In the world of video game enthusiasts, there are a significant number of people who care a great deal about graphics and resolutions.
This group sometimes comes across as obsessive, almost rabid about their hobby, to the point where a couple of vague tweets and rumors can trigger a scandal, or a -Gate. Take ResolutionGate, the dramatic controversy that was triggered in October because a few games had higher resolutions on one of the two big next-gen consoles that came out a few weeks later.
This left some observers scratching their heads, and apparently they're still itching. In a piece on Motherboard today, writer Yannick LeJacq contends that these sort of debates and discussions, both on message boards and on video game sites like Kotaku, are hurting video games as a culture and art form.
"If we want to understand video games as the cornerstone of pop culture that they are, we have to question whether or not these technical details are actually important," LeJacq writes. "Pitchfork saves its best critical faculties for discussing the artistry of music, not the technical details of sound systems and headphones. The New Yorker and New York Magazine only glosh over screen specifications and 3D technology in movies when things like that actually say something interesting about the authorship of a film. Good critics talk about the work itself first and foremost."
LeJacq goes on to call on video game journalists to talk more about the bigger questions in gaming—like "why are people obsessed with Lara Croft's body?"—rather than debate about granular technical details like resolution (the number of pixels on a screen) and frame-rate (how smoothly a game's images move). He never quite addresses the accusation in the headline—Obsessions Like "ResolutionGate" Are Why Video Games Don't Get Enough Respect in Pop Culture—but his point is clear: debates over technical details are clouding the discussion of Video Games As Art.
But resolutions do matter. Frame-rates make a difference. Nitty-gritty technical details are worth discussing. Let me explain why.
1) The graphical difference is not insignificant.
Here, look at this lovely GIF:
That's from NeoGAF, and it shows a clearly discernible difference between the Xbox One and PS4 versions of Assassin's Creed IV, particularly if you expand the image. You might not notice or care about the filter that's making the Xbox One version look darker, and hell, if you only own and play on one of those consoles, the graphical differences might not even matter to you. But there are differences, and we can't pretend they're not there.
Via the very-technical folks at Digital Foundry, here's a comparison between both next-gen versions of Call of Duty: Ghosts:
It's not minor, as you can see. The PS4 version is clearly crisper, less muddy. "The PS4's resolution advantage gives it a considerable boost in quality over that of the rougher-looking Xbox One version," Digital Foundry writes. (They also note that the PS4 version seems optimized more poorly, with more slowdowns and lag issues.)
To say that these differences don't matter to you is perfectly fine. They're not that big a deal to me, either—brown war games are still brown war games no matter the resolution—but it's irresponsible for any journalist to say this shouldn't matter to anyone.
And what of frame-rates? Right now, ardent gamers everywhere are arguing over the next-gen versions of Tomb Raider, out next week, which will reportedly run at 60 frames-per-second on PlayStation 4. (It's unclear how the game performs on Xbox One—"Delivering the core Tomb Raider gameplay at native 1080p and running at 30fps was always our primary goal given the type of experience Tomb Raider is and the exploration we want players to do," a Square Enix representative told Eurogamer. "Anything beyond 30fps for this version is gravy.")
LeJacq argues that this doesn't matter.
"[Frame-rate] effects the gameplay experience in some minute ways that are usually only apparent if you're really looking for them, or if something is going wrong — say, if a game's display suddenly becomes very choppy," LeJacq writes. "Like screen resolution, it's the kind of figure that appeals mostly to gearheads."
YouTube videos all run at 30fps, so it's difficult to directly compare video game frame-rates online, but luckily, there are websites designed solely for the purpose of showing you how much smoother an animation will look at 60fps. If you don't see a difference there, try spending some time with The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, a game lauded as one of the smoothest in recent memory—possibly because the whole thing runs at 60 frames per second, unlike many of its peers.
Regardless, like with resolution, these are technical details that make a difference to a large group of people, and that's not something journalists should ignore.
2) Technical dissection and critical analysis are not mutually exclusive.
"Publishing isn't a zero-sum game," LeJacq writes, "but choosing to continually inquire about stories about frame rates and resolution takes time and energy away from other, more human questions."
Except... it doesn't. Large gaming sites like Kotaku and IGN publish hundreds of stories a week, written by stables of staff and freelancers. We have reporters and we have critics. We have both time and energy. And we're capable of asking both technical and critical questions without blowing any fuses.
In October, Kotaku's Kirk Hamilton took a few hours to compare games like Call of Duty: Ghosts and Battlefield 4, noting that yes, there is a tangible difference between how each game performs on both the PS4 and Xbox One.
That didn't stop him from writing a smart analysis of Assassin's Creed IV that asks some sharp questions about where that series is and where it's headed. Nor did it stop him from critiquing some of the big "choices" in video games that turned out to be nothing but illusion and manipulation. All in the same week.
3) People deserve to know what they're paying for.
Here's the big one. When we talk about resolutions and frame-rates, we're really asking two questions: 1) Is this software performing as well as expected? and 2) Is this hardware performing as well as expected?
Video games, more than any other form of art, are often perceived as products. This is partly due to the industry's ridiculous marketing cycle, but it's also because they often straight-up don't work. We have come to accept bugs, glitches, and weird slowdown effects in many of our games; they've become as ingrained in the culture as Mario's jump and Call of Duty Character's gun.
LeJacq, in his article, points to critical analysis of film and music, which doesn't often mention technical details, but the comparison is unfair—how often do films crash and force you to watch the last hour all over again? How often does an album have random lag spikes?
"If we want to understand video games as the cornerstone of pop culture that they are, we have to question whether or not these technical details are actually important," LeJacq writes. And they are. The technology of games is evolving at exponential rates, and video games are not yet at the point where we can ignore their technical shells. Every game performs differently. How could you critique SimCity without mentioning the crippling server issues that rendered the game unplayable for over a week after launch? How could you review Fallout: New Vegas without talking about the frequent glitches and game-crashing bugs?
Consequently, when people want to know whether they should buy, say, an Xbox One or PlayStation 4, they deserve to know everything—the resolution; the frame-rate; every single nitty-gritty detail that keeps these machines humming along, playing games. If journalists handwave and dismiss concerns about technical details as only for "gearheads," we are doing a disservice to the people who spend a great deal of money on these games and machines.
If a video game has even a fraction of a pixel more on one console than they do on the others, doesn't that deserve to be discussed? Don't the people thinking about both the short- and long-term power capabilities of these machines deserve to know as much as possible about what they can do? It's tempting to wave off the communities on sites like Reddit and NeoGAF as an obsessive minority who are concerned with nothing but absurd console wars, but these questions make a difference. As they should.