Shank Rants: Art Style And Graphics

Back in June 2011, the United States Supreme Court officially confirmed what all of us who play and enjoy games had already known for years: video games are art.

Now I’m not here to give you a history lesson, rather, I do believe it important and relevant to begin this piece with that bit of fact, if only to bring some pretense of import to this weekly drivel.

Admittedly, I have wanted to talk about this upcoming topic for some time now, I just have never gotten around to it. And so, with no other restrictions placed on me, and now that I’ve taken a brief hiatus from slaughtering Drowners in Velen, let me discuss with you all a subject I’ve longed to address.

Art style and graphics are two different things. The majority opinion out there is that art style matters more than graphics – whatever that means. To a larger point, gameplay actually matters over graphics – despite console fanboys comparing resolution and framerates to death – but that is an entirely different discussion for perhaps another Rant.

I am here to talk about this “art style vs graphics” discussion because I believe this is a rather interesting conversation to have. As we know, and as I stated at the top of this piece, video games are art. I believe video games to be the ultimate form of art and consequently, the ultimate form of expression. It is the only art form where you simultaneously create and consume content. You can’t do this in literature, and sure as hell can’t do this in film.

Video games are the most personal of art forms, and in my opinion, the most impactful as well.

Forgive that brief meander, but I believe it was necessary. Art style and graphics, while contributing to and eventually creating the video game art, are two different aspects of games.

I have often been asked which one I prefer. Those of you who know me well enough already know the answer. But allow me to pretentiously put forth an argument before delivering my verdict.

To me, art style is the most literal interpretation of those two words. It is the form of art chosen by the designers to define the visual style. If that seems ambiguous, perhaps this can help. Dishonored has a very distinct art style. The whole game looks like a beautiful oil painting. Its style is very different from Ryse, for example.

I have chosen these two games deliberately. Dishonored has a beautiful art style, designed to look like an oil painting. However, it does not have advanced graphics. And yes, there is a difference. To me, graphics are a way to convincingly portray your art style – albeit with a few more technical bells and whistles to help achieve this.

And again, this is why I’ve chosen to discuss Dishonored and Ryse. Dishonored has a beautiful, unique and highly stylized art style, but unrealistic graphics. I would go so far as to say the graphics are lackluster.

On the other hand, Ryse has incredibly advanced graphics, but no clear distinct art style. However, the argument can be made that the art style used in Ryse is “photorealism” because we know that “photorealism” is an actual art style. Still, as far as uniqueness goes, Ryse has no unique art style.

So here we have two games that are quite different in their visual aesthetic. One has a unique art style but lackluster graphics. The other has advanced graphics but no real unique art style. However, there exists a third option, a middle ground if you will.

What if you can have a distinct art style and advanced graphics? Fortunately, there exists a game which does exactly that. In fact, you’ve been staring at it for the past few minutes. Of course, I’m talking about The Witcher 3.

CD Projekt Red have managed to merge a distinct, almost surreal art style with highly advanced, photorealistic graphics. And they’ve pulled it off beautifully. This is without a doubt the most beautiful, most technically advanced RPG I’ve ever played, and arguably the most beautiful, technically advanced RPG on the market today.

So no, this isn’t a zero sum game. You absolutely do NOT have to choose to develop your game with a distinct art style or with photorealistic graphics. You actually can have your cake and eat it too.

Now, which one do I prefer? It should come as no surprise that, while I absolutely love Dishonored and Ryse, I prefer advanced graphics to distinct art style any day. I am always chasing the cutting edge, and advancements in graphics are the easiest and most obvious means by which to measure genuine, tangible progress in our industry.

Why? A story as beautiful as The Last Of Us could have been written for games in the 90s. Distinct, though limited, art style for games could have existed 20 years ago. However, the immersion and outright beauty of photorealistic graphics simply were NOT possible back then. In other words, you don’t need technology to enable a good story, but you do need technology to enable total visual immersion.

And it is precisely for that reason why I will always prefer photorealistic graphics to distinct art style. Whether you know this or not, graphics are the first thing you’ll notice when playing a game for the first time. It’s the first thing that helps you become immersed in that game. And only through advances in technology will this immersion become more and more real.

And ultimately, this elevates our art form into something beyond anything we’ve seen. Into something more. Into something that truly transcends human understanding. Into something inescapably beautiful.