Graphics vs Visual Aesthetics – Fallout 4

 

Initially, I wanted to write my thoughts on Fallout 4 but I found that I didn’t really have anything new to add to the conversation. There were things that it did well and things that it did poorly. So instead I’ll talk about some video game 101 stuff – Graphics vs Visual Aesthetics.

What I thought about Fallout 4

Settlements were a good new addition, though clunky at times. Crafting system is boss. Customizing your weapons and choosing between power over accuracy or in the case of armor defense over weight (or more carry weight. Always more carry weight.). The aforementioned two made junk loot useful at last. Companions have more depth and are more nuanced. Their backstories are often a joy to dig up, making you want to switch companions often, just to get them to open up to you. Power armor was a blast, collecting them and arranging them in a Tony Stark style bunker was a guilty pleasure of mine.

On the other hand, the story was barely okay (My son is kidnapped!! But I’ll just build this settlement here and help that random stranger there who has no way of helping me save my son) and the endings were carbon copies of one another, there’s no real impact made to the world itself. Hell, dungeons that were cleared respawns after an in-game week. The Commonwealth will never be safe. Factions were okay at best. The never ending side quests that Preston Garvey and the Minuteman radio forces on you every time you visit the Castle was annoying. I gave that place a wide berth whenever I could. The conversation system was a nice change, but poorly executed, though the new camera angles were cool.

There’s other stuff of course, like the perk chart or the weather system but that’s for another day, if I ever get to it.

What I want to talk about today

Today, I want to get into the visual aspect of Fallout 4. There’s been a lot of complains about the perceived lack of graphical quality in Fallout 4, and it’s true, the graphics of Fallout 4 could use a good leveling up or two. Though those that say Fallout 4 looks no different than Fallout 3 is exaggerating greatly. Take a look at the comparison above. Tell me that one is not miles better than the other.

comparison

And there are those who argue that Fallout 4 is graphically great. It looks amazing. Um, sure, it’s not bad but it’s honestly not that great. My theory is that what most people argue when they say Fallout 4 is graphically great, is probably that it is aesthetically good. So what’s the difference between the two of them?

Graphics

Think of graphics as the technical side of visual. They are the things you play with in the settings menu. When you think of terms like anti-aliasing, motion blur, tessellations, draw distance, texture quality, shadow quality, frames per second, you’re thinking of the graphics of a game. All these are the technical side of a game’s visual components. They are classifiable and more often than not,are objective. They have a value attached to it and it is easier to say whether they are good or bad. Though this is also not always the case, for example in anti-aliasing, 8x MSAA is better than 2x MSAA. That is a fact. Between MSAA and FXAA and TXAA though? It can often come down to preference.

For Fallout 4, the graphics are not what we have come to expect from a AAA game. This new generation has introduced us to many graphical monsters like Witcher 3 and Dying Light, both which are open world games. The same genre as Fallout 4. It used to be that Bethesda was given some slack due to the nature of their games – sprawling open world RPGs with many game states and processes running in the background. But now that we have seen what other companies can do to the same type of games, people have stepped up their expectations. Whether this is a good thing or not, is another debate entirely. One I hope to address in a future post. But nevertheless, it is undeniable that such a thing is happening.

Fallout 4 has been in development since before the release of Skyrim. And for better or for worst, most of the game has been developed in a vacuum. We didn’t see Fallout 4 until 5 months before its release. Perhaps it was because of this that Fallout 4’s graphics looks less than stellar. Certainly 4 years ago, it can be regarded as good, back when Skyrim was just released. But the interim years have seen quite a jump in graphical capabilities of games, with the advent of the 8th gen consoles. Fallout 4’s god rays are a mess, anti-aliasing could be improved, and there are problems with blurry textures. A good number of them are bugs that could be fixed soon, but the bulk of them… we’ll have to wait and see.

The Creation Engine has never been a top end engine, being upgraded from the decades old Gamebryo Engine and its age has started to show in Skyrim and it’s been four years since. It is high time that Bethesda start thinking about using other game engines. They don’t even have to license a third party engine, they have id Software and id Tech 6, along with talented graphics engineer Tiago Sousa who was involved in CryEngine 3.

Visual Aesthetics

If graphics are the technical side of visuals, aesthetics is the right brain of visuals aka the artistic side. These are the color palettes and the model proportions and the overall design style of a game. And Fallout 4 looks brilliant in its aesthetics department. And not only visually, the ambient musical score from Inon Zur is excellent, and the zany 50s music from Diamond City Radio fits the tone of the game. Though I’ve always wondered why Fallout is stuck in 1950s style. While 1950 was the branching point of our history from Fallout’s, its arguable that the cultural style would have changed in the time between then and when the bombs fell. But I digress. The point I’m trying to make it visual and audio are both part of the whole aesthetic of a game. It is also important to note that the aesthetics of a game, like most creative ventures, are subjective to everyone’s personal taste.

There can be an argument that the aesthetics of Fallout 4 doesn’t quite fit with the post-apocalyptic wasteland theme of the game. The vibrant colored world Fallout 4 often felt like it is one thick black line away from Borderlands. But I think Bethesda made the right choice in this case. Stylize graphics like those found in Borderlands and Team Fortress can better stand the test of time than more realistic graphics. It is why Lair’s gritty, semi realistic look doesn’t age as well as Wind Waker’s cartoonish cel shaded look despite the technological gap between those two games. It is also why I think Bastion will still look good ten years down the road when compared to something like Medal of Honor: Warfighter.

Arguably animations could be considered part of a game’s aesthetics. For example, a cute, bouncy jump is part of LocoRoco’s aesthetics. But in the case of Fallout 4, the animations failings are not part of the aesthetic component but rather on a technical side. Lip sync issues, rigid movements and interaction with the game world are some of the main issues in Fallout 4’s animation. Most of which are likely relics of Gamebryo, as can be seen in previous Bethesda games.

Conclusion

I think it’s important for gamers to know the difference between graphics and visual aesthetics. It can help a lot when it comes to discussion about a game’s visual appeals and can help everyone know whether its graphics or visual aesthetics that they really like about the games. It would be interesting to see a survey on this. It can also allow developers to set better targets for their games because I really don’t think this technological race towards higher polygon counts and resolutions can be sustainable. The cost expands astronomically as graphics capabilities increase due to diminishing returns. But this is a discussion for another time.

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