Co-published on Read.Cash and Zirkels.
Video games are a unique medium from movies, books, and music thanks to their interactivity. Instead of being a passive observer, you get to directly interact with the made-up universe of that game. Over the past 4 decades or so, the industry has made huge leaps in graphics, gameplay, and systems. The Nintendo 64 and PlayStation 1 era was arguably the most influential with the introduction of 3D graphics and famous games like Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time, and Final Fantasy VII.
However, I cannot help, but feel that video games have largely stagnated and feel samey. The PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X are the most powerful consoles to date. NVidia's Ada video cards have impressive ray-tracing performance, particularly the RTX 4090. Even then, the leap from the previous generation to the current one feels rather underwhelming. For sure games look prettier than before (and that's sometimes debatable case in point ⬇), but you can only so far with just looks. Yes, good raytracing can look fantastic like in Cyberpunk 2077, but games are played, not merely looked at passively.
As much as people rag on the Nintendo Switch for its very outdated hardware, it still continues to sell very well this late in its lifecycle. While its games are not even close to being the most graphically impressive, they sell extremely well for one simple reason: they're fun. Mario Odyssey, for example, doesn't change the 3D Mario formula that much, but the simple addition of Cappy opens up to a plethora of ways for traversal. Breath of the Wild took a wildly different approach to the Zelda formula with not just its open-world design, but its encouragement for the player to discover things on his/her own. The upcoming sequel takes the first game's strengths and add a lot of new features without deviating from the original formula. There are new mechanics that make vertical traversal more efficient, and a fusion system that allows you to craft better weapons on the fly and even makeshift vehicles.
If one looks at Steam's best selling games, one will find that many of them are not known for their graphics such as Elden Ring, Stardew Valley, Persona 5 Royal, NieR: Automata, Sea of Thieves, Don't Starve, and Counter-Strike. While they are fundamentally different from each other, they all have solid and fun gameplay loops that keep players engaged along with several other strengths. NieR: Automata, for example, has an interesting existentialist themed storyline; Persona 5 Royal oozes with style and has a really good battle system; and Elden Ring infuses the Breath of the Wild formula with rich lore that explains the state of the in-game universe.
Graphics can only appeal to the audience so far. If the gameplay loop is too boring or if the systems are too unintuitive, it doesn't matter if a game looks über realistic. It's largely why I tend to gravitate towards niche games like indies or Falcom's Ys and Trails series. The developers focus more on finding creative ways to get around limitations and thus, their software tend to age better on the long run.
So what do I think are the most important aspects of a video game? My personal list would look something like this in descending order:
- Performance, particularly consistent frametimes
- Systems (e.g. leveling, crafting, classes, loot, etc.)
- Story and lore (if applicable)
- Art style/direction & Animations & Sound design & Music (interchangeable)
- Graphics (including raytracing)
What do you look for the most in a video game?