Friday, February 10, 2012

Graphic Deprivation


Remember Hironobu Sakaguchi?

Sakaguchi is the guy that was responsible for the Final Fantasy series through X-2. That makes him kinda a big deal in some circles. Well, Sakaguchi released a new game called The Last Story on the Wii. I hear the game is really good, but it looks like only you Europeans are going to be enjoying the English dub. Grr!

Anyway, a friend over at Machinima pointed me to a 2010 interview of this gaming legend. In the interview, Sakaguchi discusses The Last Story and his approach to graphics within this Wii-based game.  The transcript turned out to be a real interesting read, and I ended up reading through it twice.

One thing Sakaguchi said really struck a cord with me. He pointed out that while improving on-screen graphics has been a near obsession for the gaming industry, the joy of playing a video game has not seemed to have increased at all. He then delves a bit further. He suggests that these huge leaps in game graphics are a detriment to the play experience.

How?

By communicated too much information to the player.

Check it out...
Sakaguchi: We started with the story and the worldview. I’ve been creating games for twenty-five years, and I’ve always attached great importance to the story. It was no different with this title.

Iwata: I think the way in which you’ve always made games is to see to what degree that story and worldview can be realised.

Sakaguchi: Yes, that’s right.

Iwata: And the environments have evolved to offer you the chance to realise a variety of different ways to express them as time went by…

Sakaguchi: Well, when I started, it was during the time of the Famicom when the graphics and sound meant that you were limited in what you could do.

Iwata: All that we could show on the screen were something like rough representations.

Sakaguchi: That’s right. We had to consider how we should convey the story to the players under such restrictions. Now that high-quality graphics rule supreme, you can reproduce what you want to communicate visually, but at the same time, I don’t know how to put this, but there’s an element that’s slightly excessive about it all…

Iwata: The player ends up being able to see things you’d have preferred not to show them.

Sakaguchi: You end up communicating too much to the player. This is why I now feel that we’re at a turning point. With this title, I pressed reset and returned to the basics of what a game is. I started by spending a lot of time considering just what it means to tell a story in a game. But it went beyond simply considering the story side of things – I looked again at the fundamentals on the system side too.

Iwata: You spent a long period of time looking into those fundamental issues, didn’t you?

Sakaguchi: We did. That’s why we repeatedly experimented with the system side at the prototype stages of the game’s development. We knew that we wanted something that differed from the way things had been done before. We wanted to express the gameworld and story in a whole new style, and I feel that we gave it absolutely everything we had.

Iwata: I wonder if this sense of giving it everything you had is reflected in the name ‘The Last Story’.

Sakaguchi: Yes. Just as we’d done with Final Fantasy, we gave it everything we had, as if this was going to be the last game we ever made. But I must say that this feeling was particularly strong with this title.

Iwata: So you poured everything into it so there’d be no regrets if this was the last game you ever made.

Sakaguchi: Precisely. I mean, if I messed it up, I’d be forced to retire… (laughs)
You can read the rest here.

Lighting effects add fortitude!
If high-end graphics are forcing game designers to show far more than they need or want, they could easily be poisoning the experience. In any game short of Solitaire, the characters and plot are paramount. Anything that gets in the way of these key story elements should be considered the Enemy. But is the ever improving imagery actually starting to trip up the flow? It sounds paradoxical, but I believe Sakaguchi may be on to something.

Not a single unneeded thing.
I face a similar challenge in my own writing. Even in lengthy novels, you still have to ration out the paragraphs. And the action always has to be fed first. Sure, a few paragraphs will be dedicated to descriptions. Sure, some will be reserved for character dialogue. But most of the paragraphs must be focused on driving the action forward. We read books for the gathering momentum. We hack through the thick brush. We tolerate the dust and cobwebs. We bear the annoying prattle. But those disparate clumps of prose better be building up to a dramatic close or we're left feeling like we didn't get our monies worth. Creating relatable actors and battering them—that is all that really matters. That is why readers get on the ride.

Only allowed to take vacations in Hell.
And it's a delicate balance. Write without descriptions and your audience can't visualize the action. Spend ten paragraphs coloring in a girl's scarf and you'll face an open mutiny even before you introduce the pirates.

Each genre has it's idiosyncrasies. In speculative fiction, you also have to delineate how things are divergent from our own world, and in some of the more ambitious SFF out there, you need to create entirely new ethereal planes...

I pity all whom survived to this page.
...but the fundamentals are always the same. Be as sparse as you can with the descriptions. Abandon the food and drink to the sea. Drive every last oar towards the conflict. The roar of the battle is what makes a reader's heart race.

And that's what a lot of new writers (myself included) struggle with. You see, generating the descriptions are never the problem. We already have plenty of images to draw on in our head. The challenge is knowing when and where to sneak those tidbits in. They need to be chewable but still crispy. They need to be a bit spicy but still palatable. The editor can help you with this aspect of the writing process, but eventually each author needs to develop their own sense for which what is right.

All that focus on the rain...it serves a heavier purpose.

Truly talented authors can take it a step further. They know just how much space to leave between brushstrokes. They know just how far they can stretch it. And before you even know it, your own life's knowledge is filling in the gaps. You become part of the work, and thus you experience it more intensely.

I never looked at a moving walkway the same way.
But what if all the dots are already filled in? What if the able navigator is handed a compass and GPS. Does it not depersonalize the experience? Does it not make it aseptic? I think this is the reality that game designers are facing now, and I do not envy them the privilege.

What do you think?
Are high-resolution graphics becoming a drag?
Is Sakaguchi just making excuses for the Wii's truly cruddy GPU?
Has gibbing's aesthetic potential been maxed-out?

B.

8 comments:

Zach said...

I personally think that high-res graphics are making game makers a bit more lazy. They try to distract us with a shiny object and skimp on the things that really matter. There is one thing that really makes me laugh. Everyone wants the high-res graphics at first, but soon they do everything they can to avoid them. (Incoming sarcasm) Why walk through the beautiful landscape in Skyrim, when you can just fast travel to a town that is only a minutes walk away? Why search through the foliage for an item, when you can just focus your attention on the arrow on the compass at the top of your screen. The graphics dont keep people hooked. They are just a temporary high so to speak. Give me a good story about a damsel in distress and a strapping young lad in green atire, and I couldn't care less about how your graphics look.

While I do agree with Sakaguchi, I do believe he is still a bit uncomfortable with the Wii and its cruddy GPU. The man made Final Fantasy games. They were always ahead of their time in the graphics department, so making a game for the Wii really has to be strange for him. I remember when I first saw the cinematic on FFX where Tidus is playing blitzball in pre-Sin Zanakarkand. I was blown away at how amazing the graphics were compared to all the other PS2 games I had played.
Link to that cinematic http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FOmsorZ1Y1U

As far as gibbing's aesthetic potential being maxed out, I really don't think so. As with pretty much anything, there is always room for improvement.

One random question before I finish. Is that one picture L from the Death Note series? It sure looks like him. Great series if you haven't seen it.

B. Justin Shier said...

Great comment, Zach. And, yea, that would be L. The one above it is from a manga called BLAME. It's a strange trip, that one.

B.

Sky Luke Corbelli said...

I had a professor in numerical analysis who used to be a game programmer way back in the Atari 2600 days. One of his biggest complaints about the video game industry today was the existence of the load screen.

To some extent, what Sakaguchi says carries over to the mechanics of how the game world is displayed. The outdoor world in Skyrim was amazing, but when one of the game's selling points is that you can explore it all with no load screens, I begin to think that there's something wrong. I mean, why should there be load screens at all? Are the systems really not powerful enough to create a seamless world that loads intelligently, based on the character's current objectives or historical style of play? Is it necessary to pre-load the entire inside of that Jarl's manor, even though the player will really only be walking in, talking to one person, skipping through the dialogue options as fast as they can, and walking out?

Now, I'm no game developer. There may be inescapable reasons why games cannot be as seamless as I want them to be. I just hope those reasons aren't "because that's just the way it is." I love a massive world as much as the next guy, but I don't like watching load screens all day.

Anonymous said...

While i can see his point i do know that good graphics does not necessarily mean it detracts from the game. An example would be a ps3 game called dark souls. It would not as near a great game as it is if not for the fantastic graphics.

Anonymous said...

While I agree they are over relying on graphics as a selling point. This is not always the case as it is with L.A. Noir not just being about graphics but playstyle also. On the Manga/Manwha side I like the style of Gantz and Red Eyes also Berserk for that gritty feeling it has permeated into the series. Fighting ones I like The Breaker because of the same thing. So graphic detail I think at least in my opinion works better in darker toned series or games. But on the other hand you have games like Uncharted 1,2, and 3 which while linear are spectacular and plays like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. But for the vast majority of games it has become who looks the coolest not who has the best story or game mechanics.

B. Justin Shier said...

I guess my major issue is that some studios are more focused on perfecting the graphics than the gameplay. Some graphical advances serve the gameplay (Myst), but, in my book, anything requiring a load screen does a disservice.

You'll have given me quite a few series/games to check out though! Thanks!

B.

Anonymous said...

No problems I read a lot of books and manga/manwha of all different types. Most of the manga/manwha I mentioned is all violent so it's good to get your blood pressure up and want to karate chop someone. Another good one is Veritas which is a manwha (korean Manga). Also know of some comical ones to make myself laugh and chill out also. But that is a matter of taste or lack thereof depending on how you look at it.

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