If You Think Good Graphics Make Characters Worth Caring About, You're Probably Insane

Last week, when the folks behind Killzone went on Jimmy Fallon's late night show to talk PS4, they said something that stuck with me.

In response to Fallon's question about what the PS4's impressive memory could do for developers, Guerilla Games boss Herman Hulst answered with a great deal of enthusiasm. He said it allows them to create big, vibrant worlds. And...

"At the same time," he said, "it gives us space to develop these characters that you truly care about."

Ten seconds later, we watched the main character of Killzone: Shadow Fall leap down a wall and stick a knife in another person's chest. He then pulled out an assault rifle, unloaded bullets into two people, and slid through burning wreckage, ducking behind a piece of pipe so he could take cover as he gunned down the men around him. Next our hero slowed down time while killing so we could watch the blood spout out of his victim's arteries like a sanguine geyser.

"Yeah! Yeah! That's what I'm talking about!" Fallon shouted.

Characters we truly care about.

I have no doubt that Hulst was being completely genuine when he suggested that better graphics will make the heroes and heroines of our video games more compelling, just like I have no doubt that Heavy Rain designer David Cage meant it when he talked last Wednesday night about how gaming's narrative is restricted by technological limitations.

What I do doubt is that any of this is true.

Over at Unwinnable yesterday, there was a great piece by Chris Dahlen about an indie called Cart Life. You should go read it, not just because you should read everything that Chris Dahlen writes but because it does a fantastic job of summing up a game that knows how to tell a story. Cart Life, Dahlen explains, puts you in the shoes of people who are going through some particularly difficult circumstances. You have to try to make their lives better. This is extremely tough. You will probably fail. You'll empathize with the characters you're playing and the struggles they lead, Dahlen writes, and you'll feel both awful and satisfied.

Dahlen writes:

Nowhere else in our lives do cold hard numbers translate into the daily ups and downs of our experience than when we look in our wallets or check our bank account. And this is the genius of Cart Life, an indie game released in 2011 by Richard Hofmeier. Where other games struggle to use scores to quantify our feelings and concerns, Hofmeier's has gone straight to the number that actually does make us sleepless at night. And the many ways that the game uses money—by which I mean, all of the ways that that number can go down or up—support the questions that Hofmeier seems to be posing.

(Really you should go read the piece.)

One thing not mentioned in Dahlen's article: polygons. Here is a screenshot from Cart Life:

If You Think Good Graphics Make Characters Worth Caring About, You're Probably Insane

Check out those graphics. I wonder if they needed 8 gigabytes of RAM?

To the Moon remains one of the very few video games that has made me cry, because it tells a story that has stuck with me in a genuine way. As I wrote a couple of years ago:

This is a story about love and loss, mostly, but it's also about human nature, about the devastating little mistakes we make and the fragile strings that bind us together. It's about communication. It's about the frustration of having something to say but not knowing how to say it.

Here is a screenshot from To the Moon:

If You Think Good Graphics Make Characters Worth Caring About, You're Probably Insane

Check out that shading. That must be Unreal Engine 4, right?

Maybe there are games that resonated with you. Maybe you cried when Sephiroth killed Aeris or when you had to live with the consequences of your tough decisions in The Walking Dead. I don't think it's a stretch to say the graphics had nothing to do with that.

We as humans are attracted to aesthetically-pleasing objects. That's okay. I won't try to put a stop to the video game industry's quest for the most amazing graphics ever. But this belief in the game development community that more impressive graphics equate to more relatable characters? Insanity all around.

Want to know what makes people care about characters? Better characters. Better written characters. Characters with ambitions and flaws and indecision and all of the other weird intricacies that make humans human. You don't need more RAM to get there.