Are Graphics in Games Actually Important?

Every time a new console generation gets announced, we will definitely hear developers boast about its “ultra-realistic”, “cutting-edge” or “next-gen” graphics. This is as much of a constant as the sun rising from the east and setting in the west.

Despite this, some of the biggest games of 2020 have been games that don’t have what we might call “cutting edge graphics”–think Among Us, Fall Guys, Animal Crossing and Phasmophobia. How is it that so many game designers and console manufacturers put so much effort into making their games look “realistic”, but consumers would rather play Phasmophobia, a janky-looking indie horror game?

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Phasmophobia is not a good-looking game, but it became one of the biggest games of 2020.
Image source: RepublicWorld

This topic is by no means the first of its kind. While it’s been discussed to death by many different people, most of the times the conclusion boils down to “gameplay is king”, with graphics being of secondary importance. In reality, that’s not all, as graphics do matter but not in the way most people think.

Style vs Fidelity

First, we’ll need to establish a few terms. Graphical fidelity is a catch-all term that refers to how a game looks, in terms of detail, FPS (frames per second) and resolution. All of these affect how a game look and it’s usually what gets improved on the most between console generations.

Detail encompasses the entire look of the game, including elements such as lighting and effects. FPS affects how smooth a game looks and how responsive it feels to control, while resolution affects the amount of pixels displayed on screen. A larger resolution allows for the image to be displayed on a larger screen without potentially losing some of the detail in the process.

Crysis 3 (2013) still looks impressive to this day thanks to its high graphical fidelity

Style, on the other hand, indicates how the game is designed. This is based on several aspects, such as its user interface (UI), the overall look of the game, its color palette, and many more. Think of style as a writer’s font, and graphical fidelity as the paper and ink on which their words are printed.

Journey Screenshots | Journey, Screenshots, Natural landmarks
Journey (2012) looks great even to this day thanks to it strong sense of style

In my opinion, style is much more important compared to fidelity. While a console’s potential for high graphical fidelity could make a style work–for example, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has an amazing style that couldn’t have been achieved with hardware from 10 years ago–there are games from the previous decade that still look good today due to their heavy stylization. A perfect example would be comparing Okami (left) and Dead Rising (right), two games that were both released in 2006:

It’s quite clear how a game with a much more defined style ages better, and it also shows that graphical fidelity isn’t everything. In fact, some of the most timeless-looking games are often those that are the most stylized. For example, Minecraft, Tetris, Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Okami, Pokemon and many more are titles that have stood the test of time and look good even to this day.

4K? 2K? 8K? Performance or Resolution?

Game resolution is another big topic that is usually thrown around when discussing graphics in games. For example, console manufacturers often mention “4k gaming”, which is touted as the next big leap in game resolution, similar to when the PS3 pushed their resolution to 1080p. However, just how big of a deal is 4K?

For the uninitiated, “4K” refers to the amount of pixels being displayed on screen. It has about 4 times the amount of pixels on screen compared to 1080p, which is the standard for most technology these days. Despite many developers boasting about how their games are playable in 4K, I can’t shake the feeling that it is by far one of the least important aspects when it comes to graphics.

Firstly, 4K gaming is inaccessible to most people. There’s only a small minority of players that can run the latest games like Cyberpunk 2077 in 4K smoothly, as you’ll need a machine that costs more than two PS5s. It makes for an awkward situation where barely anyone can fully take advantage of 4K gaming, and yet developers are putting in countless hours of work to make their games look good in 4K.

Plus, even if you have a gaming rig capable of running 4K gaming smoothly, you probably wouldn’t even be able to tell. Based on the chart below, you would need to run your game on a 55″ TV at a distance of 2m for 4K to make a difference.

Optimal TV viewing distance by its size, for DVD, 720p, 1080p and Ultra HD (previously known as 4K) resolutions.
Depending on your screen size and viewing distance, you might not even get any benefit from 4K. Image Source: rtings.com

Not to mention, most gamers will often choose performance over graphics any time of the day. On less powerful rigs, the difference between 30FPS and 60FPS gaming feels like night and day. The most recent games on consoles ultimately suffer in terms of performance when they have to render at a higher resolution, ultimately making the games feel worse to control. In most cases, we aren’t getting true 4K either, as it is more often than not simply upscaled from a lower resolution.

In short, while many developers and console manufacturers seem to place game resolution as an utmost priority, it is still secondary to the actual look and feel of the game. A game with a simple but defined style and well-designed gameplay will always manage to leave an impression on its players, whether it’s playable in 4K or not.

Conclusion

Ultimately, while this discussion can be boiled down to “gameplay is king”, it goes much deeper than that. A game with an eye-catching art style and effective gameplay is often more timeless and memorable than a title that only strives for graphical fidelity. So, maybe those are the games we should be hoping to see more of.

You can now play Cuphead on your Nintendo Switch – and it's still as hard  as ever
Cuphead (2017) has a unique style that complements its gameplay.

Did you agree with our thoughts? Let us know what you think in the comments below!

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