When one thinks of the cutting edge in gaming, graphics are what comes to mind. How well does this game render characters and the environment? How real does it look? Video games continue to push the boundaries of what modern computers could do. What was once science fiction is now a household name.
As spectacular as these games are to behold, they represent only one part of the gaming market. Not all popular games embrace the hyper-detailed graphics of AAA studio games. Other gamers embrace simpler, less tech-intensive art styles. Many of these games are as popular with the general public for a plethora of reasons. They’ve since carved a niche for themselves in a world where hyperrealism is king.
The Road to Realism
Today’s hyper-real graphics reflect developments that fueled gaming since the early days. Then as now, graphical sophistication was a major selling. Consoles duked it out to see which could render games with better graphics. Each new console and game promised better art than the last. Meanwhile, PC gamers, with their customized rigs, could push graphics even further.
Amazing graphics can immerse players into the worlds they play. Many of the big names in gaming today boast of immersive, hyper-realistic environments. Today’s visual spectacles like Assassin’s Creed and Final Fantasy rival theatrical animated films in detail. The best of these games bring historical and fantasy environments to life at home.
The Limits of Hyperrealism
But as amazing as these visuals would look on screen, it comes at a heavy price. In a very literal sense, playing these games is not easy on the pocket. Many titles from AAA studios are quite demanding from technology. Both consoles and an excellent gaming PC come with a hefty price tag. This proves to be a great barrier to entry for gamers on a budget.
Meanwhile, PC gamers must also contend with the complexity of customization. It takes awhile to learn the ropes of the visual settings. The average player must be patient when tweaking them to one’s liking. Even dialing down the graphics is confusing for the novice.
Games that aim for too much realism stand the risk of evoking the uncanny valley. This term was first coined by roboticist Masahiro Mori in the 1970s to describe unsettling robots. Its impact on realistic graphics, however, mustn’t be understated. Even small breaks in realism will be off putting for audiences. Avoiding this is a taxing endeavor. One either attempts to amp up realism (which is costly) or embrace a more stylized depiction. The best 2D and 3D games, fortunately, avoid the worst of this.
Finally, the aesthetic that comes with games takes a toll on development teams. Game development studios have come under fire for crunch culture that overworks and underpays their developers. Often, this has roots in the near-impossible deadlines brought on by game hype. And better 3D graphics don’t always lead to a better product. The buggy messy Cyberpunk 2077 fiasco alone proves that.
A Different Direction
The big names in gaming embraced more elaborate, graphics-intensive art styles. Others, meanwhile, chose a different path. Many indie developers embraced stylized 3D or more isometric or side-scrolling art styles. Mostly, this was a budgetary choice. Advancements in technology have made developing 2D games cheaper and faster.
In the heyday of Flash, developers could build a simple vector graphics game within days or weeks. It allowed indie developer communities to flourish. Soon, sites like Kongregate and Newgrounds had massive archives of 2D games. Even today, older games once made in Flash could be found in archival sites like Plays.org.
Today, developer teams can create complex games using either 2D engines or a hybrid of 2D and 3D graphics. By eschewing the complexities of hyperreal graphic engines, they can focus on refining other aspects of gameplay. Choosing less graphics-intensive visuals also lets them experiment with other genres. Many small titles embrace 2D graphics without sacrificing storytelling. A cartoony point-and-click, Broken Age toys with two different yet unified narratives.
A Flourishing Market
There are a host of reasons why people gravitate toward games with cartoonish art styles. Lower-tier 3D games won’t tax computer hardware as much. Meanwhile, all but the slowest low-end computers can play 2D Flash or HTML games without a hitch.
Devs can even port these games into social media. There was a reason why elderly gamers flocked to Farmville in its heyday, after all. Mobile gaming also fueled the development of less graphic-intensive games. Side-scrollers and isometric games play smoother in smartphones. By using cartoonier and flatter visuals, these games don’t sap the phone’s batteries. Players on mobile can sink hours into these games. This is a lucrative outcome for mobile game developers.
This level of accessibility and portability can prove to be a winning ticket. InnerSloth’s game Among Us, follows the same cel-shaded 2D style of its previous releases. This simple spot-the-impostor social game became a pop culture phenomenon in 2020.
More Than a Throwback
The appeal of 2D gaming lingered even after the rise of 3D graphics. The most popular games in the 1990s still had dedicated communities well into 2010. Some older games, like Age of Empires, enjoyed incredible appeal through gameplay alone. First released in 1999, Age of Empires II continued to have a fan following well into the 2010s. This led to the development of not one but two remasters of the game. It was also followed by several new expansions introducing a mix of new playable cultures.
Throwbacks to retro-style gameplay became a selling point by the 2010s. The wildly successful game Cuphead combined 1980s-style gameplay with 2D 1930s-style cartoons to great effect. This and other games like it capitalized on a niche that 3D platformers couldn’t fill. They also introduced a new generation of gamers to the joys of 2D platform gaming.
Nostalgia didn’t play as big a role in the staying power of these games as one would think. Many developers created side-scrollers to experiment with unique gameplay concepts. Braid played around with time control, creating tactical challenges for the player. These simple games also play around with many game conventions. The popular Undertale subverts the idea that video game characters should slaughtering their enemies. Here, you have the option to negotiate. Different actions create varying outcomes for the player… all in glorious pixelated 2D. Through its plot twist, Braid makes a statement on how you see its player character.
A Niche of Their Own
There’s room in the larger gaming community for both 2D and 3D games in various levels of realism. Each level of graphics have their own appeal and cater to different types of players. Not every game needs realistic lighting to suspend a gamer’s disbelief.
Graphics-intensive 3D games grew with the idea that video games should be immersive. They are at once a technical and artistic achievement. The best of them are a spectacle that can captivate gamers from all walks of life. Games on the lower end of the graphic scale, however, are no slouches in that department. Some stand out as interactive artistic expressions. They can be an exciting challenge to play and ponder. Others offer a fun and enthralling experience that keeps players on their toes.
Less graphic intensive games add more variety to the gaming market. The lower graphic requirements let developers introduce new gameplay and story concepts. The lower barrier to entry also helps make these games more accessible to a larger audience. Ever wanted a good game that won’t overwork your computer? There’s going to be a 2D or low-end 3D game somewhere.