A couple of years ago, I decided I wanted to learn to draw better. I picked up some basic erasers, a cheap sketchpad, and three grades of pencils. Essentially, I had could produce one shade of light tones, one shade of middle tones, and one shade of dark tones with the tools that I had. I stuck with those tools for a while, building up my skills. I largely ignored any sense of color variation and shading, and just used the light pencil for basic sketching and detailing, the mid-pencil for tracing over my sketch lines and making them more visible, and the dark pencil for areas that were supposed to be black. My drawings remained pretty rudimentary, limited by both my selection of pencils and my uses of them.
One Christmas, a friend of mine gave me a set of shading pencils as a gift. Ten pencils of progressing gradients from 2H (relatively light) to 8B (really, really dark). At first, I had no idea what to do with them. I had no idea how to properly work shading into my pictures, and just drawing minorly different shades of lines didn’t seem that useful to me. I kept experimenting, though, and once I learned how to properly use them in my drawings, well… I essentially went from drawing like this:
to drawing like this:
in a relatively short amount of time. Those pencils not only gave me different shades to work with, they allowed me to use different techniques, to truly advance my artistic skills. Sure, I could have just used them as I did my old pencils, and my pictures would have been a slight bit better, but it wasn’t until I started using them to do something new that I truly reached the next generation of my work.
The recent launch of the Xbox One and the PS4 has given me cause to reflect on that. Just like I was when I received those new pencils, game designer should now have access to more tools to create their art than ever before. Yet, if they just keep doing the same things with them, like if I had just used those new pencils for drawing lines, the eighth generation of consoles will be totally wasted.
Graphics get a lot of play when talking about, well, pretty much any console advancement, for solid reasons. Evaluating a game’s worth solely by its graphics is about as dumb as evaluating an actor’s skill solely by how good he looks. After all, I’m not the world’s greatest actor, am I? However, there’s no denying that graphics have a universal appeal and can be markedly impressive.
Thing is, graphics are only as impressive as the work that they are used to produce. The PS4 may be able to show 16 million colors at once, but if all of them are brown your game’s just going to look like a piece of crap. Good graphics cannot stand alone; if you want to make a game’s visuals truly engaging, art style is key. Graphical power is just a tool, like a pencil, to adequately display your art.
You could have the best graphics in the world, yet if your settings aren’t vibrant, your characters aren’t visually interested, and your cutscenes aren’t expressive, what is it even work. A bland, drab landscape is never going to be interesting, no matter how high you turn up the fidelity.
Graphical power is just one more tool in the artist’s workstation. In and of itself, it’s next to worthless. It’s only once you learn to use it, once you’re able to add to your designs rather than simply doing what you’ve always done in higher resolution, that you’re truly creating better visuals.
As proof, I’m going to take a page out of Mental Gaming‘s book and show you some landscapes. All of these are from games on non-HD consoles, yet the artistry on display on these makes them much more visually interesting than anything you’re likely to find in Battlefield Duty 8: Call of Honor 2 or whatever.
The Wind Waker is the prime example of this. I played the original and HD port this year and found that it really didn’t need much work. Whereas comparing it to the top of the range PS2/XBox graphics of the time, I really feel that they have dated badly.