Brains vs graphics

· by Steve · Read in about 4 min · (811 Words)

When it comes to game graphics, I’ve always had something of a mental dichotomy. Despite being obviously really keen on real time graphics (you might have noticed a hint or two to that end over the life of this blog), I’m also a very strong believer that in good games, graphics are far from the most important element. It doesn’t stop me from wanting to make better and better graphical subsystems, because as a graphics geek I love to do it, but at the same time I have my feet firmly on the ground as to the place of these results in the grand scheme of things when it actually comes to enjoyment. Graphics are the window dressing, the ‘attract mode’ on the arcade machine if you will - they just get you that initial attention, make the punter stop and go ‘oo’ for a second. Let’s not underestimate that - in a crowded, competetive market it’s important to grab some attention, but really as soon as said punter grabs the controls and starts playing, the graphics immediately jump several steps down the importance scale, giving way to things like gameplay and story content (if applicable).

I’ve always thought this but a few experiences recently have really reinforced it. Most obviously was the fact that I spent over 3 hours playing Legend of Zelda: The Occarina of Time last night. I didn’t actually intend to - I put the wrong disk in the machine, intending to play Wind Waker, which I’ve only gone back to recently after missing out on it when it was released due to lack of time (Wind Waker came with Occarina of Time on a bonus disk) and on a whim I thought what the hell, I’ll give it a try. I’d never had an N64 so I’d never played it.

Now, at first the graphics really made me wince. This is 1998 game technology after all, so it’s primitive in the extreme. Nevertheless, I stuck with it for half an hour out of interest, and something odd happened. I didn’t really see the graphics anymore. I saw what the graphics represented - a tree, a path, a monster, my character - but I didn’t really see them as such - I perceived them. What had happened is that because the game itself was engaging, my brain had just jumped into ‘pattern recognition mode’ where the surface details weren’t important, and all that mattered was grokking the visual cues required to play the game. The graphics were just as awful (in 2006 terms) 3 hours later than they were in the first 5 minutes, but as far as playing the game was concerned, it was irrelevant.

An example from the other end of the spectrum was playing Call of Duty 2 a little while back. Visually on a good card, it was very pretty indeed. At first, the whole WW2 atmosphere engulfed me and I really dug the whole visual and aural spectacle. But, after a while I stopped noticing that. The graphics and sound got no less impressive as I played, but except for a few rare spikes of interest, what I actually perceived was “I’m running around obstacles shooting people in the face. Again.”. I wasn’t even seeing the graphics anymore, I was just seeing the underlying mechanics, and after a while, I got bored enough not to bother anymore.

Raph Koster talked about this a lot in his book, A Theory of Fun, which I read a few months back. He talked about how the brain’s primary function is to learn patterns, and to learn to recognise them quickly without having to perceive all the detail. That’s why you see faces in clouds / trees / patches of dirt (our brains are particularly hardwired for facial recognition), and why you can be fooled by trick pictures, and why you can make sense of so much visual information in nanoseconds whilst the fastest computers in the world are baffled. The brain is lazy - it doesn’t want to do all the work of processing visuals in raw form all the time, it just wants to recognise the important details according to its learned patterns, and move on. Whilst I found myself agreeing with him whilst reading this based on my own experience, I don’t think I’ve had such an ideal example of it as last night’s Occarina of Time sojourn.

In summary - graphics catch the eye, make for great (and necessary) publicity, but know that the human brain is hardwired to make them irrelevant, and it’s amazing how quick it achieves this. You can mix it up every so often to make the brain learn new patterns, and rekindle that initial ‘ooo’ somewhat, but in the end, they won’t matter. There are many game makers and fanboy game consumers who fail to keep this in perspective, IMO.