Freezes, Hiccups, locks — the downfall of game immersion
The future of graphics shouldn't only be about astounding players with detailed visuals. I think we get it — games look great now and will continue to look better and better. As the polygonal edges and gritty pixels fade, graphics programmers and engineers should be looking to provide more consistency and clarity. As the last waves of games hit our Xbox 360s and PS3s, one issue is becoming increasingly clear: visual glitches and hiccups are interfering with the enjoyment of the latest and greatest games.
It's a plague that has its origins in the texture pop-in glitches of the early Unreal Engine days. Games like Halo 2 and Mass Effect were marred with low-resolution textures that would quickly gain full detail as scenes continued. These glitches were growing pains that have been mostly eliminated, but new issues seem to be popping up and distracting more than ever.
Gears of War 3 told the best story the series ever had with a lovable cast of characters. It was still intensely stupid, but it had its share of powerful moments. It's too bad that so many of these moments were interrupted by violent framerate hiccups and freezes so bad that the 360 seemed like it would lock up completely. Transitions between scenes were violent and clunky, ultimately leaving me wondering how much graphical hitches can distract a player from enjoying the story.
Those distractions became even more clear during my playthrough of Mass Effect 3. In a game where story is everything, these little hiccups can really lose you. Characters would be absent from a scene before awkwardly dancing into view or displaying some unintentionally disturbing animations. In one unforgettable moment, Shepard and Liara share a conversation, but instead of Shepard's head being set to look at Liara, it was looking at the little VI drifting around the room. As it passes behind him and he continues his conversation, he very nearly experiences a terrifying Exorcist moment. I have no idea what Shepard and Liara discussed during that scene because I was completely preoccupied with Shepard spazzing out.
Sometimes the issue isn't about losing story beats so much as deflating a sense of atmosphere. The brilliant indie darling Fez is packed with atmosphere, but many of its beautiful moments are ruined by ugly loading hitches that get worse as the game goes on. Music will stutter occasionally, and there have even been cases of players getting genuine lock-ups during the game's fake-out glitch sequences. How is that for irony?