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.