Selling an old sweater with amazing lens flare.
I’m walking through a dungeon of shadows in Paper Sorcerer. Every line, every detail is a reflection of an unseen light. The ambient noise creates a feeling of background dread while the claustrophobic space both pushes me forward and draws me back. The mood is haunting and strange, yet it draws me in to its mystery. The biggest question: Why the hell does a game with four colors and designed by one guy feel and look better than blockbusters like Destiny or Call of Duty?
Game graphics can be broken down into two major categories: technical capacity and aesthetic. Technical capacity is the raw resources available to the developers to create the visuals for a game. Not only does that include the processing power of the console or PC on which the game is played, but it also includes the number of programmers, time available, and money devoted to graphics. With the appropriate amount of technical capacity, developers can create ultra-detailed worlds with photo-realistic visuals. Destiny or Call of Duty are perfect examples of games with high technical capacity. Aesthetic, on the other hand, is the overarching design strategy of the visuals. Aesthetic is less concerned about what things could look like and more concerned about what they should look like. The aesthetic is the overarching visual strategy that makes the graphics look cohesive. As an example of this, look at the Borderlands series or the aforementioned Paper Sorcerer. In an ideal world, a clever aesthetic is backed by a sufficient amount of technical capacity to realize the strategy.
Getting back to the original question, the reason a small game like Paper Sorcerer has better visuals than Destiny is that Paper Sorcerer had both a strong aesthetic and the technical capacity to achieve it whereas Destiny had uses its nearly unlimited technical capacity but no without aesthetic direction. Consider Destiny’s levels: the game has washed out deserts, futuristic temples, and alien landscapes; however, nothing unites these disparate images and nothing makes them stand out. They are the blandest versions of these concepts and lack any originality of their own. Take an image from Paper Sorcerer and you know it’s from that game. Take an image from Destiny and it could serve any other big budget shooter with little modification. Now, Destiny is certainly one of the most technically capable depictions of these environments. Plants fluttering in the breeze, wrecked cars dotting the landscape, and the massive draw distance (the area the player can see before the game stops showing graphics) are all testaments to the considerable resources that Destiny developer Bungie and the publisher Activision put into the game. The contrast between the great technical detail and poor aesthetic means these examples are also monuments to poor graphics design.
Though not as much as it once did, the big budget parts of the games industry remains tied to the notion that better graphics requires technically strong graphics. This is because big developers: (1) have the resources to invest and (2) the notion helps cover up their own weaknesses in innovation. When a publisher wants a new game every year, it’s easier to add more detail and optimize the graphics engine than go through the difficult process of developing new ideas. We also see this thinking in the release of new consoles that tout amazing graphics as a selling point as if the technical capacity of their older system were outdated. In the end, great graphics don’t come from accurately modeling mustache hairs or lovingly crafting bland landscapes, but from a well-executed and exciting new view of a world. They create a feeling of wonder through concepts and only with details that serve those concepts. When the big developers marry aesthetic with their considerable technical capacity, I think we’ll see the best of both worlds.