One Thousand Blades of Grass: Graphics, Gameplay, and E3 2017
So if you’re surprised I’m writing about the State of Decay 2 footage shown at E3, you don’t know me at all.
I didn’t watch the Microsoft show live, and to be honest, I watched most of it at 2x or 4x speed, which I recommend for the amazing faces and jerky bits of commentary. I love gaming, but the pageantry of E3 has never much interested me. I’d rather read updates than watch ten minutes of video from games I probably won’t play, and I’ve seen all the dancing Minecraft folks I ever need to see. I’m jaded, I guess. There were things I watched – Anthem and Tacoma and the Life Is Strange prequel that has me feeling some kind of way. I’ll play it regardless. Crackdown 3 looks like good fun. So more and more I found myself drawn to the games that spend less time striving for some unreachable “real” quality than those that did. Even games I probably wouldn’t love, like The Darwin Project, caught my eye if they were embracing a particular art style. On the other hand, Assassin’s Creed: Origins looked jarring to me, a mix of over- and under-saturated visuals that was infinitely distracting. After watching the gameplay footage for a few minutes, I remarked to my husband that it was a good thing I knew what AC games looked like, because none of the actual action stuck out to me. I was too busy trying to figure out why it looked the way it did. Metro Exodus looks exactly like the kind of game I should love but I actually found the game very hard to concentrate on. It was… I don’t know. Too real? I think the Metro games are highly underrated but I couldn’t get excited about this one. I was too focused on the waving grass, all the moving pieces, everything around the player character. It just felt so unnecessary.
There are exceptions, of course, to my sudden discontent. I love what I saw of Anthem, and of course I’m burning for Detroit on PS4, but mostly because I am a sucker for Quantic Dream despite their issues. I watched the footage of Anthem several times, though, and the environments seemed a little less… alive? Less constant movement, fewer moving pieces, more things distant so the detail popped less. That sounds like a criticism, but it’s not, and maybe it was more my TV than anything else, but watching Anthem, I was able to focus on the gameplay and less on all the trappings.
I love beautiful environments in games, don’t get me wrong. I will stop and admire a view and run around in a meadow just to study the flowers, but my focus is still and always on gameplay. A thousand blades of waving grass around my feet is a neat thing and all, but in the end, if the game is good, it doesn’t much matter to me. I play to feel something, to do something, and for me that requires more than a rich and realistic landscape.
So when after the State of Decay 2 footage dropped, I decided to see what everyone else was saying about it, and I was surprised to see so many disappointed reactions. Last-gen graphics, someone said. Looks janky. Not good. Not worth the wait. Bad. Bland. I watched it again and yeah, sure, the bloater pops and the effect looks kinda rubbery. Some fixed facial expressions happening. I tried to care and just couldn’t because what I saw was the dedicating to building something only to watch part of it ripped away—ripped in half, even. I saw what I loved about the original: a kind of realism that has nothing to do with graphics or grass or the sky or effects, but instead has everything to do with impact. With heart. I don’ think I’d care if the characters were rendered as jointed wooden manikins. I want the sense of fear and finality and struggle that made State of Decay special. All I want is something special—which is why I’ll play the Life Is Strange prequel even if it feels maybe unnecessary, because it will be different and considered (I hope), and why I play the Dishonored games until my thumbs are sore, despite the fact that they’re not really much to write home about in terms of graphics. The characters are kind of lumpy and weird and I don’t care, because the games are amazing and the latest, with Billie Lurk? Yes, please.
Of course, State of Decay is the hill I will always die on, so I’m biased and that maybe impacts my particular hot take. But when I think of the games that have really moved us forward, that have become watershed moments in games, that are remembered and impactful, it’s not really graphics that I think of. It’s that something special that makes us reconsider the form and what we can do with it. For me, State of Decay is one of those. I’m not sure another Assassin’s Creed will be, or Metro, or even Anthem, for that matter. But we’ll see.