effects lend viscosity to the various goops and goos of Borderlands 2: blood pools in thick puddles and runs down inclines, globules of corrosive fluid coat enemies as they burn and gelatinous purple slag explodes from the genre’s ever trusty volatile barrels.
Cloth effects are fun to manipulate: shoot holes in an awning will leave it flapping in the breeze, for example, but it’s the weapon and environmental particle effects that most significantly affect game play.
As shots are fired, sparks and debris fly from the level furniture, weapon fire chews-up the terrain and hundreds of pieces of individually modelled rubble erupt from the ground. Smoke from explosives hangs in a thick pall in the air, obscuring vision and requiring a shift of position on the battlefield to keep clear line of sight on multiple targets.
After an intense fire fight on the console version of Borderlands 2, the scene quickly empties out as bodies and giblets dematerialise; on the PC version with a reasonably powered GPU and PhysX set to high, the scene looks like a warzone.
Aside from some persistent bullet holes, the terrain does not actually deform, which leaves you wondering quite where all the debris came from, but the effect is still striking nonetheless.
For those developers willing to put the work in, the PCs added grunt can pay dividends by delivering an enhanced version of their original vision. Done right, the question of whether graphical effects can make a game better gets an emphatic yes.
One for future generations
Intelligently applied, impressive GPU power can enhance immersion and game play, but it cannot solve all of gaming’s quandaries. While carnage inflicted upon the game world can be impressively depicted, it’s notoriously difficult to model convincing interaction between characters. It remains much easier to create impressive looking explosions than to capture the natural ebb and flow of a conversation.
This applies even more so to physical interaction and is part of the reason why video game sex scenes are so awkward. It’s not because a collection of polygons or pixels has never been sexy to anyone, for there is a whole genre of pornography based on the depiction of sex between animated characters.
Instead, it fails to convince because having that bunch of polygons interact with anything other than static objects requires a consistent level of subtlety that is all too easily punctured when using today’s technology.
A character holding a gun can be rendered with aplomb, but a character interacting with the environment at large is a little more tricky and can lead to clipping or a lack of connection with the terrain; most commonly seen with stairs and ladders.
"It’s exciting to have a new console generation around the corner and developers will no doubt try to outgun each other with opening salvos that bring to the wider market what is already plausible but not always delivered to PC gamers."
However, that’s nothing when compared to attempting to have characters interact with each other. In titles that already have resource-heavy game worlds, it can often lead to unconvincing physical interaction, be it a wooden handshake with rigid, unyielding hands or a supposedly tender embrace rendered comical by the inability to convey emotion with a glassy-eyed stare.
Thanks to the valley of the uncanny, these issues will remain for a very long time and while standout examples currently exist, it will likely be many years before they can be consistently countered.
It’s here that more work to convey to the audience the authenticity of relationships in video games must be pursued; for no matter how powerful a GPU may be, visual versimillitude alone cannot offer a substitute for emotional connection.
There’s no question in my mind that thoughtfully applied graphical effects can and do impact the game play of what is already a well-creafted and enjoyable experience, as is the case with something like PhysX and Borderlands 2.
However, it remains within the genus of the design team’s creative vision to shape the aesthetic identity of a title, while ensuring that a game has more to offer than a pretty face. After all, impressive graphical effects without a solid game underneath is nothing but a glorified tech demo.
It’s exciting to have a new console generation around the corner and developers will no doubt try to outgun each other with opening salvos that bring to the wider market what is already plausible but not always delivered to PC gamers.
My hope is that after the dynamically rendered smoke clouds have cleared and the realistic dust particles have settled, there will be developers who focus on the human element to help lend real meaning to the debate of whether graphics really matter.