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"Graphic" Violence: Style Vs. Substance in Video Games

Red Dead Gear Solid.
Last night, before heading to bed, I had an interesting conversation with my girlfriend about graphics in video games. We started talking about Microsoft's advertising bullet point of "cinematic gameplay to rival Hollywood," and I commented how I felt that it was ridiculous for corporations that keep trying to put out prettier and prettier games for the sake of one-upping both each other and blockbuster movies. However, she pointed out the fact that I routinely lauded trailers for certain games, like Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, for their movie-like qualities and dazzling eye candy graphics. That point hit me like a freight train, because she was absolutely right: as much as I contend that good games don't need to have good graphics, I get wrapped up in the hype of "OMG NXTGEN GRAFIX" and watching cinematic cutscenes unfold in some of my favorite series.

So, that forced me to think. As a gamer, how do I feel about graphical emphasis and focus on cinematic storytelling in one of my choice mediums?

An Eight-Hour Movie

Firstly, it's probably a good idea to address one of the more poignant things she said during this conversation. It was a comment on how I have routinely criticized studios for attempting to make games that tried to compete with Hollywood, and how little actual gameplay said studios put in their games. Yet, she pointed out, I am avid fan of Hideo Kojima's landmark Metal Gear Solid series, which are known for their extensive cutscenes. For those who don't follow the series, it weaves a giant narrative web of political intrigue through its entries, spliced with moments of serious character study and giant diatribes of technobabble. As such, the cutscenes within the franchise are notoriously long. How long? Well, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots has about five combined hours of cutscenes in total. Yet, as I sat and watched these movie-length cinematics, not once did I feel like I wasn't getting my money's worth out of the game. What's with that? Isn't that the very thing I claim to hate?

Well, honestly, I'm not quite sure anymore, after having this single query throw me into a giant mental tizzy. While it's true that extensive cutscenes typically annoy me, it's also true that I love watching cool stuff unfold on the screen in front of me. When a long cutscene reveals the true identity of the killer in Heavy Rain, or when Ellie takes care of Joel through a harsh Winter in The Last of Us, or when Yuna is sending off the spirits of dead villagers in Final Fantasy X, I'm on the edge of my seat, or moved to tears, or both. Yet when I see gameplay of Beyond: Two Souls or Ryse: Son of Rome, I quickly condemn them both for having non-stop cinematics and barely any gameplay. Where do I get off doing that?

Yuna sending off souls atop a gush of fans' tears... including mine.
My defense would basically boil down to this: the games that I feel are "worthy" of having long cutscenes are the ones that, to me, have earned the right to make me sit through a movie-length experience in the middle of my game. A game like Beyond, for example, has no right, to me, because its story is exceptionally trite, the "emotion" David Cage is trying to evoke falls flat, there's barely any gameplay, and the entire experience has been hyped up as this kind of celebrity-fueled movie experience. Well, if I wanted to see that, wouldn't I just go pay to see a movie and call it a day? A game like Final Fantasy X, on the other hand, offers a lot more than that. The selling points were never "watch this beautiful movie" or "have emotions at these times." They encouraged players to immerse themselves in a world and take in the scenery and characters without handholding, to battle hordes of enemies and put a lot of effort into building up the strength of the player's characters. Moments like Tidus and Yuna laughing together or Yuna performing a Sending don't feel inappropriate, because they come after major battles, or after a long trek, or something like that. And in the case of the Metal Gear franchise, Kojima's narrative is so convoluted and multifaceted, yet not feasible enough to make into a film, that it's entirely necessary for it to manifest itself in long cutscenes.

On that note, it's also important to point out what ultimately decides how much is too much when cinematics are concerned, and to me, that boils down to the gameplay. Metal Gear Solid 3&4, which have some of the longest cutscenes in the entire franchise, are games have intricate and complex gameplay which houses several nuances players have to grow accustomed to, to the point where it's not uncommon to sit around for a while and map out strategies for certain areas, or to intensely monitor resources. So, to use an overused phrase, "the ends justify the means." That is to say, the amount of effort put forth into creating an immersive environment which requires mastery over the controls in order to maneuver excuses, in my mind, the developers' desire to unveil narrative in a movie-like way. By constrast, games like the Uncharted franchise shouldn't have cutscenes that take up a lot of time, because it's much more a "pick up and play" type of affair. If a player isn't going to have to invest a lot of time in learning how to play the game, and it's a game focused on pure adrenaline, then it's for the best to minimize time spent sitting and watching Nathan Drake climb up a train that's dangling off a cliff, and maximize the time spent making him climb that train, letting them take in the scenery as they go along.

The train's a metaphor for the PS3, considering that this game saved the system.
So, basically, my feelings on cutscenes boil down to whether or not the game itself necessitates it. Games like Metal Gear justify their usage given how open-ended and complex the gameplay is, while ones like the Uncharted series don't due to the fact that the experience is built around exciting players and not giving them a massive amount of things to learn. Furthermore, even shallower games that use cutscenes effectively don't shove their narratives down your throat, and instead let you decide how you feel about the characters, the world, and the narrative involving both of those. Like many things, then, the final say on cutscenes is that it really all depends on who's using them and how they're using them.

Eye of the Beholder

This leads us into the biggest point of conflict for me, which is the graphical prowess displayed by a game. Now, I claim to hate games that hype up how great they look in HD, or whether or not the damn thing runs at 60fps, or what have you. Yet, I get excited for games like Killzone: Shadow Fall because they looking freaking beautiful on next-gen (well, I guess it's current-gen now) technology. Quite factually, my girlfriend seemed to be pointing out that my statements routinely conflict, and by all accounts, she's absolutely correct. A game like Deadly Premonition will come out, and I'll staunchly defend its horrible graphics thanks to its intriguing narrative and fun gameplay, yet I'll trash another game for having graphics that are of similar quality. It's a pretty contradictory cycle of behavior, really, and I don't blame anybody who talks to me about video games for getting confused by this. But it's time that real truth about my feelings comes out, and now that I've had some time to think about it, I think I can have a definitive answer.

There are certain genres that I have absolute, pure bias about when it comes to what I expect from them graphically. Not only that, but that bias fully extends to the entire visual aesthetic of the game as a whole. Using the 12 year-old bragging grounds of choice, the Call of Duty franchise, as an example, I can suss out what I mean by the latter statement more clearly. Allegedly, Modern Warfare 3 was the more impressive game in the visual department, and got incredibly high marks on the graphics from quite a few critics. I, however, found myself more drawn to the environments on display in Black Ops, as there was much more variety throughout the game. Flora and fauna vs. concrete and steel, rivers and valleys vs. streets and highways... the former parties always win out for me when comparing games, and despite the more jagged textures in the previous entry, it left me more impressed in the looks department. 

"Monster attacking?  Better point my gun at the ceiling, Zach!"
In terms of graphically fidelity, high-definition gameplay, and all of that other stuff companies like advertising on the case, my interest depends solely on the type of game it is, and how much stuff like it there is on the market, and how much of an improvement it is over previous iterations, or what console it's on. Ultimately, my graphical standards are pretty up in the air, and are really hard to nail down to a set of established norms. There are certain genres that I like to look a certain way, sure; I want my Zelda games to be colorful and lively, I want my Silent Hill games to be dark and dreary. But as far as my actual standards for how a game looks goes, well, I'm even quite sure what those are. I kind of just know them when I see them, which may seem like a lame, cop-out answer, but it's ultimately how I feel about the whole thing.

And as far as games on the new consoles out right now are concerned, my praise for their graphics is based on one thing: how much fucking money they cost, how much hype any given game is being given, and how much money is being sunk into them. For example, I want Killzone Shadow Fall to look fucking great if they can justify sinking that much money into yet another shooter; I want Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain to look photo-realistic if they're pitching beautiful, varied environments that I can sneak through, and if they're planning on showing the age of returning characters. Yet I can forgive the limitations Super Mario 3D World might face, so long as the environments are colorful and fun to look at, or the lack of polish on certain textures in Need for Speed Rivals, if the developer can manage to convey a true sense of breakneck speed. 

But again, I must stress that this all boils down to my personal bias based on my preconceived notions of what I personally feel certain games should look like. My judgments on what X game or Y game should look like are uniquely mine, and while there are many people with similar views, they are not the same, and that's perfectly fine. So, the bottom line is that while I do care if a game is pretty or not, it depends on what type of game it is, what system it's on, how much have the graphics been pitched, the variety within the game, blah blah blah. You get the point.

"Sorry, Mario, the Princess is in anoth-... Oh."
Maybe my girlfriend's query to me, then, isn't completely solved. After all, it's steeped deeply in a lot of arbitrary standards, ones that I decide based upon my experience with games. But, ultimately, that's what all statements about video games, and what they ought to do, and how they ought to play, and how they ought to look, are in the end. While some might see the long cutscenes in Metal Gear Solid 4 to be extraneous, I find them to be excusable and necessary; some people may argue that I'm hypocritical for praising photorealism in one game but bashing developers touting it heavily in another, but to me, it boils down to what the game is and how it's used. I guess what I'm trying to say is that there's really no one standard to base games' graphics on, because it all ultimately boils down to personal preferences.

Man, again with the cop-out answers, huh?


  1. Great article! I feel like this is something that is actually pretty common in the game-world, so to speak. There really is an expectation for next gen to look better, and people get damn well angry if they don't look "better enough" to count for "next gen" - even if they don't think graphics make a game great.


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