Games have both the fortune and misfortune of being technical creations. The very act of influencing something on-screen is quite astounding when you think about it. There are whole worlds of code behind the games we play, all for the sake of the intended experience. We’ve built some amazing marvels in such a creatively tricky medium (I’m just using collective language when I say “we” – I haven’t made squat).
Yet we’ve also made this a problem, because often we put too much weight on the technical nature of games. We get distracted by issues of frame rate, pop-in, and screen-tearing, while the more important conversations – the ideas more integral to our games – roll on by.
There’s a few reasons we’re so prone to this, but the most obvious one is technical issues are easy to observe. It’s simple enough to see when your otherwise smooth game chugs down a few frames, or when an entire world loads in front of you. Players learn to notice them, and reviewers learn to use them as easy criticism. “It took me out of the experience”, is a common thing to hear in this regard.
We take issue with these because games are an outlet for fantasy. To get lost in the story of a world, to participate in a whole other story is a big reason why games are so appealing. And I kind of sympathise with that. Kind of. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune had a bad case of texture pop-in, but would I mark it down for that? Probably not.
Being a medium with mechanical building blocks, improving and changing along with technology, it does tend to attract hardware-types. The kind who enjoy building and optimising their rigs so their games can perform their best.
While I enjoy the culture this high-tech customising creates (or at least witnessing it), it can cause one to focus too much on technical performance, and often does. When you’re creating a rig for peak efficiency, you’re gonna want your games to run in kind.
Technical problems become a little more important when you’re in the competitive scene. When people in the same match can feel encumbered or bolstered by their own equipment; when such differences can potentially make a difference.
But as for the rest of gaming, can we really justify the amount of energy we put into this? If we’re not talking about frequent game crashes or save files deleting themselves, how often do technical issues really hamper our games and make them supposedly unplayable?
I’d heard The Last Guardian had some fairly crippling frame rate issues. When I actually experienced them myself, and I sure did (it felt like 15fps), did they make the game unplayable? Nope. Did they bother me? Not really. Do I care at all? Obviously not.
When a game like The Last Guardian fosters such a poignant experience already, a little frame-dipping isn’t going to break the fantasy. I probably wouldn’t even mention it in a review. It is that negligible, despite being quite severe by many standards. I don’t want to perpetuate the culture that over-emphasises the mechanical aspects of gaming when we’re really dealing with is a creative medium. It’s ones of our critical customs that we feel obligated in reporting how a game “performs” – a word taken very literally.
We should be meeting this question with more important answers. In lieu of the game’s design, what messages are coming across, what does it evoke? Those are harder answers to conjure, but more rewarding and beneficial to an industry with a habit of getting caught up in graphical conversations and technical complaints. And while I’m not suggesting we simply never talk about these things, I am criticising the the part of our industry which does so at the expense of more important topics. Such ideas reserve too much space in our critical mindset as it is.
It’s easy to get absorbed by these concerns because games are themselves, as I said before, technical creations. But why are they made using engines and mechanical language to begin with? So we can have experiences. Unique, enjoyable, fun, insightful experiences.
Everything else a game is made of, every piece of engineering, is just a means to that end.