April 26, 2012

With Great Graphics, Comes Great Responsibility

A sentiment I've keenly felt throughout this generation of consoles is that games in general are striving for style over substance. Then again, perhaps "striving" isn't the mot juste -- "settling" might be a more appropriate wording. After all, is it fair to accuse the creators of the oft-maligned Final Fantasy XIII of intentionally setting out to produce a stiff, on-rails experience, in which player agency and depth of exploration were all but obliterated? I have no trouble believing that Square-Enix originally sought to craft a worthy successor to an impressive lineage of sprawling, fantasy epics, saturated with curious side-quests, mini-games, and other charming distractions and secrets. Unfortunately, after close to four or five years of development time, what we finally got was exceedingly restrictive and linear. There was nowhere to go, nothing to do -- essentially just a series of very picturesque hallways filled with monster battles, punctuated by scripted dialogue scenes -- truly, the JRPG equivalent of Time Crisis. The bulk of the time and money seemingly went into producing the (admittedly gorgeous) HD graphics, with little to none left over for anything else.

I'm fine with a linear plot, so long as it's captivating, well-told, and moves at a good clip -- but there needs to be something that makes me feel like this playthrough of the game is my own, and not necessarily the exact same as the next person's. There needs to be variety, contrast, and diversion -- occasionally, I need to get lost on a tangent before rejoining the main mission. All the little things we used to take for granted in role-playing games had evaporated.

Graphics: check.   Soundtrack: check.   Battles: check.
Okay, well I guess we're done -- oh wait, did anyone make an actual game?

Like several other frustrated Final Fantasy fans, I found myself wishing the balance of power had shifted more in favour of developing interesting dungeon designs, entertaining mini-games for variety's sake, and perhaps a few towns for good measure. Basically, I wanted a meatier gameplay experience, and if it meant the graphics had to take a hit or two along the way, that was fine.

Be careful what you wish for.

In a blog post on GameInformer, Chris "Warcraft" Kluwe expressed a great amount of anger toward Nintendo for the way Xenoblade Chronicles turned out. Misplaced anger, I'd say, since Nintendo made the Wii console which the game appears on and didn't develop the game itself -- yet despite some bouts of hyperbole, there are aspects of his arguments that I can sympathize with. I've tried out Xenoblade myself, and I'm psyched to give it more focus once a couple more games are off my plate (is there actually an end to Kingdoms of Amalur?), but already I've seen what he's talking about:

"...this game deserves better. It deserves better than gasping fish mouths bobbing up and down through beautifully crafted dialogue. It deserves better than jagged edged fuzzy textures comprising a breathtaking landscape..."

"I have to commend the folks at Monolith Soft. They’ve done the best they can with what they have available, and you can see the vision they’re so desperately trying to make a reality. The ideas on display in Xenoblade Chronicles are nothing short of amazing... Unfortunately, and through no fault of Monolith Soft, the Wii laughs at their dreams."

Xenoblade's graphics are really quite good... for a Wii game.
Is that still a compliment?

"I’m tired of Nintendo having these awesome franchises and brilliant developers and shafting them with an absolute garbage can of a system. I’m tired of seeing Mario relegated to kitschy ideas because there’s no horsepower under the Wii’s hood; I’m tired of seeing Link fighting through the Temple of Brown Textures and Jagged Edges; I’m tired of seeing games like Xenoblade Chronicles, games with a world vision that dwarfs the imagination and fills the mind with awe-inspiring jaw dropitude, get thrown under the bus by Nintendo insisting on Grandma Waggle Party IV as its core demographic."

Nintendo's strategy for the last few generations has been to produce underpowered hardware and seemingly ignore or deny modern conventions. The Wii is clearly inferior to the Xbox360 or the PS3, both in terms of graphical capability and image resolution. Xenoblade does what it can, but to see that game running on the Wii is to lament over what might have been. As Chris alludes, mouth animations when characters speak are primitive and off-putting, and the otherwise well-designed graphics suffer from having just a few polygons less than they deserve, and can only be enjoyed through the veil of the Wii's grainy resolution. If only there were an HD port of this game!

But then, what if it were made for an HD console? Who's to say it wouldn't have suffered from those same problems Final Fantasy XIII had? There are such high graphical expectations on the 360 and PS3, that anything less than the best is quickly criticized. Would Xenoblade's character models and environments have looked anything like this, had the game been designed from the ground up for another system? The game was made with one system's hardware in mind, and wishing for the image resolution of another may be folly. What game developer seriously makes a game for the PS3, with the goal of creating visuals that look only a little better than what's on the Wii?

Perhaps between the two extremes there rests a happy medium -- or, if this is the happy medium, would we recognize it? Those of us who demanded a different allocation of resources in the wake of FFXIII's graphics-mongering may have gotten what we wanted in Xenoblade, even if it is on a console we loathe. All things considered, Xenoblade still looks pretty good -- and if it ends up giving me all the things that FFXIII failed to deliver, then what have I really got to complain about?

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