Naughty Dog is one of the most lauded video game developers in the industry. Known for the hit Uncharted games on PlayStation 3, the studio made an even bigger splash with the release of last year’s excellent The Last of Us—a game with some of the best storytelling I’ve encountered in the medium.
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But there’s something I keep hearing about Naughty Dog that genuinely rubs me the wrong way, in spite of my fondness for their video games. There’s a notion among many fans of the Uncharted series and The Last of Us, that Naughty Dog somehow “sets the standard” for graphics on consoles (and specifically the PlayStation 3, since the studio is a subsidiary of Sony and develops exclusively for PlayStation.)
While there’s no denying that games like Uncharted 3 or The Last of Us look quite good, they’re also not exactly the most graphically demanding experiences on the market. Uncharted is a decidedly linear experience; The Last of Us is slightly more open, but still very much a story-driven, linear game. Just like Call of Duty, it’s far easier to create gorgeous looking graphical sets for linear titles than to craft a hugely detailed open-world game.
There are other studios doing work that’s every bit as good (as far as I can tell) including the work of Hideo Kojima on Metal Gear Solid, or Crytek and their Crysis offerings, or 343 Industries with Halo 4, just to name a few. There are others. Naughty Dog certainly inhabits a place in the top tier of graphical power-houses, but this is the wrong reason to constantly hype the studio. Last year’s Tomb Raider did many things better than the Uncharted series, including—I would argue—graphics.
Where Naughty Dog truly shines isn’t necessarily graphics then, it’s writing. The Last of Us was particularly powerful. Everything from the writing to the voice-acting to the music was superb, miles above almost anything in the genre. I suppose I was never as impressed by its graphics simply because the PS3, no matter how much juice Naughty Dog could wring from it, is like a child compared to a gaming PC. There are myriad PC titles available that look far better than The Last of Us on PS3. Hardware has its limits, no matter how talented a developer may be.
So I’m curious to see how much better the game will look in its remastered PS4 version. Curious is operative here—I’m not certain the actual experience itself will be all that different, or necessarily better, than it was on PS3. It will undoubtedly look better and maybe even boast faster loading times, but the reason Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptic game was so well-received had everything to do with the power of its story.
This all may come down to a recurring theme I’ve been working on in this space: Graphics matter, but they don’t matter as much as strong gameplay and powerful storytelling. If every game on the Xbox One had better gameplay and storytelling than every game on the PS4, it wouldn’t matter that the One is slightly less powerful. (That isn’t the case, of course, but theoretically I believe this to be true.)
And everyone is guilty here. Studios who show one version of a game and then offer up a graphically crippled version later are to blame. We saw this with Dark Souls II and Assassin’s Creed III among others. Fans are also to blame, so often placing such a high priority on horse power and graphical fidelity that they ignore other merits. The Wii U is less graphically powerful than its cousins from Microsoft and Sony, but I’m hard-pressed to find a game that looks as good as Mario Kart 8 on either of those systems.
Polish developer CD Projekt RED, the developer behind the magnificent Witcher games, has shown us some of the best-looking graphics I’ve ever seen on PC, but it’s the richness of the world, its characters, and the story that really drew me into the game. I like how good The Witcher 2 looks, and I’m excited by the next-gen nature of The Witcher 3, but what gets me really hyped has very little to do with graphics.
The reason I’m looking forward to Uncharted 4 is because I enjoy the Indiana Jones style of the game. I like Nathan Drake and his compatriots. It’s a fun, cinematic, engaging franchise. But almost all I ever hear about the game—whether from other developers or unnamed “insiders” or boisterous fans—is how good it’s going to look.
Ultimately, if you took a game like The Last of Us and severed its story and crippled its gameplay, you’d be left with a very pretty, very boring game. If you scaled back its graphics, that might hinder your enjoyment to some degree, but you’d still be left with one of the best-written and best-acted video games available.
It’s just a matter of priorities. We should celebrate the achievements of these studios across the board, including graphics and art design, but I think we have a tendency to take it too far, rendering graphics the holy grail of game design. Which is a mistake and a distraction.