Opinion: do rollicking good looks really matter any more?

Is the game up for champions of technological overload? As anticipation for Next Generation Portable hits fever-pitch, VGD questions the wisdom of pushing the graphical envelope.

By Edwin Evans-Thirlwell, February 7, 2011

I still feel a little of the thrill, the giddiness of seeing Metal Gear Solid 4 for the first time. Demoed at length during the Tokyo Game Show of 2005, Hideo Kojima’s opening salvo on PS3 was an apocalyptic barrage indeed – everything, from Snake’s steely ‘tache to the unnerving, gellid musculature of his biped cyborg adversaries, seemed the fruit of Crazy Future Science. And all of it apparently came to us courtesy of a cute little gizmo called the CELL Processor.

“It’s the key to winning the console war,” a blatantly fourth-wall-breaking Otacon promised Snake, as the old rogue filled our screens with taught-buttocked, filter-smoking magnificence, our trousers with ecstatic, disbelieving wee. Cripes, I said to myself, mightily agog. I’ve got to get me one of those.

Fast forward to last month’s Sony presser, and we find Otacon rupturing the integrity of the fiction once again to bring news of Metal Gear Solid for Next Generation Portable – a remake of MGS4 which, in the roughly paraphrased words of its creator, proves that PlayStation-3-level visuals are within the new handheld’s reach.

Corners have been cut, in practice, but glance from one version to the other and you’d be hard pressed to distinguish them. Those facial hairs still bristle alluringly, the ‘borgs still stalk and wobble like enraged rubber chickens, and the textures are hardly a smudge the worse for being shoveled into a device the size of a sunglasses case. Yet somehow, watching a video stream of the reveal, I found myself struggling to care.

We can probably attribute a little of that to brand fatigue, and a little more to good old-fashioned cynicism. This isn’t the first time a manufacturer has blown the golden horn marked “console-worthy visuals on a portable”, after all, and while the likes of Metal Gear may be capable of delivering such fidelity, I doubt the likes of Metal Gear will be the norm on NGP.

There’s also the troublesome question of hardware and software pricing, or more specifically whether Sony and the nascent NGP publishing community are on the same page (indeed, the same planet) as Johnny iPhone-Lover in this department – a question worth picking over at length, but not one I intend to pick over here.

See, I think the reason NGP leaves me cold has little to do with the platform itself, its cost or capabilities. I think it’s all to do with me. I think I’ve hit my “wow-barrier”. And I don’t think I’m the only one.

What’s a wow-barrier? Why, it’s my term for that point in a gamer’s intellectual development beyond which technical “oomph” ceases to impress, and you start to prioritise other, deeper-rooted aspects of any given game’s design when rating or slating that game – e.g. the fact that you picked up the pad an hour ago, and have already drunk more tea than a normal human being should, and have yet to press a single button.

My wow-barrier lies in smoking ruins behind me. It must do. How else do you explain my on-going love affair with Etrian Odyssey, a game whose graphical sophistication is roughly on par with the free toy you get in a box of Sugar Puffs, a raw-knuckled puritan role-player with almost as little time for production values as it has for your self-esteem? And what of my preference for the DS version of Geometry Wars? Or the original Dwarf Fortress tileset?

Perhaps you too are entertaining disturbing ideas of wow-barrier-breakage, O reader, peculiar and menacing sensations of looks-aren’t-everything. You ought to be. There was a time in the industry’s history when the state of a game’s warpaint was – if not the only criterion for judgement, certainly among the foremost of those criteria.

Then, in 2006, Nintendo released the Wii, antiquated technology made-over for the bigger crowd, and now – now we’ve got iPods and DSs and Facebook animal husbandry and perky, browser-based mining simulations and highly scalable system requirements and – Odin defend us – affordable PC graphics cards.

Stupefying polygon counts, bewildering quantities of moving light sources and big, loud, hairy-chested explosions no longer carry the debate. Gaming audiences of today – the gaming audiences we’ve become – think no more of texture resolutions or frame rates than they do the grain of the paper on which they play noughts and crosses.

The era of success through brute force of hardware alone is well behind us, ladies and gentlemen. The era of victory through a-technological entertainment value has long since begun. Expect the next Metal Gear game to feature sprites and mode-7 backgrounds. Sorry Otacon, but the war’s moved on.

Wild overstatements, on the other hand, will never go out of fashion. Add yours to the pile below.

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One Response to “Opinion: do rollicking good looks really matter any more?”

  1. zazentofu says:

    I’m actually less excited about the sheer graphical power and more excited about all the other features it touts.

    For one thing, Kojima claimed that his ‘secret controversial project’ he was twittering about all along was a game revolving around the connectivity between the PS3 and NGP.

    I think this is one of reasons alone worth the excitement; there is a lot of untapped potential there that, to my knowledge, doesn’t exist in console history or pc history other than the Dreamcast VMU to some extent.

    From a hardware design point, I was also impressed at how much the system looks more like a Sony product of bygone PS2 glory days… instead of the fancy ‘spiderman-logo-ed’, glossiness of the ps3.

    It was as if Sony was signaling that they ‘get it’ and putting in genuine effort…


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