Free for All: Why I prefer primitive graphics over realistic imagery

RuneScape screenshot
There are a few divisive topics that I can bring up in my columns that will be guaranteed to not only bring in the comments but light a fire to the comments section. I've learned that browser choice is a hot topic. PvP versus PvE will always cause players to erupt. Mac or PC? That topic will not end in civil discussion.

If I really want to hurt a reader's feelings, cause insults to be hurled at me, and provoke readers to accuse me of attempting to bring game development -- real game development -- to its knees, I can bring up graphics and gaming power. As in gaming rig. But I'll be brave this week and explain just why I prefer more primitive graphics over high-end visuals.

Miramagia screenshot
My love for less-than-realistic graphics comes down to a pretty simple idea: They make me feel like a child again. Now, you might think that playing and writing about games for a living is basically like living as a professional child, but then I would just point you to some of the heat that can be piled on a writer who happens to say the wrong thing. Game talk can be very serious, adult talk. Adults can often act worse than children when gaming is involved. Throw in the highly social nature of MMOs and you have the potential to end friendships.

I'm 38 years old and could, if I wanted to, literally sit around in my underwear and play games much of the day. The truth is that sitting around playing games is not the only thing I enjoy about being a games writer. I mostly enjoy the social aspect and community-building that happens when I'm playing MMOs, and I love when a game makes me feel as though I am holding a new toy. I'm not referring to that feeling you get when downloading and installing the latest, shiniest AAA masterpiece; instead, I am talking about when a game makes me feel as if I have an entire world within my reach, one contained within a small device.

As I have been covering more and more mobile games (including browser-based titles that can be played easily on a mobile computer or netbook), I have grown more and more fond of certain graphical styles. Exactly why certain graphics turn on my nerd alert is a bit hard to explain, so I thought I'd show some very specific examples instead.

RuneScape screenshotI'd like to point to RuneScape's fire first. Yes, I mean the fire graphic that you will find while walking around in RuneScape. Mostly I am referring to the fire that comes from torches and lamps. I'm a child of the late '70s and early '80s, so stop-motion animated holiday movies are burned into my subconscious.

The fire in RuneScape, and even how much of the world is crafted and moves, reminds me of this old-fashioned animation technique. There's a real hand-crafted feel to stop-motion, for obvious reasons. Every time I see a blaze in RuneScape, I feel a familiar sense of childlike wonderment.

The fire animations also remind me of stagecraft fire. If you've ever seen a play or Halloween scarehouse, you know what I'm talking about -- "realistic" fire that is obviously not real. It feels a bit like seeing stop-motion happening in front of your eyes.

Habbo Hotel screenshotI've only recently dived into Habbo Hotel, but I'm so glad I finally did. The overall graphics in the game just make me smile, and I can't believe the game is not referenced more in today's 8bit-obsessed culture. Perhaps it's neglected by the mainstream for the very reason I love it: It's just not that 8bit.

8bit, like the style you'd find in a game like Realm of the Mad God, is too primitive to me. The perfect amount of 8bit is found in Habbo Hotel. The chairs are marvelous to look at. They look as though I can reach into the screen and pick them up. I imagine they would feel to me like holding a six-sided dice between my finger and thumb. The game world looks plastic and very detailed but can still run on a basic netbook. I love the fact that all of the gameplay occurs within a giant hotel, one that (in my mind) is continuously growing into the sky as more and more players join the game.

Glitch screenshotGlitch has been a favorite of mine since I first hopped into the beta. I can go on and on about why I love the character models, animations, and world design, but instead I think I will just point to a very particular in-game object: the game within a game. This is a small box that, like any object in your inventory, can be dragged out into your in-game house or anywhere in-world. The only other game that comes to mind that allowed such a thing was Star Wars Galaxies.

This particular little box actually contains a "game" that, once activated, starts a thought bubble over your Glitchen that illustrates a game that looks a lot like Glitch. It's very meta, I'm guessing. The tiny game world even crashes at the end thanks to a Flash error. While Glitch's impending closure makes the tiny game world's crashes seem eerily clairvoyant, the item itself is a treasure. Glitch can be summed up by how that tiny little box can be manipulated and how it can cause an emotional response.

Illyriad screenshotIllyriad has long been a favorite of mine, but the way I explain it often makes people scratch their heads. Imagine the largest board-game table in history... let's say the size of a football field. Imagine that massive table covered in miniature biomes, tiny trees, and minuscule mountain ranges. Now imagine that you are claiming a spot on that board, moving your troops and traders here and there and attempting to survive against the other players. That is the exact feeling I get when I manipulate the in-game world map. It feels massive, epic, and promising, and that map is one of the main reasons I returned to the game.

My love of graphics is tied in with my love of certain textures. If the MMO makes me feel some real-world emotion, some textural response to its representative pixels, I am more immersed because of the connection to my real-world response. Realistic graphics have their place, trust me. I was busily tweeting about how blown away I was by the night-time fights in PlanetSide 2 the other day. But I don't get the same thrill from realistic graphics that I do from specific primitive ones.

I know this all ties into my exploration of more primitive games. After all, the more you hang out with certain types of artists, the more likely you'll find yourself enjoying their art even if you initially didn't enjoy it. As I open up more and more titles for children, older MMOs or browser-based titles that do not yet utilize the bells and whistles of Unity and fancy rendering, the more I fall in love with their blocky textures, stylized animations, and textural qualities. It's also connected to my love for gaming on the cheap; I admit that as well.

I can't help it, I guess. I'm just a big kid after all. The older I get, the less seriously I take realistic graphics. I'm not sure whether this is the result of one too many trips into the Uncanny Valley or just an attempt to reclaim the thrill of gaming.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to beau@massively.com!

This article was originally published on Massively.