With a vast array of games on offer, it’s no surprise that players judge titles by their metaphorical covers. The availability of gameplay trailers and lets plays makes it very easy for potential players to get a quick snapshot of what they might be in for. As a result, a sizeable factor in deciding to purchase a game is going to be what it looks like. This can be in terms of fundamental things, like genre or mechanics, but in all cases, buyers are going to be considering graphics.
The logical assumption, then, is that the better a game looks, the more likely players are to buy it. Visual technology has improved immeasurably in the last few decades to such a point that some modern titles can be hard to distinguish from actual, real-life footage. There’s certainly value in this; a huge amount of time and work goes into building incredibly intricate, beautiful gaming experiences. Some of the most interesting and enjoyable games ever made have been supported by such a framework.
At the same time, it can still be very difficult to create a game that looks good. This is particularly true for small development teams. What happens, then, if a developer chooses to go in entirely the opposite direction? In some games, is it perhaps better to aim for a graphical style that some might term ‘bad’?
The Power of Imagination
Whenever anyone thinks of old games, one of the first things they’re going to remember is pixels. Early games were defined by their lack of curves and their sharp, blocky imagery. The limits of older technology meant it was impossible to produce anything like the level of detail we see now. As something of a by-product of this, players were often left to do a lot of the heavy lifting when it came to imagining the fantastical worlds they were exploring.
For most genres, this was a burden that typically had to be compensated for by other aspects of the game. The primary exception to this rule was horror. As Steven Spielberg said of one of the most well-known thriller films of all time, “Jaws is scary because of what you don’t see, not because of what you do.”
The human imagination has tremendous power. With a base to build on, it can do a lot more to inspire fear than any carefully crafted visuals. This is true in films too, but it’s even more relevant to games, where a player has to make the active choice to keep moving forwards and to keep staring down the thing that scares them. Every moment spent creeping through the dark is one in which something could be waiting just out of sight to get you; every moment that it doesn’t is just another way of tightening the noose.
In this regard, poor visual clarity was something of a blessing. Where the technology failed to properly resolve horrific monsters, player imagination could paper over the cracks in a way that isn’t possible if graphical fidelity gets too high. Nowhere is this power more apparent than in slow-burn, indie horror game, No One Lives Under the Lighthouse.
The Monster Under the Lighthouse
No One Lives Under the Lighthouse is a short horror game released last year. Alongside its interesting story and subtly changing gameplay loop, it is perhaps most notable for its dedication to traditional retro graphics. Unlike other modern pixel art games that tidy up beautifully on HD screens, it fully commits to a visual style that is in a lot of ways very difficult to parse and, in doing so, it creates a horror experience well beyond its technical means.
The monster in No One Lives Under the Lighthouse, when it appears, is ugly, poorly rendered, and has a movement animation that looks as though it’s missing a few frames with every step. It also appears to change skin colour and pattern based on whether or not you’re viewing it from a first or third-person perspective. If players were to stumble across it in a high-definition, beautifully rendered hellscape, they would likely meet it with nothing more than a bemused laugh of derision.
Very, very fortunately, the game’s creators knew that.
Instead, anyone who picks up this title will only come face to face with the creature two hours in as it emerges, indistinct and hazy, from the murky edge of their twenty feet of draw distance. In any other situation, the monster couldn’t be less scary; as it is, it’s left to the players’ imagination to fill in all the blanks that the blocky, pixelated graphics provide to create something uniquely horrifying. Rather than focusing on all the imperfections that they can see, players are going to end up scared of all the things they can’t. Put in a situation where their only option is to run away as fast as possible, further dissuading anyone from trying to take a closer look, the game’s monster is left to become something altogether different.
No two players who make their way through No One Lives Under the Lighthouse will face the same monster. Moreover, if the game’s build-up has done its job in creating tension, each one is going to be staring down something that scares them on a personal level. Depending on the strength of your own imagination – and perhaps willingness to be frightened – it’s hard to suggest a more targeted horror experience than that.
Is It Worth It?
There are plenty of games that can be considered scarier than No One Lives Under the Lighthouse. Its slow build of tension, simplistic framing, and oftentimes predictable scares aren’t going to work for everyone. They might not even work for most. But for a title developed by three indie developers from the Ukraine, it packs a surprising punch thanks to all the things it doesn’t show you. Such a thing simply wouldn’t be possible if more time had gone into making the game look prettier or more refined.
Playing this game on a modern screen is not an easy sell. The first few minutes are actually a little painful on the eye if you’re using pixel dithering. But, if you can get past your initial reaction to its ‘ugliness’, that very art style can be used to craft a deeply compelling horror story.
It’s obviously a worthy endeavour making sure all games look their best, but it’s also worth considering that in some cases, a game’s ‘best’ might not necessarily mean ‘good’.
High quality graphics almost always means that this (and marketing, because they have to recoup such high developing costs) is what the developing studio put the vast majority of their money and manhours into. (Especially since the invention of normal-mapping, which requires a very high-polygon model as the source for the normal map – basically, every object in the game world has to be virtually hand-skulpted, which will take the 3D artist about 1 week of long hours for just 1 human character or complex monster.) As a result, the developing studios usually simplify the gameplay and world-building and even the writing for quests as their games get fancier graphics. And as much as I love good voice acting, fully voice-acted NPC dialogue makes this even worse, especially in open-world RPGs that have tons of NPCs – it’s expensive and leads to very much simplified dialogue trees, because the developers simply do not have the time to get all the recordings they would need if the games still had old-school dialogue, even if they had the money for it.
Case in point: TES: Oblivion and TES: Skyrim are widely considered far less immersive and interesting (in terms of world-building, visual style, and the main quest storyline) than TES: Morrowind, along with “dumbed down” gameplay that got rid of a lot of roleplay choice for the player (e.g. fewer different weapon skills).
Same with Thief 3, with Thief 2 being considered the far better game, even though it has extremely out-dated graphics.
And the Gothic series is even worse – Gothic 3 was shipped as a clearly under-financed, buggy mess that also ignored basic and important lore and basically has no main quest (just lots and lots of cheap-to-write fetch quests), whereas those few people willing to try Gothic 1 + 2 nowadays, often say that they’re still some of the most immersive action-RPGs they’ve ever played, with very good writing (even the few fetch quests make sense and give you a reason to care about doing them) and lots of well-thought-out little gameplay and NPC/monster AI mechanics that were way ahead of their time and that nowadays game developers sadly don’t even bother with any more.
There’s a reason that these 20-years-old games are still being overhauled with extensive graphics mods by people who want to keep re-playing them, as well as each of these franchises featuring a still-active modding community that creates new areas and quests to the older games to this very day. After all, hobbyist fans can add new writing and level design quite easily, and improved textures are do-able as well – what’s important is that the core mechanics of the game are solid and enjoyable.
[ The Neverwinter Nights community probably takes the cake in this regard, with fans adding tons of new graphics content to the game data over the years, precisely because the 3D graphics (especially of NWN 1) are so old and basic that what an untrained hobby 3D artist can achieve with free-ware like Blender will not stand out from the original content. And these games were specifically designed to be primarily editors so people could write and script their own D&D adventures or even design and host small, free-to-play MMORPGs, so no-one really minds that the original games that the editors where shipped with are kinda generic and boring. ]