Graphics vs Gameplay

And Why You Can Never Separate The Two

There seem to be two types of gamers out there: those that vigorously deny that graphics are important in a game, as long as “gameplay” is up to code, and those who go crazy over bump maps, real-time shadows, lens flare, and particle effects in even the most pathetic excuses for interactive entertainment. There may be some middle ground, but it’s usually not very evident.

Wolfenstein3DWell, I got news for ya: both groups are full of it. The simple truth is you can’t separate gameplay from graphics, or vice versa. Everything you do with a game is filtered through its visual presentation. Whether you’re playing a text adventure, solitaire, Unreal or Far Cry 3, everything you do with that game depends on what you see on the monitor. Sound often plays a role, but it doesn’t have to; remember all those virtually silent games from before the Sound Blaster was around? You can play many games in complete silence, but you can’t play any with the monitor turned off.

And guess what? Visual display = graphics. Ok, these “graphics” might just be ASCII text, or they might be the latest in 3D, zillion-color animations, but no matter the quality or the content they serve precisely the same purpose. That purpose, of course, is the game itself. It stands to reason, then, that poor graphic quality—whether lack of clarity, confusing displays, or sheer ugliness—can and often will lead to poor game quality. Note that “quality” does not necessarily mean high-end, accelerated, high-color extravaganzas; there are many games that boast cutting-edge looks that are butt-ugly and confusing to boot. No, quality in this sense means nothing more or less than “the ability to present, effectively, the information needed for experiencing, completely and effectively, the game as it was designed and implemented.” This might include little more than text (the old Infocom adventures), basic isometric graphics (Civ III for instance), or the full weight of 3D graphics (any modern 3D shooter).

Given, then, that poor graphics can hurt a game, it also stands to reason that good graphics can help it. But, and this is important, the two halves of this logical assertion are not equivalent. That is, poor graphics might hurt a game depending on who’s playing, but great graphics won’t save a piece of digital trash. That’s because, by definition, poor graphics are those that detract from the game, while good graphics merely allow the game to be as good as it can be, given the limitations of its design and implementation. In other words, kiddies, bad graphics can drag down an otherwise great game, but the prettiest pictures in the cyberverse can’t save a born loser. If a great design is hampered by horrible looks, you don’t want to stare at it for hours figuring it out. Conversely, even if a terrible game looks fantastic, those looks will only carry it so far before gamers grow bored and go back to something more entertaining. But then again if you can only look past those poor visuals, you might find an otherwise cool game with some clever design upon closer scrutiny.


Crysis looked absolutely amazing, but the generic sci-fi motif and bad acting were indeed painful.

Of course, there are those who don’t seem to want anything more than graphics, just as there are those who make a point out of martyring themselves (and letting everyone know it) playing retro games that look dated but still offer entertainment. Usually, of course, games are neither all one or the other.

Crysis, for instance, has insanely good graphics and merely adequate gameplay (that’s how I perceived it, at least), while Civilization III has fantastic gameplay and mediocre graphics. In the first case, the graphics aren’t enough to make Crysis a terrific game, but the gameplay isn’t bad enough to kill it either (actually, gameplay is pretty decent, but the story and design is jam-packed full of cliches). In the latter case, the graphics in Civ III didn’t win any prizes, but they don’t detract much from the game either.

The upshot of all of this is that you can’t separate graphics and gameplay. The two are intimately related. Without effective graphics, you can’t have any gameplay worthy of the name, and without something to do that’s fun, all the pretty pictures in the world won’t help. The balance is often a tense one, and we as gamers generally have to be satisfied with something less than 100% in both categories. When people say “it’s a great game but the graphics are terrible,” what they really mean is “the game is fun, but it would be better if it looked nicer.” And what about people who rave about a game’s looks, and pay scant attention to how it actually plays? Well, either they’re simply unconscious of the underlying gameplay, which in combination with the eye candy is holding their interest, or they’re not particularly bright. Sorry.

But here at OPCG we’re all about poor graphics and fun gameplay.
Don’t ask why, but that’s just how we like ’em.


  1. Isuru says:

    Well Well! What an article.. you share my opinion better than i could say it to anyone! i don’t care about Graphics in older games… and they have Terrific Gameplay.. with Split-Screen, 2-player Gameplay sometimes.. which is a thing i Really DON’T see in modern games much.. well i could say all things in an easier way… 🙂
    The way i see it… i expect these things
    if its Modern – i Expect Great Graphics at least… and good enough Gameplay..
    If its Classic – I expect NO graphics… but Great Gameplay.. and lot of Curious things in it XD

  2. GamerRIZ says:

    More Graphic could be fun especially Crysis are better for now 🙂

  3. Gamertech says:

    The huge problem with Crysis is the poor AI,
    it’s so bad it almost makes the amazing graphics pointless.
    It is a classic game, but not really a quality classic game because of that.

  4. Prenex says:

    Very good points, but there is something I would add: The graphics (or just collectively – the presentation) of the game plays a very big role in its worth. However this part of the games worth is not only a technical question. It is much more a question of how well the graphics are “put together” in a quality way.

    By this I mean that for example you can put together a 320×200 game so extremely well even today, that the whole experience is a graphic art. It might be harder to do so today, but still it is possible. Also there are a whole array of games that look awsome because they are using 2D graphics and the presentation shows the art quality and taste of developers. The curse of monkey island or the worms armageddon would not be much better with any better technology and I do not think anyone would call the games ugly ever. Not even when we will have our complete matrix-like VR/MR worlds in the future.

    Some people dare to say that some games “age well”. I think when this is being said it only tells that when those games were made they were presenting something crazy well put together in terms of the used technology. Technology only defines what kind of thngs you can put together this well, but there are a lot of awful games out there where some excellent developer put in all the shaders and still made a crap because he was not a big studio. For smaller teams, the value of putting together everything well and showing something decent is even more necessary than using latest technology.

    Technology is great and all people like when new things become possible, but a game is a game nevertheless – with graphics adding to its gameplay mostly as said in the above I think 😉

  5. Rimantas says:

    Gameplay is main thing in games. Even best graphics can’t save game if gameplay is dull.

  6. Antonis says:

    Well, very nice article(just recently found the site, to be honest). I maintain the opinion that Gameplay beats Graphics in any case. These older games(and I mean pre-2000) are all the evidence one needs. The graphics on some, like HoMM 3, haven’t aged well at all, but man I can play them all day. Or the Sid Meier games.

  7. Former Gamer says:

    Glad not to be alone thinking this way. Recently replayed Thief, Thief 2 and Thief 3 : both older ones, in spite of their coarse graphics, are still far better than the newer one, which is competent but nothing more. I don’t care about models and landscape including “life-like” realism, I care about story, cleverness, atmosphere and gameplay.
    The same applies to movies : insane amounts of exceptional CGI effects won’t save a bad or even a poor script.

Leave a Comment