Why Art Style Matters in Gaming


I’m addicted to Torchlight. There’s just something satisfying about clicking on monsters until they die, then stopping every few minutes to check your character’s equipment and maybe level up. Sometimes, when a monster doesn’t die from a mere single-click, I click on it again. Sometimes I right click to send a ricocheting shot through said monster, off the wall, and through the original monster’s friend. There isn’t a simpler style of gameplay in existence, and I can’t think of many that have held my undivided attention for so long.

My love of Torchlight is wholly unexpected. I only picked it up because it was relatively cheap and I’ve read a ton of good things about it. I was curious, and the price wasn’t enough to dissuade my curiosity. Still, I knew what I was signing up for, and I stepped into Torchlight with very low expectations due to my previous experiences with the game’s spiritual predecessor, the famous Diablo. I only tried the original Diablo for a few hours back in the day, and I couldn’t stand it. I found it incredibly dull and boring. I fully expected to play Torchlight for a few hours and get sick of it for these same reasons.

And yet…I didn’t. Ten hours in, I’m still plugging away. I’m into Torchlight in a way I never could’ve been into Diablo. And, because I’m ridiculous and I spend a lot of time on public transportation, I spent a lot of time thinking about why.

Initially, I wondered if I enjoyed Torchlight because I’ve grown as a gamer. It’s been at least ten years since I tried Diablo; my tastes have certainly changed in that time, but not in a way that would make me tolerate games I previously didn’t like. I’ve become pickier, mainly because I have less time with which to game and I don’t want to waste a single cherished second. If I don’t like a game, it simply doesn’t get played anymore. That, obviously, isn’t the reason I like Torchlight.

Is it because I’ve gotten tired of consoles and Torchlight offers something I can only find on a PC? Not at all. I play Torchlight and wish I had a controller in my hands. I’ll never tell you that an analog stick and a set of buttons is superior to a mouse and a keyboard; it’s simply my weapon of choice.

I considered and discarded several other similar ideas I’ve since forgotten before settling on the final reason why I enjoy Torchlight even though I didn’t want to play Diablo: Torchlight is interesting to look at. Whereas Diablo was dull, drab, and boring, Torchlight is bright, detailed, and vibrant. The world of Torchlight feels alive; the world of Diablo just felt dead. Diablo was ugly, and I didn’t want to stare at its ugliness for however many dozens of hours it was going to take me to finish it.

“But wait!” you say. “That’s exactly how the world of Diablo was supposed to look!” And you’ve got a valid point. “And besides,” you add, “it’s not fair to compare two games from two completely different eras!” Also a valid point. However, I’ve got a single rebuttal: Fallout. Contemporaries of the original Diablo, the first two entries in the post-apocalyptic RPG series used similar technology and were set in a similarly ruined world. The first two Fallouts–a couple of my favorite games, by the way–were anything but boring and ugly.

Mind you, I will never say that Diablo was a bad game simply because of the way it looked. Its sales numbers and reputation would serve as a suitable bitch slap with which to shut me the fuck up. I simply wonder how many more people, myself included, would’ve enjoyed the game had it been more interesting to look at. Gaming, after all, is our most visual medium. Watch television with your eyes closed and you can still get the gist of what’s going on. Books and print media can be converted to Braille. Browser add-ons can read the Internet to us. But gaming? We need to see how a game reacts to the buttons we press and the icons we click. Close your eyes while playing a game and you’ll never get anywhere. A video game isn’t like a person; you can’t just put a paper bag over its ugly head and enjoy the rest of it.

I find this conclusion more interesting than pondering who’s going to manage the Boston Red Sox next season. Am I really that vapid and vain? Can I be so swayed by the way a game looks that I’m willing to discount a solid gameplay experience that just happens to look like shit? Am I guilty of judging interactive video books by their covers? Yes, yes, and yes. And I’d wager most people reading this are, too. Otherwise we’d all be wearing sweatpants to job interviews and lining up to ask unattractive people to the prom. Appearance matters, whether we like it or not.

And so, developers, I beseech you to make your products interesting to look at. I’m not talking about pushing so many polygons through a console or computer that smoke comes out the side of it; I’d still rather look at those old Fallout games than something uninspired-but-beefy, like Prototype. What I’m asking for is that you render your polygons with a sense of style. Think Torchlight, or Borderlands, or Persona. You’d be surprised how much a pretty coat of paint matters.

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