Video games are a compelling medium. They are home to some of the most unique and interesting stories ever told, although storytelling happens to be just one facet of video games. Gameplay, or interaction with the game, is arguably the most important part of a game at the end of the day. Visuals are also important, although not on the level of gameplay, and are especially important in our modern age. Due to this importance, game developers often make it their mission to make their game as “pretty” as possible, so that it can reach a wide audience. With video game visuals now reaching a peak, there’s nearly no room left to improve on it anymore. This should give developers space to improve on other aspects of games, like storytelling and mechanics. But is this the case?

Exhibit A for video game graphics in this discussion will be a game series called Final Fantasy (FF). This series is a Japanese role-playing game that has been around since 1987. This series has always boasted great graphics at the helm. Square Enix, the publisher of this series, puts innovation and creativity as a top-tier design philosophy. The FF games have always had high-quality cutscenes interspersed throughout the games that were subsequently used for marketing. Why is this so?

Well, it’s all in the marketing. What’s the quickest way to get to an audience’s dopamine receptors, especially a casual one? Pretty graphics. When games are advertised in trailers at big events or for teasers online, the visual fidelity is the main facet of the game that will immediately stick out to people. Some developers go for stylistic graphics with bright, cel-shaded colors and eye-catching animations. Other developers do the opposite, pushing for graphics as realistic as technologically possible. The latter seems to be the most popular.

To make these games have as realistic graphics as possible, a lot of under the hood work needs to be done. Simply put, it takes a long time to make games now. Going back to FF, the release dates for FF7 all the way through FF10 back in the day were 1997, 1999, 2000 and 2001. Four video games, all released in the span of four years. Games took roughly a year or two to make back then. Now? FF15 was released in 2016 and FF16 was released in 2023. Two mainline games, released in two different decades, seven years apart. Look at the graphics.

The graphics from FF7 through FF9 looked similar, but had a lot of minor improvements throughout the games, coming to a crescendo with 10, which, to this day, still holds up visually, looking great. Games are expensive to make nowadays, and the improvements in graphics are not as drastic. FF15 looked great when it came out — it still does — and same with FF16, but the graphical changes aren’t nearly as drastic as something like going from FF9 to FF10. Similar series are in the same spot graphically, like “Resident Evil” or “Cyberpunk.” These games have such incredible graphics throughout their entries that it leaves audiences wondering what else the creators really can improve on.

That’s where I’d say these developers should worry about pushing the storytelling and gameplay facets of video games instead of obsessing over visuals. With this mindset, more necessary innovations can be completed in the gaming industry. It’s a hot take, but visual realism in games is just stupid. This medium is inherently fantastical — it started with “Pac Man” and “Super Mario” for Pete’s sake. Just take a look at games from the early 2000s. Games from that era which tried to look as realistic as possible have aged pretty roughly, while visually stylistic games that take on a unique look, like “The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker” or “Sly Cooper,” have aged incredibly gracefully due to their cartoony style of visuals.

See? Pretty visuals aren’t necessarily all they’re cracked up to be. If video games that aim to look contemporarily realistic age poorly, why even bother? It can also be a lazy strategy to make games look as realistic as possible, as opposed to a unique visual style. Can’t think of a cool look for your game? Just make the graphics look as real as possible. Again, instead of focusing on the graphics, look at the gameplay and story. Some indie developers, who have little to no financial backing, have self-published some of the most compelling games on the market. How did they do it? They come up with a retro or unique visual style for their game, and they let the story and gameplay be the main focal point of development.

Indie games have drastically risen in popularity partially due to a lack of creativity in modern games. Games take so long to come out nowadays. I was a freshman in high school when FF15 came out. By the time FF16 came out, I was a senior in college. Crazy. Here’s my advice to big-time game developers. Stop pouring so much money into having hyper-realistic visuals. Focus on telling a compelling and unique story. Make a gameplay system that is endlessly re-playable and fun as hell. Then, come up with a graphical style that can remain in the budget without taking too much manpower away from the developers. Here’s hoping FF17 comes out before I have three children.

Nicolas Scagnelli is a senior majoring in English.

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