Critical Hit: The Difference Between Graphics and Aesthetics… and Stupidity

By Ian Soltes 23.04.2017 3

For as long as games have existed, one main question has hounded gamers, time and time again: "What is the value of graphical power?" Back in the days of the 'bit wars' between SEGA and Nintendo, terms like 'Blast Processing' got thrown around to stoke the fire, but what did they mean and, more importantly, did they hold any real value? Come join Cubed3's Ian Soltes as he delves deeper into the difference between graphics, aesthetics…and stupidity…in this latest Critical Hit article.

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A while ago a game came out. It was highly anticipated as it allowed immense freedom, a vast and open world free to explore, and a huge volume of potential. Now, years later, many gamers can still remember the original sprite of Link from The Legend of Zelda… or is it the world of Minecraft? Super Mario Maker? Undertale? Meanwhile a game lauded for its graphical capabilities, pushing the boundaries of what could and could not be done arrived and faltered into near obscurity despite having visuals unparalleled at the time. Do I even need to list a game for you to get both the joke and the point?

Ever since gaming became a thing, the question of the value of graphics has been forefront. On the one hand, games and gamers constantly strive to see newer and better things, yet on the other, Super Smash Brothers Melee still has plenty of players despite the fourth Super Smash Bros. on Wii U clearly having superior graphics, and one of the most critically acclaimed games being both the very graphical powerful Witcher 3 and the graphically underwhelming Undertale. What gives? How is this possible? Are graphics meaningless or is there something more to it?

Well, first off, let's stop and think. What is a graphic? What does the term even mean? Many people will instantly jump to the conclusion that it means the high explosions, realistic scenes, and stunning visuals seen in many games; but is that really what a graphic is? I say 'no.' Instead, I offer up two alternative definitions. A 'graphic' is an image that is presented while, conversely, an 'aesthetic' is what said image actually is. In other words graphic = power, while aesthetic = art. Why these terms? Well, the reason is quite simple…

When these terms are applied, a lot becomes much clearer; for example, in Super Mario Maker there are four different levels of graphics from the different Mario eras. The later ones are more graphically powerful but may not hold the proper aesthetic for the level. If someone wants to create a map starring Peach instead of Mario, the aesthetics give them only one choice - to pick the oldest setting. Of course, game mechanics don't always define which of the four forms to use; so why don't all the games simply go for the most powerful setting when a specific mechanic isn't required? After all, it is the most graphically powerful! Well, because it may not provide the desired look and feel. Someone aiming for a more 'retro' appeal to a level, possibly to accent how hard it is, may opt for one of the older settings or, on the most basic level, may simply dislike how one of the settings looks and go for one they like the look of more. Not because of graphical power but, instead, because of the aesthetic appeal.

This is why I chose those two terms. Generic Shooter #912: Invasion of the Terrorist Russian Aliens may have great graphics, but they are being used only to render gunshots and dirt. Meanwhile, Classical RPG Focused on a Fantastical World may look like it was made for the SNES but, because it focuses on its aesthetic, becomes more interesting easily. Minecraft is pixelated as heck but, because it keeps a constant aesthetic and does its best to build interesting worlds, becomes much more invested visually than a generic sports game where that graphical power is being wasted on Astroturf. Of course, this isn't to claim that the two are, somehow, mutually exclusive as many games have shown us, just that there is more to it.

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Still, it doesn't address the core problem. What about games that have both an interesting aesthetic and good graphics, yet end up failing? Do graphics and aesthetics really hold no weight at all? Well… yes, and no. Gone Home is a prime example of this... sort of. Compared to plenty of other products, it's pretty solid in the graphical department, yet a sizeable chunk of that is wasted being able to see tissue boxes from multiple angles. They may be the most graphically powerful and aesthetically potent tissue boxes, but they are… just… tissue boxes! Meanwhile, an older game, such as Civilization, may simply be shoved aside because its visuals make it hard to look at and understand. Unquestionably one of the most painful experiences I've ever had, one where it actually caused me to be physically nauseous, was when playing Star Wars: Dark Forces and the screen kept flipping out colour-wise, like it had ingested a ton of drugs. The game was, otherwise, unaffected and still playable, but the bad colouring made it so that it had to be stopped.

What is the answer, then? A game's graphics and aesthetics, while important, do not define the game. They help it, since bad graphics can ruin the experience, whereas good graphics can be a boon, but what matters most is that they are actually used. Wasting the power on something meaningless, like the texture details on a piece of cloth, doesn't help anyone.

The astute will notice that there is a third thing listed in this article, however, and that is 'stupidity.' Namely the people who go out there and either obsess over graphics to the point where an entire game's merit is determined not by its quality but its pixel count, and the people who turn their nose up at the mere idea that graphical power matters. Leading up to the release of Tales of Zestiria on Steam, there was a sudden deluge of topics once it became clear the game would only boast 30fps. Many of these topics were people whining about how, because the game was only running at 30fps, it would be horrible and nobody would not buy it. The RPG had not been released in the West and yet so-called fans refused to buy it. Bandai Namco's release was out in Japan only, at the time, and they didn't even bother looking there to find the actual problems with it. The actual graphical power and aesthetic of the game didn't even matter, only the fact that it ran at 30fps. The adventure could have been a wretched title but, so long as it ran at 60fps, that particular group would not have cared.

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Likewise, some of its defenders came forward to talk about things like how the human eye can only see at 32fps (odd bit of trivia, almost every movie runs at 24fps) and that people should be grateful that the game was even being released at all on Steam. On the surface, it seems easy to blame the 60fps crowd and consider them to be elitists, and they are, but they are not without a point. Part of what makes an aesthetic good, what makes a game good, is that people are willing to try and put in effort into making it as good as possible - simply settling for 'we should be grateful' lets developers do whatever they so desire. When Ubisoft announced that Assassin's Creed: Unity would run at 30fps instead of 60, everyone knew that the company was being lazy. Why should Tales of Zestiria get a pass for running at 30 while an Assassin's Creed gets tons of flak? Even if laziness has nothing to do with it, it is hypocritical to be willing to jump down the throat of one and then pat the other on the back. Many of these were the people defending Tales of Zestiria.

Where does that leave us, then? Is the cliché of 'don't care about the graphics, just play it if it's good' the right answer? Well, if it was wrong, it wouldn't be the obvious answer, so I'm going to ignore it. The real answer is that graphics and aesthetics need to work in harmony together and focusing on one or the other, or neglecting one entirely, results in things like boring brown factory hallways or games with either still art or pixelated visuals and, quite frankly, while there is no harm in stepping back to even the NES days in terms of visuals, every step back is another excuse for a developer to be lazy. A sprite is not a bad graphic or aesthetic, but a lazy developer can turn even the most powerful graphical engine into a lazy cash-in with zero investment.

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art counts, not polycount.

For me you pretty much touched on the point but didn't mention it and that was art style.

Nintendo games are a good prime example of this, the evolution of Mario's artstyle is definitely one (although the look and feel has practically been the same style since 64).

Zelda is probably a better example which seems to be constantly changing. 

You could look at how well games like Wind Waker have aged and thats due to the art direction and style. 

As for Melee, I would say that it strikes a chord between fluidity,flair and tight controls. It also doesn't have the constant pain of being patched (and therefore changing) like todays games.  

Live action film might be 24fps, but it has perfect per-object motion blur.
Games do not come close. If they did we wouldnt need that framerate.

Anyway, good article. Basically; yes.
The other way to see it is graphics is the pallete for the art.

( Edited 26.04.2017 19:01 by Darkflame ) <-- Tells some truly terrible tales.
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