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Edge Magazine #158 January 2006

The graphics... and the artistry

Edge #158, January 2006

I never really got into Ico, despite the fact I can appreciate almost everything about it. The almost invisible interface, the perfect structure, the pacing; it's an incredibly pure videogame, and it frustrated me that I never enjoyed it as much as I felt I should. In much the same way I wish I could enjoy challenging art house cinema as much as some of my friends, or bring myself to read the sorts of books which aren't on sale in airports, I simply can't be bothered with more avante garde games.

Oh, for sure, I like my games original. I just can't be arsed with anything that challenges my perceptions of what a game should be. Killer 7, for example, literally made blood foam from my ears. "We are in a tight spot". Damn right you are: you're jammed up your own sphincter.

The truth is, I'm more mainstream in my tastes than I'd sometimes like to admit. They say you get more conservative as you get older, and there's no question that I'm becoming a lot less flexible in the choice of games I play.

I live in constant hope that I'll have my passion for gaming suddenly refreshed by some challenging, leftfield meisterwerk. With this hope in mind, I bought Shadow Of The Colossus. As suspected, it's a pigeon-step closer to the mainstream than Ico, and though the gameplay is a tad repetitive, I enjoyed it a pigeon-step more than its predecessor.

However, what I really enjoyed about it - much as I did with Ico - were its graphics. Actually, graphics seems too harsh a word to describe the beauty on display here. What I really appreciated was its artistry. Despite the fact Shadow Of The Colossus and Ico are running

on hardware that we're told is 'last generation', they look far and away more sublime and soulful than anything I've yet seen from the next generation. Admittedly, the visuals in Shadow Of The Colossus are not perfect - there are glitches, and the framerate could be better. But overall, it's a gorgeous, awe-inspiring work of art. And the reason it's so beautiful has precisely nothing to do with technology.

When you look at Xbox 360 games, what do you think? I think: 'Peh'. Off the top of my head I could name half a dozen random, old-gen games which look better than anything I've seen thus far for the Xbox 360, and part of the problem is that they're relying on technology at the expense of artistry. Too many games lack a soul, and a part of that is too many games are soulless depictions of a mundane reality, rather than a reflection of an artistic point of view.

For me the difference between Doom 3 and Quake 4 - gameplay aside - is that Doom 3 is a game where art dictated the technology, while with Quake 4 it's the other way around.

I grow weary of wandering round the same urban landscapes, and warehouses, and semi-organic, sci-fi tunnels. I'd be a lot more welcoming to them if there was some feeling - some vision - gone into their depiction, but no. Every warehouse is identical to the last. Every alien installation is near identical. Every monster looks identical. You look at screenshots or video of the supposed first wave of Xbox 360 games, and they all look like the same game. None of them have a distinct, artistic vision. They're letting technology (and other games) decide how they should look. Technology keeps being thrown at games, without anyone pausing to question why. What's the benefit of spending money for smoother framerates and more polygons if what they're being used for is no more - or actually less - compelling than what we already have?

An artist - a true artist - should be able to create something surprising, and thought-provoking, and engaging with whatever tools he has to hand. Does having a bigger, newer brush make you a better painter? Would the Mona Lisa have been improved if Da Vinci had covered it with glitter and fluorescent paint?

It so often seems that game graphics are an afterthought. Yes, we all know the gameplay is the most important thing, but as technology moves forward the role of the artist seems to have diminished. They design buildings that look like real buildings - or, at least, like things they've seen in other games - and let the graphics engine do the job of lighting it, and making it look pretty. They've become architects and technicians, rather than painters.

Quake 4, Gears Of War, Perfect Dark Zero, Saint's Row, Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, and so on, all look like things we've seen before. Even Kameo is an over-designed grab-bag of fantasy clichés. Not a single 360 game inspires any sense of awe. It's not eye candy - it's eye porridge. Take a look at the trailer for Quake 4 - it sums up everything wrong with these games. A fit-inducing strobe through hackneyed imagery, topped off by an unintentionally hilarious script and music that veers from a militaristic beat to bluegrass, edited together by someone without a shred of artistic vision.

The best engine, the most powerful tech - none of it matters. You can give a monkey the same paint and canvas as Da Vinci, but chances are he's not going to recreate the Mona Lisa.

Mr Biffo co-founded Digitiser, Channel 4's Teletext-based videogames section, and now writes mainly for television

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