I like video games, a lot. That’s a statement I feel needs some explanation. I don’t like video games like your brother or your teenage cousin. I love them, as only an enthusiast can. I’m talking passion, like that guy that has a book full of stats he keeps for his favorite sports team, or that friend that can name every make and model of every car he sees. It’s not just about having fun pressing buttons; it’s about appreciating the art and hard work hundreds of people put into making a game great. Over the next several entries I’m going to show you what it means when I say I like video games. The goal is not to show you how much of a geeky snob I am (we’re all geeks and snobs about some things), but to show you why I appreciate games, and hopefully highlight the culture and development behind them. I highly recommend watching the clips below in their entirety, especially the last one.
A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words
We’ll start with something relatively easy for a non-enthusiast to grasp. I love video games because they look awesome. This seems like a no-brainer, who wouldn’t be impressed with what game developers are able to accomplish visually these days? In less than 20 years we’ve gone from blocky images with limited color palettes to visually amazing games that rival computer animated films. From the initial concept art to the final textured model, several artists (on large games) work together to make the amazing stuff on your screen. Since we’re talking about a passion for games, we’re going beyond the obvious wow factor of a sweeping tropical vista or realistically animated person. Let’s take a look at the things that make games look great.
It’s the little things that impress me. Seriously, the little things are what make a game’s world come alive. Street signs, small objects on a shelf in a hallway, billboards advertising fake products; all those things that you zoom past on your way to the next checkpoint took time to create.
It feels a little weird using LA Noire as an example when you consider all the post-release press focusing on the terrible working conditions many faced during the game’s long development, but in terms of detail, I can’t think of anything better. As a game that puts you in the role of a detective in 1940s LA, the details are important. As you scour crime scenes for clues you’ll see all kinds of great period products and items that sell the atmosphere and setting. Take a look at the video below. Yes the cutting edge facial animation tech is amazing, but look past that for now. Look at the signs, the colors, the wallpaper and advertisements. Listen to the way people talk, the way they dress, even the lighting was tuned to evoke that 1940s feeling. It’s in the little things.
Consider that every little detail was planned and created by a group of people, and you can start to see the amount of work that goes in to creating a big budget game. LA Noire in particular took more than seven years to make (which is admittedly a very long development).
Part of what makes the details believable are the textures applied to them. Before textures are applied, many of the visuals look like basic geometric shapes or smooth featureless objects. Textures help define surroundings, people, objects and more. Good textures—created by talented texture artists—are only noticeable if you’re looking for them. It’s easier to notice muddy or low-res textures, which are kind of a necessary evil in just about every game. Texture quality and detail is limited by the hardware. When it comes to optimizing all the amazing art in a game so you can actually play it, priority usually goes to textures on the main characters, objects and geometry closest to the player. Look at the subtle differences between the original Dragon Age (top) and Dragon Age with a high res texture mod installed.
Most people have to really look to notice and appreciate good texture work, but when they’re good, they can do a lot to make even the most fantastical worlds feel tangible.
A strong and confident art style can take a game a long way, like really long, timeless even. It can cover up deficiencies in some of the other categories mentioned here as well. Some games are designed and developed by massive teams, which can make style consistency difficult. That’s why it’s all the more impressive when a big budget game comes along with an eye-catching style. Nintendo tends to stylize their games. They usually look fantastic and also make up for the lack of hardware power in the Wii. Look at the mega-adorable Kirby’s Epic Yarn. The consistent, cute style makes it a joy to play. I found myself giggling (Buttons! Zippers! Yarn!) at some of the clever uses of style.
Kirby’s Epic Yarn doesn’t push the Wii to its limits, or revolutionize the way games look with some kind of innovative tech. It’s simple, stylish, and admirably consistent.
In the early days of polygonal games, you were lucky if your character’s head shook when he/she was talking. Now the animation in games is ripped from real life using advanced motion capture technology. While the facial animation stuff powering LA Noire is amazing (see how it works here), what amazes me is gameplay animation—meaning the animation of a character while you are in control of him/her. Developers want their characters to look cool and animate smoothly, but those cool animations should not get in the way of player input. When you’re getting shot at by aliens and you’re low on energy, pulling your gun out quickly is more important than it looking awesome as you do it. Without a doubt, the masters of the balance between believable animation and precise player input are the developers at Naughty Dog. Watch the Uncharted 3 clip below and notice how Drake moves, flinches, stumbles and grimaces. The player is always in control, and the animation always looks cool.
Amazing right? There’s a reason why the Uncharted games sell so well. Not only did that clip feature some excellent animation, it also had great style, impressive texture work, and incredible attention to detail. That clip was downright exciting—it was like a summer blockbuster movie you get to play.
I hope that helped explain what I geek out about when I get excited by a game’s looks. It’s not just about big explosions or realistic vehicles—anyone can tell when a game looks “cool”. When I say I like games because they look cool, it could mean a unique style, impressive attention to detail, subtle texture work, or all of the above.
Check back later this week for the next “Why I Love Games” entry.