A quick word about imagination in games

Written by Ben Mansell

March 30, 2012 // 8:01 a.m.

Tags: #gaminggraphicsbraidragebastion

Imagination And Immersion

Good graphics > bad graphics. This appears to be a logical statement. It’s not like there are many games marked down for having graphics that were too good. But why are good graphics better than bad graphics? Comparing the two, the answer is relatively obvious: bad graphics distract you from enjoying the game. They interfere with the experience, and especially if you’re playing a story driven single player game, can break the immersion. Good graphics are the opposite: they allow you to become more fully absorbed in a game.

The games we loved in the 80s and 90s had bad graphics by today’s standards, so how did we manage to play them without being distracted? The reality is you don’t need perfect real-life graphics to enjoy a game; all you need is for the graphics to provide you just enough information for your imagination to fill in the gaps.

Books represent the most extreme example of this. Despite usually having no graphics at all, a well written novel allows your mind to flesh out the gaps in the written word, creating entire fictional worlds based on relatively little actual information.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how can a game, even a game with bad graphics, be less immersive than a book? It’s true that an engaging story relies on every aspect being presented in a coherent and well realised way, and few non-engrossing games are due only to bad graphics in an otherwise flawless experience. But one thing is certain: you don’t need ultra-realistic graphics to create a consuming game as long as you can use your imagination to do the rest. When a game is truly immersive, you form a balancing act between the graphics and your imagination, filling in the gaps in the presentation of the game where necessary.

Bad Graphics
So if good graphics don’t automatically equate to a more captivating experience, despite perceived wisdom, then how can bad graphics automatically spoil your immersion of a game?

It’s worthwhile to examine what actually are 'bad' graphics. Take Minecraft as a case-in-point: does it have 'bad' graphics? Many people would argue not, but no-one would argue it had 'good' graphics in the context of modern games. What it definitely does have is consistent graphics.

A quick word about imagination in games
Rage: the home of texture pop-up?

A good story doesn’t need fantastic graphics. It needs graphics which are consistent enough to allow your imagination to fill in the rest. The problem arises when graphical inconsistencies are present, as you’re forced to either scale back or further employ your imagination as you play, and it’s this that breaks the immersion. Some of the most enthralling games of recent years, such as indie-darlings Braid and Bastion, have hardly been graphical powerhouses. Conversely, despite its cutting-edge technology, the immersion in Rage was broken every time you turned around and were greeted with texture pop-up.

I would even argue that pure imagination is more immersive than anything a game’s graphics could show. Your imagination has untapped access to your unconscious, whereas graphics are limited by the monitor they’re shown on. You could liken it to why film adaptations are very rarely as good as the books they’re based on.

I’m not saying every game should be text based (although childhood memories of Granny’s Garden, Martello Towers and The Lost Frog on the BBC Micro are testament to the all-consuming power of a good text-based game). Instead, no-one should assume that just because a game isn’t presented in the most beautiful graphics then the players won’t be able to see past that.

Games don’t need to show every detail to be engrossing, just as a good book doesn’t need to describe every detail of a character to make them feel genuine. On their own, good graphics are pretty irrelevant. More accurately, a game’s graphics only really need to be consistent, and therefore good enough to allow your imagination to work its magic.


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