It’s been nearly four years since the Xbox 360 helped consoles get their graphical groove back, which – of course – kicked off the current console generation. Time flies, doesn’t it? The Xbox 360, then -- if we’re going by Tech Standard Time (TST) -- should now be on its last legs. A dinosaur on its death bed, facing extinction by the meteoric approach of a new “next-gen” Microsoft console. But it’s not. In fact, if Microsoft and Sony have things their way, the current console generation will keep on chugging along for another five years.
Not long ago, for us PC gamers and our beefy, ever-evolving rigs, this would have been a moot point – or even a nice bit of superiority to hold over console gamers’ heads. “Our graphics are prettier than yours! Neener-neener-neener!” But times have changed. PC exclusives are few and far-between, and many are only one mediocre first week of sales away from being ported to consoles (*cough*Crysis*cough*). The large majority of games are unable to take full advantage of PC hardware, because consoles and their aging innards are holding everyone else back. Sorry state of affairs, ain’t it?
And I couldn’t be happier.
Why? Because we’ve finally reached a temporary cease-fire in the war over who can render the most realistic videogame graphics. And so, in order to differentiate their games from the bump-mapped masses, many developers are getting creative.
For instance, lately I’ve been wading through WET, an over-the-top action game from Bethesda and Artificial Mind and Movement. Unfortunate title aside, the game’s chock full of excellent ideas – the greatest of which, I’d say, is its aesthetic. Basically, WET’s a playable grindhouse/pulp film. As you sail through the air in slow-mo and pile up a body count of something around 6.7 billion, punk music blares and your character tosses out all sorts of B-movie-friendly one-liners. To top it off, all the action is wrapped in a film grain, and when your character kicks the bucket, the film reel tears and pops. In between gameplay sections, the game even airs old-timey film-style commercials, promoting things like church attendance, hotdogs, and something called a “Personality Pickle.”
Here’s the thing, though: While WET’s gameplay is certainly enjoyable, the whole package wouldn’t be anything special without its 70’s-era trappings. Instead, it’d just be another of Max Payne’s innumerable dual-pistol-totting, fourth-dimension-warping clones – sans Mr. Payne’s perpetual constipation-face, thankfully. Point is, WET lives and dies by its aesthetic. The game’s many constituent parts are glued together by a palpably pulpy vibe, and that glue is the game’s main selling point. So move over, big men in gray armor – and take your blah-brown war-torn landscapes with you; WET’s taking gamers to new places, and it’s not the only game betting the proverbial farm on an interesting aesthetic vibe, either.
Recently, Gearbox Software announced that Borderlands ditched its paint-by-numbers Gritty Future for a wackier, comic bookish style. Now, this is hardly the first time a game’s ever been cel-shaded before, but again, Gearbox allowed the vibe created by this artistic evolution to seep into its game’s every pour. And so, with a new darkly humorous aesthetic at the wheel, Borderlands’ characters and world are now a whole lot livelier, as are its commercials and box art. Borderlands has taken on an attitude – an identity all its own. And the game wears that oddball sensibility with pride. In fact, as evidenced by the aforementioned commercials and box art, that sensibility has become one of Borderlands’ main back-of-the-box bullet points. It’s something that I, at least, couldn’t imagine Borderlands without. And so, as with WET, the clothes make the man (or woman, as it were.)
So, how do consoles figure into all of this? Well, until Microsoft or Sony decides to fire the starting gun on a new console race, the majority of developers will continue working with current graphical technologies. Based off the eye-popping styles of Borderlands, WET, and games of the like, this means more inventive art styles, aesthetics, and videogame vibes for us. However, assuming the PS4 and Xbox 720 Pop Shove-It up their graphical arsenals along the same lines as prior “next-gen” consoles, realistic graphics will be in vogue again. After all, what gets people all riled up when new consoles launch? That’s right: shinier cars, hyper-detailed skin textures, and – for some reason – ducks.
Here’s hoping, then, that the current console generation sticks around long enough for the paint to dry on this new trend toward unique aesthetics. I mean, no offense, Marcus Fenix and other members of the League of Ordinary Videogame Heroes, but I’m ready for something fresh.