If You Think Good Graphics Make Characters Worth Caring About, You're Probably Insane

Last week, when the folks behind Killzone went on Jimmy Fallon's late night show to talk PS4, they said something that stuck with me.

In response to Fallon's question about what the PS4's impressive memory could do for developers, Guerilla Games boss Herman Hulst answered with a great deal of enthusiasm. He said it allows them to create big, vibrant worlds. And...

"At the same time," he said, "it gives us space to develop these characters that you truly care about."

Ten seconds later, we watched the main character of Killzone: Shadow Fall leap down a wall and stick a knife in another person's chest. He then pulled out an assault rifle, unloaded bullets into two people, and slid through burning wreckage, ducking behind a piece of pipe so he could take cover as he gunned down the men around him. Next our hero slowed down time while killing so we could watch the blood spout out of his victim's arteries like a sanguine geyser.

"Yeah! Yeah! That's what I'm talking about!" Fallon shouted.

Characters we truly care about.

I have no doubt that Hulst was being completely genuine when he suggested that better graphics will make the heroes and heroines of our video games more compelling, just like I have no doubt that Heavy Rain designer David Cage meant it when he talked last Wednesday night about how gaming's narrative is restricted by technological limitations.

What I do doubt is that any of this is true.

Over at Unwinnable yesterday, there was a great piece by Chris Dahlen about an indie called Cart Life. You should go read it, not just because you should read everything that Chris Dahlen writes but because it does a fantastic job of summing up a game that knows how to tell a story. Cart Life, Dahlen explains, puts you in the shoes of people who are going through some particularly difficult circumstances. You have to try to make their lives better. This is extremely tough. You will probably fail. You'll empathise with the characters you're playing and the struggles they lead, Dahlen writes, and you'll feel both awful and satisfied.

Dahlen writes:

Nowhere else in our lives do cold hard numbers translate into the daily ups and downs of our experience than when we look in our wallets or check our bank account. And this is the genius of Cart Life, an indie game released in 2011 by Richard Hofmeier. Where other games struggle to use scores to quantify our feelings and concerns, Hofmeier's has gone straight to the number that actually does make us sleepless at night. And the many ways that the game uses money — by which I mean, all of the ways that that number can go down or up — support the questions that Hofmeier seems to be posing.

(Really you should go read the piece.)

One thing not mentioned in Dahlen's article: polygons. Here is a screenshot from Cart Life:

Check out those graphics. I wonder if they needed 8GB of RAM?

To the Moon remains one of the very few video games that has made me cry, because it tells a story that has stuck with me in a genuine way. As I wrote a couple of years ago:

This is a story about love and loss, mostly, but it's also about human nature, about the devastating little mistakes we make and the fragile strings that bind us together. It's about communication. It's about the frustration of having something to say but not knowing how to say it.

Here is a screenshot from To the Moon:

Check out that shading. That must be Unreal Engine 4, right?

Maybe there are games that resonated with you. Maybe you cried when Sephiroth killed Aeris or when you had to live with the consequences of your tough decisions in The Walking Dead. I don't think it's a stretch to say the graphics had nothing to do with that.

We as humans are attracted to aesthetically pleasing objects. That's OK. I won't try to put a stop to the video game industry's quest for the most amazing graphics ever. But this belief in the game development community that more impressive graphics equate to more relatable characters? Insanity all around.

Want to know what makes people care about characters? Better characters. Better written characters. Characters with ambitions and flaws and indecision and all of the other weird intricacies that make humans human. You don't need more RAM to get there.


    I think you heard what you want to hear. The quote you have suggested what you've said but it also implies far more. Do you remember the elevator loading screen proxies in mass effect? They and many other design features are developers compromising to tell a story with limited RAM.

    How about all the close up script pieces in games filmed with next to no distant points if reference or things which get left on the design room floor because games are written for the lowest common denominator console?

    Yeah random question answered during what was probably a very per-prepared presentation doesn't mean he thinks awesome kills make us love a character.

    They do help though :)

    It's funny how this argument should not even be one, both sides are right. Yes amazing things have been done so far with emotions in Games and yes next gen graphics aren't required to so BUT you can still do so much more with more power, take what has been accomplished so far and think what will be achieved in 5 years time.

    I think this is what David Cage was trying to get at but perhaps didn't say it so well. He wasn't saying that original cinema didn't do a good enough job he was just pointing to what film has done since and is still doing, look at paperman by pixar, so much emotion there from a silent cg film that really hasn't been reached before.

    Well if an 8-bit game can make you feel something, I guess there's no possible room for improvement, right? There's no way Clem from The Walking Dead was a better character just because they had the power to make her facial expressions more detailed and natural.

    Seriously though it's like gaining access to coloured paint. Sure, there are millions of sketches out there done in charcoal that are absolute works of art, but the Mona Lisa wouldn't be the Mona Lisa without colour. It's the difference between stage and cinema. It's the difference between book and comic book. None of them reign supreme but all of them have potential in different ways.
    When developers say next gen graphics will let them make better characters they aren't saying it was impossible before. It's safe to say they've all played at least one game that forged a connection with them or else they probably would have went into a different field. They're saying it makes it easier to do that. They're saying it gives them more options while doing it. More ways for their characters and worlds to express themselves.

    The people with the really backwards attitude are guys like Jason here. Killzone doesn't forge a connection with him so it's characters can't be loved*. If it's not some obscure indy title, critically acclaimed for it's story or be looked back on with nostalgia it can't be meaningful to anyone (even though it's cutting edge graphics, at the time of release, prove that graphics can enhance a story). At the end of the day some people love Halo and the characters in that universe and a big part of that is graphics. Not love for cutting edge graphics, but the love for the world they enjoy looking at enough to want to dive deeper into it.

    *Although at this point I've probably got to admit that Killzone isn't particularly loved, even by fans, but that's not why Jason is so quick to dismiss it.

    Realistic graphics in games and this 'more polys + effects = more engaging' theory hardly ever rings true. The more realism in the visuals the less one's imagination is used to fill in the gaps and the 'link' you have to the game decreases as it becomes a strictly one way direction of spoon feeding the elements to the person playing. Hardly anything is left for the individual gamer to interpret on their own anymore, everything is spelled out and handed to you as opposed to allowing you to use your imagination to create that link.

    Look at even FPS games. FPS games from the 90s hardly ever explained themselves to the nth degree. Quake, for example or Doom. You're just there and it's survival. You're not told why you're there or who your character is, it's just pure survival. These days we, apparently, have to be told why your there, why it matters, why these guys your killing are bad, why what you're doing is so important. This just takes away anything for your own interpretation and you're told why as opposed to your working out things for yourself and making your own opinions.

    When it comes to stories in games 99% of them are still stuck in writing and delivery that is formulated like a kids movie. Simple constructs and predictability that doesn't make you think about what you're doing and just making sure you're "doing" the game. Who has ever thought of the story inbetween the story cinemas while actually playing/fighting/whatever? The story elements and therefore the character investment only happen when we aren't actually playing, making games very hard to get that emotional attachment and involvemnt. Games make this harder on themselves, unlike movies or books, as the element we control is what limits the amount of variation. A movie narrative doesn't allow us to change things and we don't expect to, and therefore are allowed to use our imaginations to make interpretations and develop links emotionally to characters. A game will always have that problem and will always rely on a strong narrative that bonds quickly with gamer to ever have that deeper connection, so it's an uphill battle.

    I guess while most games are simple morality plays that use cookie-cutter personalities for their characters the level of personal investment and emotional connection is going to be much more akin to the latest hollywood action movie aimed at a teenage audience rather than something that tries to deliver an experience that requires thought and instrospection about what's happening before us.

    The last thing I'd like to whinge about is that EVERY game these days has a story. A back story, a plot, characters. I've played puzzle games that even try to do this. Apparently every game these days has to justify itself before you even press start. Why is this so important? How many of the stories actually affect the gameplay? I'm all for better stories and characters, but seriously, a lot of games these days would benefit from no story at all and just let the game itself be the entertainment instead of me hammering the button to skip past the cinemas all the time.

    Ok, I'm done.

    Better graphics let developers make more detailed characters that are capable of showing more emotion. Just look at that old man face Quantic Dream showed. I feel those sort of visuals, actually being able to see anger or sadness in a characters face instead of just reading how they're feeling in text or by hearing the tone of their voice will make it possible for developers to create characters we truly care about. That's not to say you can't still care about characters that aren't rendered in super high graphics, but I'm excited for characters that will be able to convey emotion in a more visual manner.

    Honestly, this is a no brainer.

    Books can make people cry when characters die with just text...

    Both are important. Clearly the writing is the biggest contributer (also performance where applicable) but would Gollum in LotR/Hobbit have been as effective if he was a sock puppet?

      If everybody in Lotr was a sock puppet and the suspension of disbelief was achieved (unlikely but possible) then I'm 100% sure he would have been as effective.

    This is my problem with people talking about games needing a story. I agree most games don't have one but everytime someone points a game with a story out like To the Moon, the game isn't really a game its just a book with a few interactive parts to it you spend 90% of the time reading and of course thats going to lead to more story but it lacks in gameplay making it rather boring to be doing when i want to be playing a game with story.

    I haven't seen the interview, but I'm not seeing how a question about "impressive memory", answered with "it gives us space to develop these characters that you truly care about" has anything to do with graphics. It seems fairly clear to me that he's talking about the amount of data needed to bring a character to life, whether that be personality, good dialogue or anything else.

    Sometimes I think the authors on this site just don't stop and think about what they're saying. What a silly thing to suggest, that improved tech in a tech + creativity based medium is incapable of improving the range of experiences possible. Utterly silly.

    maybe it just makes it easier for artists to realize their characters in a presentable media, and as such allows much better transference of said character, all the examples you gave are instances where the games character and story was pretty much designed to be presented that way, but what if I want to present my character in a much more detailed and three dimensional environment?

    graphics don't make a character, but they can certainly help in establishing them within the world.

    1up for Final Fantasy VII. The moment when Aeris dies would have to be one of the most gut-wrenching moments of all time in my gaming life, even when watching it for the second time after accidentally not saving then dying just after. It'd be up there with how I felt as I watched one of my FarCry2 friends die in my arms after trying desperately to save him. I reloaded at least a dozen times in an attempt to rescue him in time, but alas - to no avail. I'm sure my opinions differs to others but those two moments in gaming are the ones that have stuck with me the most. Oh, that and when Ash tries to get Pikachu to leave in "goodbye Pikachu" :)

    I've been gaming since the Atari 2600, and the only time a game has made me shed a tear was during the ending of LA Noire.

    Obviously this was intrinsically linked to the quality of writing and characterisation -- which could be done 8 bit style -- but perhaps equally important was the amazing detail of character expression thanks to the facial detail and animation.

    Gameplay is ultimately more important than graphics, but better graphics capability combined with gameplay and storytelling is obviously the way forward.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm all for the indie movement and still love "hard as nails" old-school gameplay too.

    Guybrush Threepwood. I cared about that dude more in the early 8-bit days, than now, in all his 3D glory. Case closed.

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