They say graphics aren't important. But every game I've ever played has had them. Game visuals are the most obvious indicator of their technology. From naïve origins, to an explosion of arcades and home consoles, and the emergence and refinement of three-dimensional games: graphics have come a long way over the course of video game history.
So, what are the most important graphical milestones? How has available technology shaped the type of games we play? And shouldn't it be about the gameplay instead?
In their earliest days, video games amounted to little more than electronic novelties. These ‘pixel pioneers’ broke new ground with every step, in an era where simply moving a flicker of light across a television screen was incredible.
Games like Pong were a space-age wonder, tapping in to a surge in sci-fi interest, and becoming the earliest major success of the videogame industry. For the first time ever, video games were cool. It wouldn't last forever of course, and once the novelty wore off, the need for more advanced hardware and more impressive visuals became clear.
Full colour graphics were an early threshold for arcade games: and while colour television had existed since before the Second World War, most early video games were limited to a monochrome display.
Some games used coloured overlays to spruce up their play fields: a translucent plastic sheet applied on top of a black-and-white display. Obviously quite a limited solution, but it was at least a cheap one. And while monochrome games continued to rake in coins, technology would have a chance to catch up.
The very first arcade game to use a coloured display is difficult to pin down, some existed only as prototypes, such as a colour variant of Gotcha. Some early multiplayer racing games used colour to differentiate each player's car. In the 4 in 1976 is one early example. And Car Polo in 1977 was the very first colour arcade game to use a microprocessor.
However, these early examples are normally glossed over in favour of the first truly successful RGB colour game: Galaxian. Essentially a fancier version of Space Invaders, each of the brightly coloured alien ships could flip freely across the screen. And perhaps more impressive were the multiple colors used in each sprite.
For its time, the game was an audiovisual treat. By 1980, colour graphics were the norm. Pacman just wouldn't be the same without its colourful ghosts and the familiar yellow protagonist. Pixels haven't always been the only way.
In the early days of the arcade, there were two principal paradigms for rendering an image on the screen. Raster and vector.
Raster comes from the Latin word ‘Rastrum’, meaning rake, and today is the more familiar method of drawing on screen: the electron beam rapidly sweeps every line of the display in sequence, forming a grid, and line by line, a picture is assembled.
Vector graphics directly manipulate the electron beam to form their images, in a similar manner to an oscilloscope. Indeed, very early games like Tennis for Two used an oscilloscope display. The most famous vector arcade title is Asteroids.
And while its graphics might be sparse, the perfectly smooth polygons do boast a certain charm.
Compare the appearance of two similar games using each of these methods: the smooth vector lines of Space War versus the ‘blockier’ pixels of Star Cruiser. Vector graphics are cleaner but less versatile.
While raster images can't reproduce smooth lines, their ability to render more complex scenes and filled shapes helped to secure the pixels' dominance.
Early arcade games normally had fixed play fields, a game's arena was sized to fit the screen. Scrolling the display to slowly reveal a level required more grunt, it demands the ability to shift around large chunks of memory.
Early driving titles like Speed Race were the first to introduce scrolling, although the hardware limitations did force some concessions: mirrored track sides and a rather spartan roadway.
Defender, in 1980, was an evolution of the space shooter and set the scene for future side scrolling shoot 'em ups. And despite its simple graphics, it offered freedom of movement across a planet's surface, along with a host of aliens to shoot.
Similarly, the top-down view seen in Xevious is often sighted as the origin of the vertically scrolling shoot 'em up: with the player ship at the bottom of the screen, shooting upwards as the scenery slowly unravels below.
Sega's Zaxxon was the first isometric game complete with isometric scrolling: simulating three dimensions with a 2:1 diametric projection.
This technique was employed by many later games, particularly strategy games of the early 90's, with a pseudo-3D appearance that still fits the pixel grid. Similarly, the use of sprite scaling, - resizing images on the fly - is sometimes seen in games attempting to lend their otherwise flat graphics a sense of depth.
Early Nintendo shooter Radar Scope shrank sprites in the distance to give the impression that you were gazing across a plane of space. The goal: To repel any invaders.
More impressive was the scenery in 1981's Turbo, although painted in garish colours and with quite some distortion, the effect is nonetheless outstanding when compared to other games from a similar time.
The advent of 16-bit arcade hardware brought about more colours and the ability to shift more pixels than ever before. Surely a new era was beginning.
And Sega's Super Scalar tech in the mid 1980's blew everything else out of the water. Hang-On combined smooth sprite scaling with blistering frame rates. And alongside its impressive lean to steer motorbike cabinet, it certainly made an impact at the arcades.
Running on the same hardware was Space Harrier, an into the screen rail shooter that would set a benchmark in sound and graphics. As well as establishing the bases for the top gun inspired 'Afterburner'. Perhaps the most incredible graphics of the early 1980's were those seen in Dragon's Lair.
Leveraging the huge storage potential of laser disc technology, it was a bona fide interactive movie. Too bad it wasn't much fun to play. The middle of the 1980s saw the end of the arcades' golden era and the rise of the home consoles instead.
Arcades would still rule the roost as far as graphical power was concerned but the ground they broke earlier meant that cost reduced home consoles could deliver both colourful graphics and smooth scrolling. There is a certain beauty in well designed pixel art.
It speaks of a simpler era, a time when sprites reigned supreme. Designed to move across a game's play field, sprites are two dimensional images that represent the player, enemies or other non static aspect of a game.
Often drawn with the help of dedicated hardware, they have been an essential facet of computer graphics almost as long as games have existed. Early sprites were small in size and limited in palette, but as the pace of technology increased they became larger, more detailed and much more colourful. Huge sprites meant huge arcade impact.
Games like Strider were held in high regard for the sheer scale of the action: towering characters and huge sweeping plasma swords. This was made possible by the powerful CPS-1 arcade board. With custom sprite chips, capable of drawing 256 16-colour sprites per scan line.
This was the board that would power Street Fighter II: a title which would set a benchmark within the fighting game genre, with large and diverse character sprites coupled with fluid action.
It sent the popularity of fighting games skyward and kick started a new wave of arcade popularity. Graphics might not be important, but they certainly attract attention. One technique that proved particularly popular during the 2D era, was parallax scrolling: splitting the foreground or background into a number of layers which move at different rates, to give the impression of scene depth.
Moon Patrol was one of the first games to make effective use of the technique, with its colourful Mountain Vista background. It is a striking effect, and home computer users were quick to imitate, with games like Parallax on the Commodore64 even named for the scrolling effect.
By the time of 16-bit machines, it was a far more attainable technical feat and would become a common sight in 2D platformers. Shadow of the Beasts colourful implementation impressed and, as hardware power increased, scenes became more complex.
Then the blast processing power of the Sega Mega Drive gave games like Sonic the Hedgehog more character than ever. It was an era of cartoon mascots and platformers were on vogue. The arcades were no stranger to animated heroes.
Tie-ends to popular TV series such as the teenage mutant Ninja Turtles or the Simpsons, were major drawls. And their frantic paced fore-player action was the perfect fit for the social nature of such amusements.
On the home consoles, the success of games like Mario and Sonic inspired a huge number of similar games. And the familiarity of film licenses made tie-ends like Aladdin a huge success.
The colourful world and expressive animation of Disney gave the game a great visual grounding and ensured its place as a best seller. Some characters were home grown, Shiny Entertainments's Earthworm Jim had all the style and flare expected of the platform genre.
But did so with a new creation: A powered up worm wearing a cybernetic super suit. Its zany sense of humour and unique style made for a memorable close to the 16-bit era.
Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island embraced a painted aesthetic rather than a pushful showy effect or realistic appearance. It's this style that helps the game's visuals stand up today. And while it might not be technically impressive, there is a hand drawn charm consistent throughout. By the mid 1990's, sprites were starting to become passé. The focus was starting to shift towards a new wave of three-dimensional games and the potential that lay within another dimension.
That's not to say that 2D games went away entirely, there were still plenty about, and the mature tech behind them made for some particularly impressive visuals towards the end of the decade. The lush sprite work in games like Metal Slug remains a pinnacle of the style. Unbound by colour or size restriction and with fantastic animation. Some games work best in 2D.
And while 3D fighting games eventually rose in popularity, there were still plenty of traditional sprite based ones such as SNK's long running King of Fighters series. Beautiful but a dying breed. The best hand-drawn sprites required good artists.
However, there are some techniques that serve as a passable alternative. Animation is a vital part of making movement in games believable. And in the days before motion capture some artists would draw from reality using a process called ‘rotoscoping’. The original Prince of Persia's sprites are traced directly from video.
A labour intensive technique but one that delivers natural looking moment with realistic inertia. Similar techniques were used in other cinematic platformers such as Another World and Flashback.
Both made use of ‘rotoscoping’ for in-game sprites and for cinematic cut-scenes. Fluid in motion yet compact enough to fit on a couple of floppy discs.
Digitised sprites were fashionable for a while too: images taken directly from photographs or video of real life subjects. The earliest example is Journey, which featured black-and-white images of the band.
But the technique wouldn't become common place until the early 90's. Winners don't use drugs, nor do they have any qualms in slaughtering drug dealers by the dozen. Narc was a very early 32-bit arcade machine, with thousands of on-screen colours and hugely impressive digitised sprites for its time.
An unabashed ultra violence paired with realistic images, certainly caught its controversy. The realistic characters and large number of animation frames found in fighting games were a good fit for digitisation.
Reikai Doushi and Pit Fighter paved their way but it was one game in particular that flung such sprites to the forefront: Mortal Kombat. Photo-real characters and brutal action made the game a very controversial one which, in turn, ensured its popularity.
Like Street Fighter II before it, Mortal Kombat's realistic sprites were particularly influential. Titles like Clay Fighter were clearly moulded in its image and the previously hand-drawn riders of Road Rash were replaced by real bikers in the 3rd instalment.
The impressively rendered Donkey Kong Country was perhaps the pinnacle of 2D 16-bit platformers. Colourful, beautifully animated and a smash hit debut. The advent of multimedia technology meant more room for pre-rendered content and full motion video.
Games like Myst took full advantage of the huge amount of storage space that CDs' brought, enabling atmospheric pre-rendered backdrops. The serene island setting of Myst proved a shiny example of what the emergent technology was capable of.
Most early CD based games were pure tripe, however. Games like Night Trap for the Sega CD are remembered not for their groundbreaking technology but instead for their awfulness. All of the bluster of new tech and none of the impact. The future wasn't in interactive movies.
And while the compact discs extra storage would become very useful in the years ahead, FMV would eventually give away to games with more depth. Two dimensions are all very well and good but even the earliest game developers yearned to extend into the third.
The ability to craft a virtual space, the forging of a polygon realm. Of course with limited hardware it was no mean feat, early 3D games were burdened with heavy compromise. The very first were limited to wire-frame representations and although simple, games like Atari's Battle Zone could paint an immersive scene with just a few vector lines.
Similar tech was used to great effect in 1983's Star Wars arcade, putting the player in the pilot seat of an X-wing to recreate the attack on the Death Star, complete with Trench Run.
Even the 8 bit home Micros managed to get in on the wire-frame action: space trader Elite's visuals might have been spartan but the game offered a huge wad of space to explore. The next logical step from wire-frame polygons was to fill them with flat shading.
A simple effect but still tricky to achieve on early systems without dropping the frame-rate to unacceptable levels. The very first flat-shaded polygonal game was arcade title I Robot all the way back in 1983.
It was definitely ahead of its time, but a new paradigm is always a tough sell, and the game would not prove a financial success. The advanced hardware needed for 3D games and the decline in arcade interest over the next few years rendered them prohibitively expensive.
So, it wouldn't be until the end of the decade that 3D games would become more prevalent. As home computers became more powerful, certain genres would embrace flat-shaded polygons, a trademark of early flight simulators which valued full freedom of movement over arcade action or graphical detail.
Some driving games employed this technique too. Geoff Crammond's Stunt Car Racer in 1989 had you driving at breakneck speed around a fanciful track complete with three dimensions. Not content with dull flat-shading, some turned to hardware tricks to simulate 3D worlds, and the SNES's Mode 7 could be considered a rudimentary form of texture mapping.
It was only a half measure, but an ideal way to introduce a 3D field to classic 2D action. And games like Super Mario Kart maintained a healthy frame-rate while still giving the illusion of into the screen racing.
The SuperFX coprocessor included in cards like Star Fox enabled polygonal 3D graphics, blended with sprite scaling effects and other 2D elements. Offloading graphics onto another processor would prove a useful technique in the future, but some machines would rely on sheer grunt instead.
IBM compatible PCs had the benefit of a modular design, along with a price point far aloft from console hardware. This meant that by the early 90's they could start to push graphical boundaries. However, early PC games could be pretty ugly.
4 colour CGA and 16 colour EGA modes often left games with a distinctive, simple look. VGA graphics were a step up, offering 256 colours with far more nuance and a break from unnaturally bright shades.
Early PC titles would sometimes make use of pre-rendered backgrounds. Games like Alone in the Dark reserved polygons only for the player and enemies with the remainder of the world painted as a bitmap.
This technique is a useful one for preserving limited graphical power: instead of rendering a full 3D scene it can instead divert attention to more detailed character models. Some early games were more ambitious, taking a first person perspective instead of a fixed camera view.
Ultima Underwold: The stygian abyss was an impressive game that took RPGs into the 3rd dimension and, in turn, would influence the rise of the FPS. One technique that made early texture map games viable was ‘Raycasting’, it's an efficient approach to scene rendering that focuses solely on what the player can see. And when combined with simple level geometry, can be made quite performant.
Wolfenstein 3D levels were built on a simple square grid all on a single level. This meant that the walls could be fully texture mapped while the game remained playable even on a modest PC. Wolfenstein is the grandfather of 3D shooters, but in terms of overall impact, Doom was the daddy.
Building on the Wolfenstine engine, Doom extended its feature set to permit levels with more organic design. No more fixed grid maps and the addition of variable lighting and elements at different elevations. As a result Doom was more atmospheric, its locations more believable and, paired with high octane action, it proved quite the success.
It inspired a huge number of clones and paved the way for FPS genre as we know it today. Many of these early games were reliant on tricks to simulate a 3D world. Limited geometry, the use of sprites or other time saving hacks. True texture map 3D games required a great deal of processing power and so it wasn't really until the second half of the 1990's that such games took hold.
Vanguards of hardware, the arcades led the way with titles like Ridge Racer. Although dated today, at the time it was universally praised for its sound and graphics. Treading in the arcades footsteps, the fifth generation of consoles could more confidently tackle full 3D graphics, and so platforms like the PlayStation and Nintendo64 saw the rise of the polygon within a home setting.
Super Mario 64 transplanted the previously planar plumber into a colourful 3D world and would prove to be arguably the first successful 3D platform game. It blended the finest elements and charm of previous Mario titles with new technology. Full freedom of movement and a dynamic camera system that permitted exploration without frustration.
The PlayStation had its own 3D platforming heroes with games like Crash Bandicoot. And despite the low polygon count afforded by the hardware, its characters are expressive and its art style charming. These games were not only technically impressive, they were fun to play.
True 3D games were a novelty no more, and instead an integral part of mainstream gaming. While console hardware arrives in discrete generations, the pace of PC development is continuous. And with the popularity of PC gaming post Doom, there was no shortage of 3D titles.
Magic Carpet was an interesting attempt at transplanting Bull Frog's earlier god-game formula into a first person perspective. Hugely impressive from a technical perspective, although its gameplay was slightly lacking and it was otherwise overshadowed by more conventional games of the era.
Descent was notable for its 6 degrees of movement, permitting full exploration of its maze-like mines. A peculiar blend of space shooter and Doom clone, it stands as an important example of early software rendering.
Full 3D without shortcuts or compromise. idSoftware were prime innovators within the PC gaming space. And not content with the countless clones their creation spawned, they set the bar even higher with the release of Quake.
Quake was very much a true 3D game, gone were the sprites and lack of vertical aiming of DOOM instead replaced with polygonal enemies, weapon view models and bi-axial aiming. Quake, in all its brown-hued Lovecraftian glory, was a prelude to the next wave of 3D graphics development.
One final footnote worth of mention are voxels: volumetric pixels, an alternate approach to polygon construction. Instead of triangular faces, objects are built from 3D pixels. Essentially building blocks, in a manner similar to Minecraft (LOL).
Ideal for carving out terrain from heightmaps, games like Delta Force and Outcast are an interesting example of what would prove to be an evolutionary dead end. Although voxels showed some promise, any progress was nipped in the bud by the rise of 3D acceleration.
With dedicated hardware games now had the power to construct smooth and detailed worlds without compromise. The magic of hardware acceleration was about to unfold. Three-dimensional games were clearly the future but traditional computer architecture was not designed to fit.
Early accelerated cards like 3dfx's Voodoo unlocked CPU rendering limits, and saw a bloom in the potential of 3D gaming. Faster frame-rates. Higher resolutions. Better graphics than ever before.
Like so many visual firsts, the earliest hardware assistance for 3D games can be found in the arcades. 2D tricks were old hat by the late 80's and so the 3D tech provided by Namco System 21 'Polygonizer' was a no brainier.
It powered games like Winning Run and was the first arcade board specifically designed to accelerate polygonal 3D graphics. Others followed suit and in the arms race of the arcades, hardware 3D graphics would become the de facto attract mode. Similar hardware assistance found its way into the home consoles too.
The SNES's super fx chipset was a latecomer to the 4th gen and provided faster polygon rendering. By the 5th generation a graphical coprocesor was a must. Polygons were hot and the hardware had to match. Once 3D cards reached the PC market, they quickly became a must have accessory for gaming.
And the modular nature of PCs' has helped them to establish unchallenged graphical dominance since. Games like DOOM and Quake pushed sales of powerful 486 and Pentium class CPUs'. And when paired with a dedicated GPU, not much could touch the PCs' power.
It was FPS that garnered the most attention for their graphics, with games like GLQuake giving early support for 3D acceleration. By 1998 the first wave of shooters designed to take advantage of such hardware started to roll out.
And the first Unreal was certainly a headturner in its day. With a silky smooth frame-rate, coloured lighting, detailed textures and level geometry, Unreal and its engine would quickly become associated with cutting edge graphics. Its technology would go on to power many other games.
More than just an impressive looking demo, Unreal would prove to be a powerful and portable platform. idSoftware's tech behind Quake would see similar reuse, powering games like Half-Life amongst many others.
By the end of the millennium, the popularity of 3D accelerated cards was such that Quake III Arena abandoned its support for software rendering entirely. Any PC gamer without a 3D card at this point was left playing Solitaire. FPS was the dominant genre during this explosion of 3D acceleration. And this wouldn't change much in the future.
The early 2000's brought with it a wave of follow up titles to the emergent franchises from the previous decade. And in each instance they brought an expectation of superior visuals. Sequels are also expected to raise the bar in terms of gameplay and so some had quite a reputation to live up to.
Half-Life 2 was praised for its overarching style, combining state of the art graphics with a bleak aesthetic, and impressive - if overeager - demonstration of its physics capabilities. Similarly, idSoftware had quite a task ahead when they stepped up to produce a sequel to the legendary DOOM.
Doom III saw a radical departure from the brighter graphics of the original, with the game fully embracing very dark environments. The dim lightning did help ratchet up the atmosphere however, and your reliance on a flashlight to carve out a narrow cone of vision made for some tense moments during monstrous encounters.
It was a departure from the original both in style and substance, a tech focused game which embraced new generation features. Unified lighting and shadowing and a detailed world with more complex animations.
However, amidst all this new technology, some techniques turned stale. It seems that the popularity of World War II shooters during this time left a lasting impression. The gritty brown hues these games use became quite the trend for a while, with developers de-saturating colours as part of an effort towards realism.
The origin of the style can be traced to Quake, with its subdued tones imparting a Gothic, industrial charm. But an aversion to bright colours would later permeate games across all genres. The minimalistic approach of Shadow of the Colossus was reflected in its palette choice, with subdued tones complementing the game's restrained style. Other uses are less fitting.
The dull yellow tones of Need for Speed: Most Wanted are consistent throughout giving the game a certain unified look but crushing the colour gamut in the process. Although the excessive use of brown has abated slightly in recent years, it does still crop up. Duller tones are a good fit for post apocalyptic settings after all.
Brown was but one trademark of this era, and it was a common counterpart to another blinding effect in bloom: bright objects bleed into their surroundings as though viewed through a cinematic lens smeared with vaseline. The effect intended to make bright objects appear brighter.
One of the first games to make use of this style was Ico, with its soft lightning reinforcing a naturalistic style. The technique became more popular in the wake of Monolith's Tron 2.0. The neon white glow, a fitting addition to emulate the original film's visuals.
The techniques they used were detailed in an article, and since then the effect has found its way into many other titles. Overdone bloom is a common criticism levied at games of this era. It can be a convincing effect when subtle but, when presented with a novel tool, developers are not always known for their restraint.
More recently, the effect has been tuned down. And can help an otherwise flat looking scene by simulating the higher dynamic range of natural light. Or by adding a touch of cyber-punk inspired neon flare.
While dull tones and cinematic effects are both intended to inject realism into games, some took a more stylised approach instead. Cel shading is the deliberate use of flat colour and inked outlines to give 3D images a cartoon-like appearance.
Early titles, like Jet Set Radio, embraced the style and catapulted it into prominence. And it served as a pleasant reminder that not every game has to grudgingly adhere to reality. The style can be divisive however, The Legend Of Zelda: The wind waker's visuals are striking but the game sales are overshadowed by the much more successful Ocarina of Time, a fact sometimes attributed to the cartoon style.
It marks a deliberate shift in focus towards a more cohesive aesthetic instead of photo-realism. This was a departure from a time when every new game was expected to make a majorly forward in visuals, an important realisation as video game budgets spiral ever upwards.
The middle of the millennial decade ushered in the start of the 7th console generation and marks our arrival in a contemporary era. 3D technology was mature, and hardware more powerful than ever.
So, where do we go from here? A new generation had arrived. The future was here. And the future was Crysis. Crytek were already known for pushing boundaries with their previous title, FarCry.
Its lush tropical setting and open ended gameplay provided leverage for the impressive tech to shine: huge draw distances, detailed foliage and expansive levels. Ubisoft retained ownership of the FarCry franchise and so Crytek set out to push technical limits further with a new IP.
Crysis mirrors FarCry with its island setting and open ended gameplay. But this time came with the addition of weapon customisation, a nano-suit, and its predator-like ability to cloak. The game was also ridiculously good looking.
It asserted the PCs' graphical dominance once more and embarrassed the newly hatched gen 7 consoles. And yet few would follow in imitation. Its need for a particularly powerful machine led to the game becoming a standard punchline for hardware requirements.
News by new supercomputer is all very well and good, but can it run Crysis? Perhaps this was a limiting factor in the game's success. Why risk the investment when there are doubts as to how well it might run?
The market gets narrower as you get closer to the bleeding edge and pushing forward graphical technology won't always pay dividends. Instead, it was the gimmicks of casual gaming that led the charts during this era.
The Wii wasn't impressive from a graphical perspective but everyone wanted one anyway. Even amidst the core gamer market, franchises like Guitar Hero and Rock Band would prove to be particularly lucrative.
A seed of doubt. Perhaps graphics aren't that important after all. The rise of indie games in recent years is further evidence. And their lower budgets mean a grater ability to deviate from AAA norms.
Some games purposefully evoke a bygone era, drawing from a rich history of graphics. A palette of styles steeped in nostalgia. VVVVVV's visuals are heavily influenced by the Commodore64, for instance.
Sticking to the same sprite size and palette limitations of the classic hardware, despite the abilities of contemporary machines. For all the milestones passed, indie games are not afraid to regress.
With some games even eschewing basic convenience such as colour. The completely de-saturated Limbo does help craft the game's gloomy tone. Dark silhouettes reminiscent of shadow theatre. An uneasy audience witness to grisly death.
One the brighter side, the cartoon heroes of yesteryear hold a very dear place in many hearts. And its easy to see the influence of classic platformers in games like Super Meat Boy. Titles like this are not simple retro-remakes, however.
They bring with them a more modern sense of game design, and sometimes a twist of modern mechanics, the time warping effects in Braid, for instance, or the dimensional geometry bending seen in Fez.
There are plenty of indie games with realistic graphics, but a freer license to explore aesthetic without expectation has seen some games forge a unique identity through their appearance.
The ‘blocky’ terrain and low resolution textures of Minecraft are one of the game's more distinctive features. The simple style plays into a retro-cool but the expansive worlds, social multiplayer and limitless potential for creativity are very much based on modern innovations.
It's the perfect junction between old and new. And as a result, with impressively broad appeal. When you consider its success, Minecraft serves as very strong support for the argument that graphics don't matter.
However, those enamoured with photo-realism, fret not. Despite all this indie nonsense, we have made some progress in the seven years since Crysis. If there's one thing the fixed hardware of consoles is good for, it's optimisation.
The Xbox360 and PS3 have had every drop of potential squeezed out of them over their lifespan. The culmination of a generation led to games like The Last of Us, for the PS3, with graphics far beyond anything from the first half of the systems' existence.
Similarly, the open world of GTAV is hugely impressive in scope considering the limited resources available. Titles like these stretch the modest abilities of 8 year old hardware to its limit. But on the other hand PCs' boast unrestrained power and such potential shines in games designed to take advantage of top tier hardware.
After all, why bother having a gaming PC if all you're gonna play are console ports. Pure bred PC games like ARMA can indulge in detailed graphics and expansive open worlds safe in the knowledge that the game won't have to endure any compromise.
The later Crysis sequels did make their way onto the consoles but the game remains at home, on the hardware that best does it justice. The power of the PC is a much touted thing, and while the average spec is more modest than some might admit, for the enthusiasts tier, a world of blistering graphics awaits.
And if the base standard of commercial offerings fails to impress, well, there's always the option of mods. With the recent arrival of a new console generation, there has been a long needed jump in the visual standard of mainstream games. Most of these early gen titles are nothing more than cross gen ports.
But there are some unifying trends emerging in those that embrace raced performance caps. Like brown and bloom before, game developers' love for cinematic effects knows no bounds. And so we're enduring a fashion for some new showy effects.
Most seem intent to replicate the flaws inherent in lenses and cameras and to disguise the otherwise clean, digital nature of computer graphics. Cinematic realism is alive and well. Chromatic aberration is a recent addition to some games: simulating the divergence of different light wavelengths towards the perimeter of the screen. It's entirely deliberate and entirely artificial.
Simulating depth of field is another effect lifted straight from photography: selectively blurring a scene based on focal distance, casting a sharp plane in a sea of soft blur. This is normally reserved for cut-scenes or in select cases such as aiming down a weapon's sight. It's difficult to implement convincingly without tracking the players eyes precisely.
Motion blur is an artefact of continuous movement captured in discrete frames: a simulation of exposure time, with blurred streaks left in the wake of rapid movement. It is no substitute for a higher frame-rate but it can help smooth the appearance of motion. No matter the refresh rate, it will provide some interstitial information and otherwise enhance the sensation of speed.
If you though bloom was bad, then you won't care much for the next-gen equivalent: improbably massive light flares and the illumination of dust and grease on a filter plane. Like a layer of filth that no cleaning can shift, throwing stuff at the screen is a popular way to convey a sense of a scene's environment. All of these effects are designed to sell the illusion of reality.
And while the human eye isn't a camera, these imperfections can add a sheen of authenticity. Such techniques are relatively new and will go overused as a result, but with time, they should become subtler and join an ever increasing palette of visual tricks. Graphics are absolutely important.
They are an essential part of videogames, a window into another world and a prime indicator of the technology that powers it. However, the true value of visuals is not in their realism. A games aesthetic does far more to establish its character than its polygon count. A cohesive style is all you need. And it's often better to stick to proving technique than it is to attempt something cutting edge.
We still need pioneers to light the way, but for most, there's no harm in sticking to safer waters. A development span of half a century means that graphics can lean on an ever richer heritage. We have come a long way.
So, what does the future of graphics hold? Perhaps one day videogames will transcend our perception of reality, exceeding the natural acuity of the eye to make an utterly convincing scene. In the meantime technology inches ever further, frustratingly slow for the impatient today, but nonetheless with an irresistible inertia.
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