Rethinking “Gameplay vs. Graphics”

2011-09-19 by . 1 comments

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It’s one of the perpetual arguments of gamers – which is more important, gameplay or graphics? To be honest I’ve always answered “gameplay”, without bothered putting any real thought in to the question.

A number of games over the course of the last year or so recently have got me thinking about this question, re-evaluating my stance and coming to an important realisation:

It is a meaningless question

First, the question itself is fundamentally flawed; there are different ways to interpret the two different sides so often those discussing it are discussing different things…

Graphics aren’t what you look at

Graphics are boring: resolutions, anti-aliasing, pixel shaders, tessellation and so on – technology. However, what many people mean when they say “graphics” is “what the game looks like”.

A game with great graphics can still look dull and boring, and a game can look superb without needing a powerful graphics engine behind it, but these are can be classified as having good/bad graphics by some (thinking of the tech) and bad/good graphics by others (thinking of the style), which is a problem.

Gameplay is everything

At the highest level, the word gameplay is used to mean “how you play”, which is a bit vague. Many of us use it to describe what the player does, how they interact, the controls, etc – the game’s mechanics – while for others it has wider scope, including how the game makes us feel, etc.

If we have a look at what wiktionary has to say:

Noun

gameplay (uncountable)
  1. (gaming) The totality of player experiences during the interaction with a video game

We can see that really the word means everything that you experience when playing, which is far too wide and ambiguous. In fact, it arguably encompasses how the game’s appearance makes you feel and bleeds the two sides of the argument together.

Nethack, Dungeons of Dredmor and Torchlight. Progressing along the "Gameplay" and "Graphics" scales in opposite directions? But all three are pretty good. See my point?

So we need a new question?

Yes. We simply cannot compare gameplay to graphics without specifically defining what we mean, so we may as well redefine them (and so the question) with better words. So how should we move forward?

The first step is to swap “graphics” for “aesthetic”. This is slightly wider than the “what the game looks like” meaning of graphics and will encompass visuals, sound effects, music, voice acting and so on – anything that makes the game beautiful and immersive. But do note that the actual boring graphics are still a factor; bad graphics can destroy an otherwise good aesthetic and games aiming to look realistic must rely on the best graphics to meet that target (which is probably part of the initial confusion).

Next, “gameplay” needs throwing out. I’m going to replace it with the game’s mechanics – every single little detail of how the game actually works is relevant here: rules, controls, bugs, glitches, difficulty and so on. Whether a game is fun and challenging or dull and frustrating is specifically defined by the mechanics.

Mechanics vs. Aesthetic

OK, so that’s the modified question – so far – but something is still missing.

I can recall specific moments or stories of many games, but there’s one game that’s particularly strange in this regard: SpaceChem. It is a brilliant and clever game, it has great mechanics and an aesthetic good enough for its purpose – but I can’t recall moments of playing it beyond that it gives me the occasional “ah ha!” moment. I wouldn’t, for example, be able to tell my friends a story about me playing it, discuss the story or any choices I’ve made in the game, but I could do these with so many other games. The game hits the mechanics factor on the nose and does well for aesthetic, so what’s wrong?

There’s no real narrative, and that’s the missing element from this version of the question. I know SpaceChem has an overarching storyline, but it’s entirely disjointed and is there just to explain why the gameplay exists.

So yeah, this is a SpaceChem machine I've made. It builds stuff. I can't remember a damned thing about actually designing it, but it works and I'm sure I'd of had fun designing it...

Narrative in games can be generalised as player driven or story driven. The first is very prevalent in sandbox, multiplayer and social games. For example, how many stories you can tell about awesome things that happened to you when playing a GTA game, during a hotly contested TF2 match or spending time with your guild in your favourite MMO? The second is more visible in single player games, where they are often using the game to deliver a story.

Any game that contains any sort of real choice will invariably contain player narrative. Bind that choice to the story, and the two narrative styles merge – a powerful trick, and probably why choice in games is a popular selling point.

Mechanics vs. Aesthetic vs. Narrative

There it is, what I think the Gameplay vs. Graphics question should be. These three elements should cover the vast majority of what people want from a great game. now, there is going to be a fair bit of feedback and crossover between the three and this doesn’t really cover everything, but anything else we might add will be relatively minor.

Obviously, each of these factors isn’t simply a bad-good thing; each has a sort of alignment associated with it. For example, if you don’t like RTS games then the best RTS mechanics in the world won’t make the game enjoyable for you. Similarly, not everyone has the same aesthetic tastes, and then some of us will prefer player- or story-driven narrative to the other.

A game can have weaknesses in this triangle and still be good, but a truly great game must excel in all three – and even then it’s only great to the people whose tastes are near to the game’s alignment in each factor.

In fact, I’m wondering if these three factors, measured on a good/bad scale and with an alignment, could be a good way of scoring games – much better than an arbitrary number, yes? I think I may have to try that out…

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  • Mike says:

    Just talking about this the other day. We’ve got an NES at the office that we play Blades of Steel on, and I was thinking about how much fun it is, and why. Even though the graphics are (lovably) medieval, it’s a very pure game.

    I realized that the gameplay is so solid and simple, it really is more like a board game, or a foosball table. The rules are balanced and the play is responsive, and you just have fun doing it. Noone ever argues about the “graphics” on a scrabble board, or in a game of poker.

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