A Word Is Worth A Thousand Pictures: Graphics Vs Narrative

Rock, Paper, Shotgun has reprinted an older article of John Walker's that appeared in The Escapist: a discussion of narrative versus graphics, old versus new. It's an inherently flawed argument (which the author freely admits), singling out the FPS genre in a move that is a bit unfair, but it's true that a strong narrative can overcome a lot of problems in the graphics department, assuming other pieces that make a strong game fall into place:

Imagine the person who sits and reads a book, looks up in horror, and shouts, "This word 'tree' looks nothing like a tree! It looks like some letters on a piece of paper!" and throws the book at the wall, disgusted. He's either a fool or reading a Dan Brown novel. We simply don't work that way. The semiotic power of a word is enough for our beautiful minds to conjure the very best tree imaginable. Literally. We have excellent brains that will always be capable of better graphics than the most exceptional technology ....

Graphics are hugely significant to many people - that can't be ignored. Find the review of a crappy game that doesn't give it a good kick in the pixels. Bad graphics do tend to be a sign of a lack of care in production. But I challenge you to find the review that says, "This game would be excellent and worth your time, if only the graphics were better. But since they're so poor, don't bother." It doesn't happen. If every other factor of a "good" game is present, the poverty of the pictures will be forgiven, although perhaps mentioned. We don't need them - we've already got them fixed upstairs.

There isn't any reason great narratives and superb graphics shouldn't go hand in hand — there are many films out there that illustrate that wonderful pictures on a screen can enhance a strong narrative and vice versa. One of my favorite movies of all time, a 2002 Korean release called Chihwaseon, remains on the top of my movie list because it brings together an engaging narrative, spectacular cinematography, and even sound to a wonderful effect — the visual, mental, and aural converge for an absolutely mesmerizing and immersive movie experience. Remove the narrative, and you have some spectacular cinematography with no substance; remove the fabulous cinematography, and you have a great narrative that deserves a better visual companion.

Is a word worth a thousand pictures? Good words can be. But there's more to games than narrative, and even games devoid of a narrative can be great fun. Still, there's always room for a few more great games, and giving narrative design attention equal to the worrying put in over pixels would stand more than a few developers in good stead.

A Word Is Worth A Thousand Pictures [Rock, Paper, Shotgun]


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