So NCsoft unveiled Throne and Liberty and it looks… pretty? I guess? But it looks pretty in the worst way. It looks pretty in the way that makes “pretty” sound like an insult because… well, it kind of is. It looks like exactly one of those games where people are going to fawn over it until it gets released on the basis of look at how pretty that looks and I’m sitting over here thinking that it looks technically pretty but utterly vapid.
And that means now is a good time to talk about how pointless “pretty” is.
Obviously, in this particular case we’re talking about aesthetic appeal, which is always a subjective thing (which, you know, is also why this particular column is tagged with an “Opinion” category rather than “Absolute Objective Fact” category). There are no doubt going to be some people who will happily chirp up about how one game or another is really pretty or looks hideous or whatever. But for my money, I look at a bunch of these “pretty” games and see… nothing worth remembering.
I’ve always thought that there’s a really sharp divide between things that are pretty and things that are beautiful.
Pretty is, in many ways, kind of generic. There are certain aesthetic markers that are there that are pretty easy to hit. The world is full of pretty things and pretty people. A butterfly is pretty, for example, when you just see it flit past you. But the thing about pretty is that it doesn’t really stick to the ribs. If you go out where you’ll see butterflies a lot, you’re unlikely to remember any given one that you saw. They’re just… butterflies.
You know what sticks in my mind? When I would raise butterflies with my stepfather and we would have them first emerging from their chrysalises, wet and still weakened, crawling out and first unfurling their wings. Watching a swallowtail test its wings for the first time, flexing its muscles and getting a sense of itself before it flew off for the first time. That was beautiful.
Pretty is nice. It’s blandly pleasing. But it’s kind of generic. You probably have an image in your head right now of what a pretty dress would look like, but a beautiful dress requires a little bit more in terms of setup. Heck, it’s probably a piece of clothing that has to be worn by a specific person, that looks striking on that particular person and might look awful on anyone else. Beauty is singular and unique and distinctive.
For that matter, beauty is ephemeral.
There are scenes and moments of windowing in Final Fantasy XI and the original World of Warcraft that are absolutely, unquestionably beautiful. There are also places that both of those games look just plain bad. You play WoW Classic and you don’t find yourself thinking throughout all of it “oh, this game is so gorgeous.” You will notice things that are blatantly low-poly or slapdash or otherwise visually unappealing.
And then the moon will hit the surface of a lake at night and suddenly cast the world in a strange, ethereal light, and you’ll just pause and sit down and soak in a world that doesn’t look realistic in the slightest but captures the feeling of sitting on the shore of a moonlit lake on a dark night. For a brief moment, any and all technical restrictions fall away, and you’re left with… beauty.
Yes, these are games that absolutely show their age in terms of graphics. There are shortcuts taken and low-poly assets and poor animations and so forth. But in many ways that just makes them more beautiful, to see all of the technical limitations and the things that remind you that this game is old or somehow lesser and shouldn’t really be impressing you with its visuals… but it does. It can’t help it. These games have a style and an atmosphere and a look that remains distinct beyond something as banal as raw graphical heft.
Don’t get me wrong, graphical heft is nice. It’s really nice to have something that looks better, and my point here is not that, say, the original Guild Wars would look worse if it had a graphical upgrade that brought all of its models and environments up to the standards of Guild Wars 2. But pretending that there isn’t a unique soft-focus beauty to pre-Searing Ascalon because of that lack of graphical fidelity is just plain wrong. You could make the graphics more technically proficient but still somehow miss all of the loveliness inherent in that attitude.
Oddly, this is the part that tends to get me when someone makes one of those fan projects showing “this is what WoW could look like in Unreal 4″ or whatever. Yes, the result is usually technically far more detailed with stock assets and lighting and so forth. But it also makes the game look much more boring, more flat and lifeless. The individual moments look pretty, but the actual character of the game’s graphics gets washed out in favor of a bland generic fantasy aesthetic that doesn’t make things more compelling.
You cannot look at most WoW screenshots and think that they could come from any other game aside from that specific one. They have a distinct visual character to them. They don’t look like someone assembled a fantasy scene from stock types; they look like someone created a setting for this game and this world by itself. Same for GW2, same for FFXIV, same even for some games that don’t fit into the Big Five like Star Wars: The Old Republic and WildStar. These games stand out. They look like themselves, and while they may have elements that you’ve seen before in the broadest strokes, they are their own properties and worlds.
To me, that’s a lot more interesting and relevant than just pure technical elements. Sure, City of Heroes would look better if everyone didn’t have those silly mitten hands, but those don’t stop the game world from feeling unique and beautiful despite those obvious technical shortcuts.
Obviously, beauty isn’t everything. A game can be beautiful and still play like garbage or just not be your personal taste, and there are games I’ve played that look totally generic to me but are still good games. But when you’re dealing with a visual medium, when you’re trying to attract people to the game with those first shots… pretty is kind of boring.
Pretty is nothing special. Pretty is a basic understanding of aesthetics that doesn’t actually engage me and make me think that your game world or design is anything unique or special, just another set of what amount to stock assets loaded in a reasonable framework and meant to impress me with how distinctly you’ve rendered every tree leaf. All the pretty in the world doesn’t make your game look distinct and interesting.
But then, you know what they say about beauty and the eye of the beholder, I suppose.