Video games are by definition an interactive experience, and they are a multifaceted one. Several components combine to craft this experience, and the question is often posed: which of these is the most important? Is it the dazzling visuals that can create an immersive and enthralling world that can swallow the player whole? Is it the engaging gameplay that can challenge the player and focus them on enjoying the game for the game’s sake? Or is it the story, that can move the player, teach them something or change their outlook, just as a film or book might? Which of the three P’s (Play, Plot or Presentation) is most important? Naturally, the answer is a very complex one as it is very difficult to craft a game without each of these separate ideas coming together to be more than the sum of their parts. Very difficult, but far from impossible, and this hinges on the goal of the game.

Take a game like Tetris, for example. The visuals in Tetris are never the focus, though some of the newer iterations may try to make it look a bit flashier . The game is completely devoid of any sort of story, and is still so fascinatingly entertaining that it has a mental disorder named after it in which players experience hallucinations of stacking shapes while not playing the game. If it’s lacking in the visual department, and completely absent in the story department, how can it be such a good game? The answer is that if any one of the parts of the recipe is potent enough, it can compensate for plenty of faults in other areas.

To take it to the other extreme, the popular indie game Dear Esther received largely glowing reviews  for creating a rich world for the player to explore and a mysterious story filled with intrigue. The “game” here is almost non-existent, but many found the story and visuals enough to keep them hooked. Now, it’s important to note that many players will dismiss Dear Esther as artsy-fartsy nonsense, and they’re within their right to, but it is important to acknowledge this side of the spectrum as well.

It’s clear that the goal of a game can dictate the weight that each of the components has. Tetris is game-focused and Dear Esther is plot-focused, with visuals to boot. However, it’s interesting to note that Dear Esther’s visuals are far from spectacular, at least in the conventional sense. The island in the game seems often bleak, with sections of brighter colours adding some contrast, but the game doesn’t look phenomenal. This brings us on to a second idea: the battle between realism and style.

Realism has been a goal of gaming for some years now, and with fans drooling over footage from Crysis 3 and Sony’s “Old Man” demo at their meeting last week, it looks as if it’s going to remain the focus for some time to come, at least with the core audience. The issue here is that realistic visuals don’t necessarily equate to good ones. If you look at Arkane Studio’s successful stealth action game Dishonored, you won’t see any gritty realism or fantastic particle and lighting effects. You’ll see people so ludicrously out of proportion that they look like walking caricatures. This is excellent. The game’s plot focuses on political infidelity and the utter corrupting force of power and wealth, and this is emphasized wonderfully by its visuals. The goal of Dishonored‘s aesthetics was to create this slightly outlandish world, and the experience is better for it. Is realism in games bad? No, of course not. Is it inherently necessary? Absolutely not. Would games like Journey or Team Fortress 2 be better off if they had adopted a more conventional art style? Absolutely not. Journey stands up on its beautiful visuals and story, and Team Fortress 2 on its stellar and engaging gameplay.

If that’s the case, then why does the industry, in particular within the first person shooter genre, push so vehemently for realism? Are we really so determined to craft an authentic killing experience, to create people that react convincingly when shot and that can give us that primal rush of the hunt? I don’t think so. I think the drive in this direction is twofold. Firstly, realistic visuals are immediately impressive without context. The visuals of Team Fortress 2 or Dear Esther suffice, or may even excel, in the game they are present in, but this is only true if you know about the context – that is, if you understand that Team Fortress 2’s cartoony style is a mechanical feature that allows for distinct character shape and easy differentiation, and that the aesthetics of Dear Esther would distract from the story if they were flashier. However, if you show someone a building crumbling to dust in 1080p with the physics engine on overhaul and each morsel of stone twirling in flame as an explosion rages, it’s visually spectacular without context.

Secondly, we have a ready bank of images in our mind to compare it to. If you see a clip from a game like Rayman Legends, the screen might be filled with fluorescent purple monsters and dazzling streaks of blue. This is pleasing on the eyes, for sure, but if you see a bleak city scene in Crysis 3, you’ll likely be more impressed. The color palette may be less vibrant, but detail and convincing lighting resonate with us as humans. We look at Rayman and think, “that looks cool,” but we look at Crysis and think “that looks right,” and this is a much deeper pleasure. This is temporary, however, as 10 years from now Crysis may not look “right,” but Rayman will likely still look “cool.” Realism creates a stronger, albeit time-sensitive, reaction.

So, to summarize, realistic visuals are not necessarily integral to a game, but they can make up for flaws elsewhere if they are convincing enough. Crysis 3 or Far Cry 3 may not boast Pride and Prejudice‘s levels of writing, or mentally dangerous gameplay as found in Tetris, but one of their components is strong enough that it makes up for the others. Good visuals can go a long way, and a good story perhaps further, and good gameplay the farthest, but a game really shines when it combines these to create a special experience that has something for everyone.