See that above? Beautiful, isn’t it? It might be hard to believe, but that screenshot was taken from a video game that’s almost a decade old. Despite a distinct lack of visual grit, an overabundance of brown, and lack of main characters built out of solid testosterone, Jet Set Radio and its sequel created a different kind of interactive world, one not set within the boring confines of our own existence. And it hasn’t been the only game to take this approach, with titles like Okami, the recent Prince of Persia and the entire Mario series offering colorful, pleasing worlds that were brought to life with superb animation and a unique style. But do gamers want their games to look this way? Does the modern day console’s ability to render realism mean that designers need not think about crafting an extraordinary world for their game? In short, why do most modern day video games tend to look the same?
Well, the aforementioned technology is a big part of it. Games are built on top of engines, the developer’s foundation for their game constructs. In the early days, most games used engines built specifically for that title; the gameplay was so simplistic that the developers had enough time and resources to write a custom engine. These days, every game is so incredibly complicated that this type of customization just isn’t possible in many cases. Because of this, third-party engines – like Epic’s Unreal Engine 3 – are licensed out to other developers. Epic’s versatile toolset has powered nearly one hundred games in the past four years, including titles like Gears of War, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Fatal Intertia and even the abysmal Leisure Suit Larry: Box Office Bust. While the ease of development offered by centralized engines is fantastic, the visual similarities between games that run on the same engine is often uncanny. Look at the collage below. Those are five different titles designed by five completely unrelated teams, yet they look as if they could be different levels within the same game. So what gives?
The problem rests solely with the game developers. Since the engine can do gritty and real so well, a lot of designers have stuck with this generic style, rather than building something unique. While the developers seem happy to design their games this way, what do gamers think? Do they want most of their titles to blend together? Looking at the best-selling titles for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in 2008, the data suggests that gamers don’t mind. Best sellers like Call of Duty, Gears of War, Rainbow 6, Gran Turismo, Metal Gear Solid, Madden and Grand Theft Auto all utilize realistic visual styles, with only Fable II and the Guitar Hero franchise representing any visual relief on those sales charts. Nintendo, on the other hand, has consistently found success with their cheerful, imaginative visual styles. Yet when they tried to change things up with one of their most beloved franchises, they faced the wrath of the Internet. The cel-shaded The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker became the most controversial Zelda offering since the hero of Hyrule appeared on the CD-I, with the series’ most ardent fans making it explicitly clear that they wanted a gritty, realistic Zelda. Miyamoto, on the other hand, demanded that the game’s visuals were deeply tied to the gameplay, and that he wanted to offer something creative and different with each Zelda title. Guess who won in the end.
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t hate realistic looking games. As a youngin’, I dreamt of the day when video games would be indistinguishable from reality. Hell, I remember seeing early screens of Gran Turismo and The Getaway in magazines, both sending ripples of awesome pulsing up and down my geeky spine. These days, however, real seems like the easy way out to me. When I finish one game and pop a new one in, the difference is often barely noticeable. Shooters look like shooters while RPGs look like RPGs, yet so much more can be done with today’s technology to make each game more memorable, and more unique. Consider the recently released Batman: Arkham Asylum. That game used Unreal Engine 3 to create a gritty, realistic prison setting. Had they instead taken influence from some of the incredibly talented comic book artists that work on Bat’s literary adventures, Arkham could have looked more like a dark Okami – a living, breathing comic book, almost like a colorized Madworld. Instead, Batman is built like a wrestler, the Joker appears to have had botched plastic surgery, and the supporting cast looks like a gaggle of Gears of War rejects.
At least there are some standouts these days attempting to freshen up our consoles with color and pizazz. Braid, World of Goo, and No More Heroes have all detonated our reality-bound minds with splashes of color and imaginatively designed environments. Mirror’s Edge, which was built using Unreal Engine 3, went in an entirely different direction with its visuals, proving that a game can stand out despite the foundation that it’s built upon. Even some blockbuster titles like Mass Effect have attempted to stand out visually, with normally depressing space-based, sci-fi locations being infused with eye-bleeding neons and phenomenal alien creations. Sony, despite releasing the oh-so-realistic Killzone 2, have also brought some visual stunners to the table, with Ratchet & Clank Future, Uncharted and the Team ICO titles all delivering smooth animation and terrifically crafted worlds. Nintendo also earns high marks in this area; their technologically underpowered juggernaut has powered titles like Super Mario Galaxy and Punch-Out!!, proving that brilliant design can overshadow horsepower in the right hands. I believe that gamers are willing to accept titles that aren’t confined to the bounds of our everyday realism, as long as these titles are marketed properly and the gameplay is up to snuff. Hopefully, Gearbox’s toon-shaded Borderlands will prove my point this Fall. Its open-world shooting action looks like terrific fun, and the visual design is very pleasing to the eyes. Video games don’t all have to look the same. Jet Set Radio proved this a decade ago, and it’s still talked about to this day. New styles are out there, it just takes a talented designer to discover and implement them.