Telltale's The Walking Dead game features some of the most immediately compelling storytelling and characters to ever grace a video game, but its moment-to-moment action full of choices and consequences can't seem to keep up. Every decision you make grinds the action to a halt for half a second at a time. Sometimes the intensity of a scene is lost in the relentless hiccups. Are these the issues of the end of a console generation or the consequences of today's more complicated and demanding development process?
Some games get it right, and the difference is profound. The Uncharted series and Dead Space 2 both feature easy-to-follow plots, compelling characters, and gripping narratives. Not to take anything from the writing teams on these games, but I have to wonder how much of that story clarity is the result of graphical clarity. In both games the visuals only serve to enhance the plot, rather than distract, and they're both so polished that you're never given a chance to be distracted by a weird glitch.
343 Industries' upcoming Halo 4 is touting full 720p visuals with full-screen anti-aliasing — an effect that should provide unprecedented visual clarity for a modern 360 game. The majority of games still run at sub-HD resolutions and are plagued with hard, jagged edges. For all the beauty in the foreground, distant enemies are often a mess of indecipherable pixels — your mind tends to fill in the blanks. If you don't have to do that extra work, how much does that allow you to stay focused on the action and story? If 343i can maintain a clean visual palette across the board, Halo 4 could end up being the most engaging game in the series, and you may not even know why.
The next generation will be even more impressive than this one, but it will take responsible developers to craft truly next-generation experiences. Graphical pornography can be tempting, but it will be the developers that know when to hold back that will truly further the art form. Clean, polished, crystal clear graphics will be the future that will bring game stories and experiences the respect they deserve.
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?