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A Word Is Worth A Thousand Pictures

Booker's front cover

This wordthink originally appeared in the Escapist. It’s an exercise in tackling the graphics vs narrative argument, which perhaps occasionally lapses into cliche. As you’ll see as you read through, I don’t necessarily agree with all my arguments – it was written in an attempt to create a thesis which would generate opposing antitheses. Together, we can reach synthesis. Discuss.

A Word Is Worth A Thousand Pictures

“It is a curious characteristic of our modern civilization that, whereas we are prepared to devote untold physical and mental resources to reaching out into the furthest reaches of the galaxy, or to delve into the most delicate mysteries of the atom… one of the greatest and most important mysteries is lying so close beneath our noses that we scarcely even recognize it to be a mystery at all. At any given moment… hundreds of millions of people will be engaged [in] one of those strange sequences of mental images which we call a story.” – Christopher Booker, The Seven Basic Plots

Narrative is our link to the universe.

Visceral immediacy is sold to us as a reminder that we are “alive.” It is stimulation, a release of epinephrine from the adrenal medulla, increasing heart rate, dilating pupils, elevating blood sugar levels. It’s a deception – a brief, drug-induced elevation above the norm. Story is the narration of our truth.

Visit a videogame developer while they’re working on a project, and you can be certain to hear about one thing – graphics.

“We’re implementing the very latest four-dimensional bloom lighting techniques so every light bulb in the game will glow over 47% more, in the past, and the future!”

“With the state-of-the-art bump-map particle physics engine we’ve spent 95% of our budget on, our characters are able to have 10,010 polygons, trouncing the mere 10,000 in our previous game!”

“Look! Look at the shiny objects! See how they glint and turn! Looooook. Loooooooook at the shiiiiiiiiny. Stare deeeeeeeep into the pretty lights…”

Doom 3

This ridiculous race for incremental steps toward photo-realism is a self-perpetuating tail-chasing exercise. Publishers will not support a project that doesn’t implement the latest technology, developers live in abject fear of not including the decorative features of their rivals and gamers all too eagerly buy into the whole charade. We have sold ourselves the lie that graphics matter, and it’s looking increasingly unlikely that we’ll ever manage to untangle ourselves from it.

This isn’t denial. The opening levels of Far Cry were a thing of wonder, as my PC was suddenly generating pictures that were, as daft as this sounds, prettier than real life. I called friends over to my house to see it. We stared in awe. It was beautiful. Of course, once the game shifted to indoor locations, and the wonderful island vistas became rarer, my interest wandered. Far Cry didn’t have anything to say.

Far Cry

Christopher Booker, in his seminal tome, The Seven Basic Plots, dedicated 30 years to studying the structure of Story, its key proponents and, ultimately, its power.

“The more familiar we become with the nature of [the] shaping forms and forces lying beneath the surface of stories, pushing them into patterns and directions which are beyond the storyteller’s conscious control, the more we find that we are entering a realm to which recognition of the plots themselves proves only to have been the gateway. We are in fact uncovering nothing less than a kind of hidden, universal language.”

Our visual fixations deny this truth, and prevent our recognition of the significance of games that pass through this gateway.

Jim Rossignol wrote in an essay describing the philosopher Rorty’s interpretation of this consciousness. “He argues that human beings deal with the world through a ‘final vocabulary.’ This, like a box of tools, is the set of methods we have appropriated for interpreting and reinterpreting the world around us. Our public final vocabulary is the set of ideas and sentences that we use to deal with people and their own ideas.”

I contend that the power of a vocabulary, in the context of a game’s narrative, is so great, it overwhelms graphics. We connect by hearing others’ “final vocabularies” and incorporating them into our own – increasing and developing our perceptions, building upon our interpretive vocabulary. Graphics provide spectacle, they can draw us in and they can certainly be the means by which a narrative is delivered. But they are only the messenger. There has to be a message.

The question I have is whether the messenger is ultimately all that important. To demonstrate, an anecdote:

Ankh

A few years back I was reviewing the point and click adventure game, Ankh, for a U.K. magazine. In many ways, it was traditional, clearly inspired by the adventure’s heyday in the 1990s. While playing, I began to notice a number of similarities with the classic LucasArts adventure, The Secret of Monkey Island, and decided to go back and play to see if my 15-year-old memories were accurate. Running through SCUMMVM, I was able to whirr up an ancient copy of the game on my super-fly modern PC, capable of all those mapped bumps and blooming lights, and it blinked into bleeping, chunky existence.

The tiniest palette and the fewest pixels painted crude backdrops and even cruder characters, barely animated as they slid sideways about the 2-D world. Compare and contrast with Ankh, a sweet game of no great import, that managed to keep the common sense of point and click in line with the modernity of a third dimension, animated in tens of thousands of shades and polygons into convincing, cartoon existence. There was no contest.

And so it was, until I spent the better part of an hour trying to find the jail cell in Ankh’s ancient Egyptian streets.

I knew what it looked like, the shape of the room – I would go down the stairs at the right, give the object I’d just found to the prisoner and he’d help me. I just couldn’t find it, no matter how hard I searched.

The moment of realization was first embarrassing, but then apocalyptic. The truth was revealed. I saw the light. And it wasn’t bump mapped. My mental image of Monkey Island’s jail was every bit as sophisticated as the textured surfaces before me. In fact, it had to be about ten minutes into playing Monkey Island that I’d stopped noticing the graphics at all. Even now, two months later, as I write I still picture the cell in the same way. I went back there in Monkey Island and saw its reality, but it wasn’t enough to replace the elaborated version my own engine developed.

monkey island jail

Imagine the person who sits and reads a book, looks up in horror, and shouts, “This word ‘tree’ looks nothing like a tree! It looks like some letters on a piece of paper!” and throws the book at the wall, disgusted. He’s either a fool or reading a Dan Brown novel. We simply don’t work that way. The semiotic power of a word is enough for our beautiful minds to conjure the very best tree imaginable. Literally. We have excellent brains that will always be capable of better graphics than the most exceptional technology (until The Future, obviously, when we’ll plug our brains into the machines and then just spend the whole time playing Space Minesweeper in Extra-Realism Graphics 5.6). What powers these mental chips is narrative.

Graphics are hugely significant to many people – that can’t be ignored. Find the review of a crappy game that doesn’t give it a good kick in the pixels. Bad graphics do tend to be a sign of a lack of care in production. But I challenge you to find the review that says, “This game would be excellent and worth your time, if only the graphics were better. But since they’re so poor, don’t bother.” It doesn’t happen. If every other factor of a “good” game is present, the poverty of the pictures will be forgiven, although perhaps mentioned. We don’t need them – we’ve already got them fixed upstairs.

But don’t believe my witterings. What about games as mindless action? Why would narrative be of any importance if all I wanted to do was run into a room filled with monsters and pummel them with bullets? To this I say, take on the Old Graphics Challenge.

Dig out a favorite single player shooter of five or so years ago that specifically didn’t use a strong narrative. So no, you can’t have Half-Life. And indeed, you’re a thousand miles from being allowed to reinstall Deus Ex. Put it on, and see how long you stay playing.

Baldur's Gate

Now find yourself a favorite five-year-old RPG. Heck, go mad, go back ten years and play Baldur’s Gate. You’ll wander around Candlekeep for a bit, frustrated by the 640×480 resolution and your inability to zoom in and out. But you’ll chat with everyone, you’ll complete those first few tasks and then it will be time to be off with Gorion. But oh no! He’s been killed by those bastards! What’s this? Imoen wants to join you. It’s just the two of you, now, and the world to explore, villages to visit, people to talk to, quests to complete… And you stopped noticing the graphics somewhere back in Candlekeep.

Oh, come on, ten years is nothing. Go for fifteen! Install Sam & Max, Day of the Tentacle, seventeen to boot up Monkey Island. Wait, I’ll raise you: Twenty years! Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders. Sixteen colors and one of them’s magenta. Start a timer to see how long you care – it won’t do any good, because you’ll forget to look at it as much as you’ll forget you’re not dressed from head to foot in a virtual reality outfit, walking among the space aliens.

And now, do the same with an twenty-year-old, story-less shooter. (Ok, they don’t exist, fair enough).

There’s a mistake above, and I’ll recognize it. This is an argument riddled with holes, and I’m happy with that – I believe there’s a core truth that needs to be heard. I rather pathetically put in “single player shooter.” Multiplayer defeats me. If you want a five-plus-year-old game entirely free from narrative, you’ve got Quake III: Arena and others beside. They are every bit as joyful to play today. Curse them, because my point remains important – despite these exceptions, the most important aspect is still missing from the majority of our games.

Perhaps it is all our fault. Perhaps we, en masse, really are so addled that our attention spans are genuinely transitory, only interested in that adrenal high for so long as it lasts, then ready to chase the next fix. Perhaps the three hours of interest Far Cry offers is all we desire and all we deserve.

But this cannot be true. Look at the MMO, a peculiar pile-up of meta-narrative and micro-narrative, sewn together by no narrative at all. You have to spend hundreds of hours to get anywhere, and millions of people are doing so worldwide. There’s a hunger out there for more than graphics – people are looking for that narrative, looking for a shared, cooperative vocabulary.

Sam & Max

Story has always focused on the Hero, from Beowulf onward. Gaming taps into this understanding, and lets us be that Hero. But, once you remove the Story, the Hero withers and fades. Booker’s weighty work concludes in a similar mind.

“The hero or heroine is he or she who is born to inherit; who is worthy to succeed; who must grow up as fit to take on the torch of life from those who went before. Such is the essence of the task laid on each of us as we come into this world. That is what stories are trying to tell us.”

We’re willing to code images of the furthest reaches of the galaxy, or delve into the most delicate mysteries of the atom (thank goodness for Will Wright, allowing this bit to work with Spore), but I fear the greatest and most important mystery, the power of the narrative, is being grossly ignored.

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John Walker

Senior Editor

One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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