The Clash of Gameplay and Graphics

The Clash of Gameplay and Graphics

  1. The Gameplay Fallacy

One of the most common phrases you will hear amongst the gaming community is a line similar to that of “graphics don't matter, gameplay does”. Or something close to “it’s about stylization and realism never lasts”. Something about these phrases have bugged me and don't seem entirely accurate or strong when it comes to the entire scope of games in the past, present and future.
Truthfully, it all matters. A game developer can guide the player's attention towards any element in a game, and graphics can be one of those elements. We should look into why this notion is often the case when good graphics and gameplay is brought into question. What I find most troublesome with realistic graphics and where a lot of this sentiment comes from is outdated game design with a modern realistic appearance. Oftentimes gameplay and hyper realistic graphics can clash. Graphics and gameplay have to be thought of in tandem with each other, and have balancing issues not only with themselves but when put together. 

 I also want to state that this isn’t meant to pit one design against another, every game has their design challenges. And there is no one fix solution for design. I think pointing out there is an issue and showing that there is a clash there, can better design future games. All of this may seem obvious to someone, but I believe it still goes largely overlooked or properly tackled.

  1. Bridging the Gap Between Gameplay and Graphics

A trend can often be seen when games become remade or adapted with updated modern graphics. This trend consists of clashing elements between their graphical elements and their gameplay elements. This was something remakes like Doom (2016) and Resident Evil 4 (2023) had to tackle during their transition. 

Doom (1993) had a very flat looking image, making the interactable elements in the game very readable for the player. A fireball thrown from the background is just as readable as a fireball thrown from the foreground. The green armor in the back of this image is just as vibrant as it would be in the foreground.

The added visual complexity of a more realistic render adds a lot more noise to the image from its 8Bit counterpart. Add bounce lighting and shadows and you’ll quickly find out how difficult it actually is to direct a player's attention. The fireball thrown from the background can be obscured through the lighting and shadows. It makes for a more realistic image at the cost of readability for the player. And to counter that and make things become more readable for the player, it wouldn’t be uncommon to add in some more ‘unrealistic’ qualities that would make it look unnatural. Which is exactly what Doom Eternal (2020) did. By putting a separate lighting source attached to enemies so they are always visible to the player. Even though it isn’t a natural light source or makes sense within the game world, it is there to service gameplay at the cost of a more realistic image.

This tradeoff was something that worked for doom but now you realize as a designer, you have a decision to make as far as what is more important to you. Gameplay or Visuals. Which can be a difficult choice to wrestle with as a game designer. 

Another example is the recent release of the Resident Evil 4 Remake (2023). A common issue seen throughout players' experiences is the constant intrusion of the bear traps. (I understand that is also its point). Although I think its translation from its original release got muddied along the path to higher visual fidelity. 


Resident Evil 4’s original 2005 release had a different method of lighting. Where bear traps are rendered differently from the environment. Making their texture/color blend with the ground, but their lighting is different from the surrounding environment. Its geometry provides just enough to stick out to the player, yet its texture blends with the environment. 

Once you add bounce lighting to a scene you get a far more realistic image. Yet this interactable object that a player is meant to avoid, is blended seamlessly with the rest of the environment. Making this trap more noticeable or changing the way it is perceived can take away from its realistic qualities. I think this is partly why the phrase “Gameplay over graphics” can be seen as a positive one. It is these scenarios where graphics can overlap with the gameplay and overall create a duller gameplay experience.

The very decision to make your game realistic can be combative to your game design. It's simple to make a game of chess on paper. But video games are 3D interactive environments, and that has to be taken in account in the design process. 

These examples show how the game's graphics can interpret how your gameplay can be read to the player. Realistic graphics do make for a more sensory experience. Bridging the gap from how we perceive our world and the game worlds. But gameplay can wedge itself between reducing its sensory experience for a more gameplay focused one. 

Unrecord is a new game that showcased its trailer and went viral for its graphical fidelity that is almost indistinguishable from real life. It’s a First Person Shooter that seemingly does nothing too different from many other first person shooters. But what is clearly the most interesting about this trailer is its level of sensory elements compared to other First Person Shooters. You can see in the trailer the animation of the camera and hand movement is much more realistic to how it would look in reality. But would this make for more engaging gameplay for a typical First Person Shooter? I would argue it wouldn’t. To a degree, this would actually make a typical FPS become a much more frustrating experience to go through. Albeit a more realistic and sensory one. Reducing its sensory elements would make it a more enjoyable conventional gameplay experience. It's a cursed problem in game design. With not a lot of examples of games overcoming this example given how this level of graphical fidelity has only been seen in games these past couple of years. It deserves a shift of focus. Shifting our focus to a more sensory experience we can make games that feel more immersive to the player. This focus on creating a more sensory experience can more easily pull the player into the game world. 

  1. Sensory Dissonance

Sensory dissonance can drastically change how we perceive the game world. These sensory elements can be what draws us in and immerses the player. But oftentimes games can be culprits of telling you through text what you are seeing/hearing. As opposed to actually seeing/hearing within the gameworld. A common piece of advice for filmmakers is the phrase ‘Show, don’t tell’. Although the medium of a video game is different, it is a visual one and I believe that statement can still stand in translating the medium.

Text based examples like the one above are meant to serve that visual gap for what the player is supposed to see, yet for whatever reason they don’t. Pop ups like this are non diegetic, for something that can be easily diegetic within the game world. This kind of approach to relaying information to the player just seems like it isn’t doing what the medium of a 3D game does best. They speak from a developer's note. 

In my opinion this way of storytelling through a video game is outdated design and only takes away from a sensory experience. Describing what you are supposed to be seeing and feeling is a waste of time to the player. This technique serves literature but video games are more than just that. This technique along with many others remove us from the game world and remind us we are playing a video game.

Not only do developers do this to the player lessening our sensory experience but oftentimes players end up doing this to themselves.

It is not uncommon to lower our sensory experience for a more gameplay advantage or edge. There is an accessibility setting in Fortnite that gives the player an audio to visual aid. Essentially a compass to any sounds a player may hear including gunshots, chest locations and footsteps. As a player why not always have this option on? It provides a visual connection to what we hear or have to audibly interpret. It bridges that gap between what we hear and what we see in the gameworld. But that gap is partly what grounds a player in a space creating a more immersive experience. Visually it is ugly and a stain on the interface. But its advantage is huge. Our immersive experience is lessened here for the pursuit of mastery. An option like this in something like Thief or Dark Souls, known for their level of immersion, would only hurt these games' experiences. How far is too far to lessen our immersive experience for a gameplay focused one. 

Its also not uncommon either for players to lower their graphical fidelity for an advantage. Lower Graphics help visibility, boost framerate, no motion blur, and no needless effects. Graphics can get a lot in the way between you and eliminating another player. Which in turn, affects the gameplay. 

Yet again it is these high fidelity graphics that can help ground the player feel immersed in a space. 

How far is too far to lessen our immersive experience for a gameplay focused one? Should we be putting light auras around enemy players so we can see them better? This is something already being done in games like Counter Strike.

Similar to the Doom example earlier, with the increased fidelity over time with the Counter Strike series, enemies began to become more and more blended with their environment. No longer were they jagged pieces of low poly geometry surrounded by low quality textures of the original Counter Strike. Lighting became better, shadows became softer, textures sizes increased and in turn the way we perceive our environment including our enemies became different and more difficult. To combat this an option is available in Counter Strike that increases enemy visibility contrast, making them stand out from the depth of the environment.

Counter Strike players are also known to heavily reduce their graphical qualities for a competitive advantage. Lower graphics can mean less visual clutter, making a split second decision from being able to not notice an enemy due to visual clutter and being able to notice them, that little bit better. This also goes for complex geometry on screen, that makes it difficult for players to pick out where a player is.

These two images are the same map points of a Counter Strike callout named ‘Banana’ 22 years later. Given the opportunity, I would be willing to say most competitive players will choose their game to look like Counter Strike (2000) over the more ‘realistic’ image. Given how much an edge it would provide to a player due its simplified look. And this goes across the board for most if not all competitive games if given the chance. 

  1. Graphical Sensory Harmony

Gameplay and graphics don’t always have to be at battle with one another. And doesn’t need to be thought of in a way where one can take precedence over another. There are examples of using these two elements in tandem with one another and I think horror games are really great at this.

P.T. Silent Hill is one case where you can find where the volume of gameplay is turned down, making every other aspect of the game turn up. It asks the player to dissect small elements in the immediate surroundings. From looking at photographs, reading small texts on a wall, or other little details. Having elements like these in a game like Call of Duty would largely go unnoticed. With so many other levels of interaction of that game, the player's direction isn’t at these small details of the game world. It can be easy to say that PT has little to no gameplay but rather this is the gameplay in its entirety. It serves its purpose of directing the players uplifting the story without ‘conventional gameplay’ elements intruding. Its minimalism in interaction is its strength. Graphical fidelity does not need to be compromised. And this game would even be a less impactful game without it.

Phasmophobia was an example that I thought to be interesting. Similar to PT, its gameplay asks nothing of the player in terms of physical reaction time at first. Its environment creates an oppressive heavy atmosphere. It also asks the player to dissect its immediate surroundings. Along with the trend of proximity voice chat that feeds into the sensory experience of the game world using its sensory aspects in tandem with gameplay. 

Going through the game ‘The Complex: Found Footage’ was interesting as well. In an even more extreme example than the previous one, this game has almost no direct interactivity whatsoever. The direction of this game leans entirely on its heavy atmosphere thanks to its graphics and sound. A game like this simply could not have been made in previous video game generations with the same amount of impact. A game like this only works due to how sensory of an experience it is because of its graphical quality and sound. Not to say that atmospheric games hadn’t existed, I'm reminded of the Thief franchise that were masters at this. But by pushing this graphical quality even further than what the original Thief games could with their low poly fidelity, it only makes the experience stronger.

The Silent Hill PT and The Complex examples could be described as more experiential titles. With no real extrinsic goals and motivation. Their sense of winning and losing become vague with no clear fail state. With this in mind the depth of the experience isn’t focused on ‘gameplay’ in the traditional sense. You can lose and win a game. With this in mind the focus can be crafted outside of gameplay in other areas to enhance the experience. Thinking further on the Video Games 50 years from now I believe this trend will follow down to a path where we won't even consider them as Video Games any more and will take an entirely new form beyond winning and losing. 

I realize a lot of what I am describing could be attributed to the Walking Simulator Genre. Combining their immersive 3D environments with minimal gameplay. Possibly there is something to explore in this genre that could evolve into something else.

I think a really great example of this theory is something I experienced first hand. I was recently reminded of the game BattleBit and Battlefield. For those unaware, BattleBit is essentially a clone of Battlefield on almost every level except on a graphical one. 

Yet I would argue that they are still vastly different experiences. Even though on a structural level they deliver essentially the same gameplay. During my time playing Battlefield I would argue I personally felt more immersed and drawn in the Battlefield game world. That in itself means that something is lost, a feeling, and that there is something to explore there.

  1. Moving Forward

The design process of creating a game is never easy and difficult to conceptualize beforehand. Game development is often described as an interactive process. Partly due to how a game can often be found during its development cycle. As sometimes gameplay that is preconceived and conceptualized can hardly come out the way a designer expected. 

I think it's important to draw design elements from how we perceive the world around us. As opposed to designing games in a mechanicaly on paper (I am also speaking exclusively to games that have immersive 3D worlds). Games are becoming more and more alike the way we perceive our surroundings, making it easier to translate our world into a game world. We don’t need to stuff a hyper realistic game with chess anymore and can think more literally from our own world and experiences. I think this area of designing games this way is one that can only be brought up from our modern software that can create realistic environments. And is largely an unexplored area of designing games with this shift in focus.