Games don’t Equal Graphics

While we stood side by side making lunch this afternoon, my husband told me a story about his most recent game of Crusader Kings. I know nothing about this game aside from what others have told me. I believe the object is to grow your kingdom as large as you can and increase the stats for each of your successors so that you can, of course, rule more land. One of my friends refers to this game as “playing dolls.”

Anyway, it seems my husband’s most recent game took an interesting turn when his king perished, of natural causes, in the midst of a war with several daughters but no son to name as heir. His daughters divided the land between them and one named herself the Duchess of his former holdings. It turns out, however, his wife was pregnant at the time of his death and, seven months later, she gave birth to a son. Now the son rules the mother’s duchy (though he’s only three years old), but has a claim to all the land of his father as well, since he would have inherited if he’d been born before his father’s death. Meanwhile, his evil older sister had their mother assassinated, causing the rest of her sisters to turn against her in the family feud. One of them is apparently married to the King of Norway, so my husband is confident in his ability to overcome his evil sister and reclaim the other half of his lands.

Sounds exciting. Yet when I watch my husband play this game, I can’t imagine how he stays awake. For all the tales of epic war and family betrayal, all you ever see on the game screen is a giant map, color coded to indicate the size of kingdoms, and endless dialog windows where my husband reads the world’s events, makes decisions and clicks arrows to micromanage his little world.

I’m oversimplifying here, mostly because I don’t understand these kinds of games. They’re beyond my ability and I find them tiresome. Yet I’m always interested in the stories my husband tells me about his experiences with this game, even more so because nothing ever plays out on the screen. There are no cutscenes in a game like this. And this is a fairly popular game for its niche, made by a small but successful developer.

When I mentioned to my husband the contrast between his impressive stories and the way the game is played he laughed; he finds the subject as intriguing as I do. A few days ago we watched an episode of Big Bang Theory where Sheldon stumbled upon an emulator for old text based games. And while Sheldon is far from my favorite character in any universe, I had to agree with what he said. They run on the most high-end graphics card ever invented; the imagination.

I grew up in the age after text based games. Everything had graphics even if they were incredibly pixelated. Yet I know the thrill of text based games. Shortly after I fell in love with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy I discovered an old text game based on the book/radio show. The game was unique in that, not only was it hard as nails, it also LIED to you. I never progressed very far in the game, probably because I couldn’t figure out how to get any tea. But I enjoyed every minute of it, even the minutes when I screamed in rage at my inability to progress.

A a time when games are filled with high-definition cut scenes depicting heroism and explosions, we sometimes forget what’s at the core of the gaming experience. One of my favorite YouTubers once said, “Gaming is about moments, moments that we’re going to remember.” I never saw it depicted on a screen, but I remember every moment of struggling to get a babel fish in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy text based game, and the triumph of finally figuring it out the first time. I’m not complaining about the fact that new games contain moments of sheer awesome in the form of cutscenes, but I do think a lot of games today lack the substance of some of their old counterparts. When all the effort goes into flashy visuals, and most first impressions are based on visual aspects, the story and little hidden gems fall by the wayside, leaving the overall experience hollow.

Crusader Kings doesn’t have flashy graphics. But it does have interesting moments. And the stories my husband tells about his experiences coming together throughout the course of the game are always interesting. If I never glanced over my shoulder to see him frantically clicking on one of his micromanagement screens, I’d never know it wasn’t the most exciting game in the world. Best of all, because the computer generates different results every time the game is played, each of his experiences are different and unique.

This is, I think, a stellar reminder of why we love to game, and what’s really important when developing a good game; substance over flash. What are your favorite moments from games without flashy graphics?

One Response to “Games don’t Equal Graphics”

  1. Beth Alvarez Says:

    When I was a kid, my Dad used to play an Arthurian game on our DOS-based computer. It did have visuals, although very primitive.
    Dad never did progress in the game, because he spent all his time in the courtyard fumbling over the spelling of Guinevere’s name. You could ask her to kiss you, and if you spelled her name correctly, she did. If you spelled it wrong, she got angry.
    My Dad thought this was hilarious, so naturally, he’d spend an hour or so doing it before he’d wander off to do something else.


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