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The Wow Factor

The Witcher 2 - widely acclaimed as one of the most graphically advanced games of the current generation

The Witcher 2 seems to be everywhere at the moment. It sounds like a hell of a game, and I wish I had the hardware to play it. But alongside how great everyone is saying the game is to play, I keep hearing also how good it looks. And that makes me at once strangely wistful and nostalgic, and yet filled with excitement and anticipation. Because I remember that feeling, way back down in the dim, distant, murky parts of my gaming history, that feeling of being blown away by the visual impact of a game. And I really thought it had gone forever.

I was never a console boy. My first encounters with video games was on the 8-bit computing platforms of the ’80s, from the awful graphics of the ZX Spectrum with its eight shade palette and colour bleed to the much more advanced Commodore 64, the graphical powerhouse of its day. The games were new, thrilling, breathlessly exciting things to my virgin generation, unused to technological toys, and for the most part they looked like shit. But we didn’t care: this was the birth of the home gaming movement, and we were too busy being joyously carried along on the crest of a new wave to think about the future.

But the future came, nevertheless. It came in the form of 16-bit computing. I can remember still, with extraordinary vividness for a day more than 20 years ago, coming home from school and having my parents ask me to quickly run an important errand in a forced manner that seemed odd and noticing behind them on the kitchen table a large box swathed with towels in a futile attempt at disguise and knowing, knowing for certain that my Amiga had arrived. I ran my errand as quickly as I could and spent the rest of the day totally absorbed in video games, barely pausing even to eat, as they knew I would. It was on the Amiga that I first discovered the extraordinary potential shock value of updated graphics and sound, the day I shoved Shadow of the Beast into the hungry maw of my machine’s disc drive.

Shadow of the Beast on the Commodore Amiga

By most objective standards Shadow of the Beast was an awful game. A side-scrolling beat-’em-up/platformer hybrid it was tediously derivative, stupidly difficult, repetitive and driven by an incomprehensible, meaningless plot. But in spite of this, and an eye-wateringly high price tag for the time of £35, the game received critical acclaim and sold by the bucket load. It managed this feat purely because of its graphics and sound. With an enormous colour palette, crisp, fluid sprites and an unheard of 12levels of parallax scrolling powering a stunning piece of visual and audio design Shadow of the Beast looked better than anything else in home computing, like something that should be running on a Cray supercomputer and not the little gray box in your living room. Like almost every other gamer I broke my teeth on its difficulty level and resorted to cheat codes, enduring the dull gameplay for hour after hour just to feast my eyes and ears on the smorgasbord of delights that the game offered. It was wonderful, the attainment of a nirvana that my fifteen-year old self had never dreamed existed.

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I can also vividly remember, for entirely different reasons, a conversation I had with some friends around this time about the quality of graphics in video games. We discussed, and agreed, that further advancement in graphical technology would be nice, but was hardly necessary, because 16-bit games looked so good and that it wouldn’t be much longer before we had video quality graphics beyond which any improvement was impossible. I remember that because of the way that later years demonstrated it was a grandiose, naive, ignorant and stupidly arrogant and statement to make. But if you can’t make statements like that when you’re 15, when else can you do it?

And over the coming years, as hardware was upgraded and replaced, it was proved hollow time and time again. On my first PC the game that floored me with its visual was Ultima Underworld. On the next rig, a 486, it was Doom. On my first Pentium machine it was Quake. But each time there was something of a law of diminishing returns. Each time the impact was a little bit less, my reaction a little bit more jaded with experience and weighted with the cynicism of the passing years.

All that changed with the next upgrade though. When Quake II came out I bought myself a brand new PC with a hot graphics card just so I could play that particular game. The guy that built it for me slung a copy of a game I’d never heard of, Unreal, into the box for me to boot up when I’d got the machine installed. And this I duly did, and such was my astonishment that I called my non-gaming wife in from the living room to share the moment with me and she, normally totally disinterested in my hobby, sat in open-mouthed wonder, desultorily poking at the mouse from time to time just to make the viewpoint change. I was so overawed by this, my first ever experience of a game properly rendered in 3D polygons with full lighting effects, that I spent that whole first evening just wandering in circles round the lake in the opening scene of the game, looking at the crystals on the ground, the water in the pool, the stars in the sky, discharging my weapon into the distance just to watch the bolts fade into obscurity.

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Of course, I eventually got round to doing the proper thing and venturing deeper into the environs of the game to kick some scaly alien buttock, but there were repeated occasions when I’d be absorbed so totally by the visual design that some enemy or other would walk right up and blow me away without my noticing until it was too late. It was wonderful to have that feeling again, dragging me right back to those first moments in front of Shadow of the Beast, the ultimate digital nostalgia trip.

Unreal - the most graphically impressive game of its generation

But that was the last time.

Bigger PCs with beefier graphics cards didn’t reproduce it, nor did the first console I ever owned, the Xbox. Halo and Half-Life 2 are probably the most graphically advanced games I’ve played extensively and even though I took the time to sit back and note the resolution and the detail in those games and nod in satisfaction, appreciating the effort that went into the design and development, that wow factor seemed to have gone forever. Why? Partly, and in danger of replicating my teenage hubris, I feel that while photorealistic graphics are still a ways away in video games, once you’ve got to the point of realistic physics and lighting effects, all there is to do is to increase the resolution and add detail. And while that helps things look pretty, it’s not the sort of earth-shattering advance in visuals that we’ve seen in older iterations of hardware development.

I suspect this may also be part of the reason why Sony got trumped in the current generation by the Xbox 360. The previous console generation may well have been the last one where there was a genuine quantum leap in terms of graphical processing power, and because of that gamers were still drawn towards the superior hardware of the original Xbox and some people bought one over the PS2 on that, and that alone. Sony must have known this, so for the next generation they pulled out all the stops to deliver the beast of a machine that is the PS3, not realising that in this generation, graphical power was no longer going to be the hot selling point it had been in the past, because we’re in a place now where all designers and developers can do is tweak the resolution and the details that’s on offer.

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Another culprit in decreasing appreciation for video game graphics might have been the advent of genuine photorealistic computer graphics in films. We’re still a step away from genuine lifelike movement and expressions, but it’s hard to admire the visuals of a computer game when computer effects in Hollywood products you can see every day on your TV have become so common and so detailed that you barely notice them anymore.

It made me sad to think that those moments, those few precious moments of wonder that I’d shared with my computer games as we’d grown up together, were something that nascent gamers, born into a world where visualising dreams had become commonplace, might never experience with their own PCs and consoles. And now we have The Witcher 2, and that’s the first time in a long, long time that I’ve really noticed games journalists writing about the graphics in a game with anything like that childish tinge of astonishment and appreciation. It’ll be awhile before I get the chance to play Witcher 2, and then there’s a new hardware generation to think about, but it seems as though there’s a little spark of hope that I, and millions of others, might not have seen our last “wow” moments after all.

Matt Thrower

Matt is a board gamer who plays video games when he can't find anyone similarly obsessive to play against, which is frequently. The inability to get out and play after the birth of his first child lead him to start writing about games as a substitute for playing them. He founded FortressAT.com and writes there and at NoHighScores.com

7 thoughts to “The Wow Factor”

  1. I too had the same gaming upbringing as you spectrum, Amstrad, Amiga onwards and upwards and sympathise with your commudgen jaded ways.

    The last Wow factor I had was no longer really about graphical details but the draw distance of Oblivion. It was a minor wow.

    The last time I wanted to show off a game was the D-Day part of Medal of Honour but that was more about the scale, humanity and context of what was going on rather then pure graphical brilliance.

    The closer we get to our 15 year old fantasies the sooner we release that damn… we were stupid at 15.

    This is an excellent article).
    Thank you.

  2. For me, this console generation (mainly Xbox 360 and PS3) has left me feeling that graphics can’t go any further. But that’s because I only started playing games seriously in the previous generation.

    Developers need to focus on the mechanics behind games (from controls to AI) and stories more.

  3. I’m actually struck by how good that Quake II screenshot actually looks compared to the Witcher 2 one. I mean, yeah, The Witcher 2 obviously looks better, but is it OMG mindblowingly better? I don’t think so, just more detailed. I think you hit the nail on the head with that one. These days, the thing that makes me sit up go “Wow!” is actually more interactivity with the environment, because that’s actually really hard to do. Shadow of the Collosus blew my mind last generation when I was running and climbing all over those giant dudes.

    I had similar moments in Uncharted 2, actually. Specifically, the building you’re in getting destroyed by missiles from the helicopter and literally falling over with you in it (after the wall gets blown out for good measure), and the train chapters because, holy shit, it’s a train that actually moves through the level and not vice versa! Art direction helps too. The first time I came out of the tunnel and into the snowy mountains on the back of the train was literally breathtaking. Plus, the train was like 100 cars long and you could look way down the front of it, and even turn around and see where you’d been climbing forward in the previous chapter. Yeah, thinking about this now, that train level was probably one of the most visually impressive things I’ve ever seen in a video game, ever.

    1. The screenshot is from Unreal. I did eventually play Quake II and it was a better game than Unreal but in that generation, the Unreal Engine ruled graphically.

      You make some excellent points though. In direct comparison, you’re right: the Witcher screenshot vs the Unreal one illustrates perfectly what I’m talking about. The big difference between the two is almost entirely one of detail and resolution. However, you could also be right in thinking that what a modern engine can do that an older one can’t is sheer scale, having so many things moving in co-ordinates ways across the screen at once.

  4. I remember walking into a pool hall in high school where they had Super Mario World running on a big screen, rear projection TV. What now seem like minor advances in detail really made an impression at the time, and then of course when Mario 64 arrived we all sat in a college apartment oohing and aahing for three days. Mario was some kind of benchmark for me at one time it seems, but no longer.

    Scale is what seems to wow me these days, when done well. Shadow of the Colossus, obviously. Moments in Mass Effects 1 & 3 (not really 2) where planets or adversaries loomed impossibly large.

  5. Even though, I am a younger gamer, who only got into gaming in the late 90s, I can still very much relate to this. While I really don’t want the crazy days back when we had to upgrade our PCs every 2 years, I do have some nostalgia for that feeling when you start playing the latest and greatest in terms of graphics.
    There’s been a couple games that managed to get an “ooo that’s pretty” out of me “recently”, such as Far Cry 2 or Metro 2033, sometimes the STALKER games. Crysis was quite amazing too.
    But I can’t remember the last game that made me go “WOW, this is incredible!”. Maybe the original Far Cry? Hmmmm… the beaches, the sunsets, and the lush jungle flora… yeah that was quite something.

  6. To me, the idea driving this article is the indefinable wedge that keeps popping up in the tired ‘games as art’ debate. It’s largely a matter of intent. You can pump a game full of detailed textures and pretty effects, but it still feels empty if the visuals don’t have purpose.

    Take Mirror’s Edge as an example (I should be a paid spokesperson by now). With very few exceptions, I always had a general sense of where I was supposed to go, despite the lack of a map or arrows. Aware of this fact, it was on my second playthrough that I noticed the many subtle cues; a splotch of color, a little extra light, or the angle of an environmental object. It is good level design, but it also supports the perception of freedom of movement, which is the conceptual groundwork for the entire game.

    Gamasutra ran an excellent interview with Moby Franke, visual designer for Team Fortress, back in 2007:
    https://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=16498

    There was another from GamesIndustry.biz, but it seems to have been lost to the black hole of the internet. You might look at TF2 and say, “Yeah, it’s goofy and cartoony. So what?” Do an image search for “Team Fortress 2 silhouettes” and see if you can’t tell which class is which. That is visual design with a purpose.

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