Stian: Before I started contributing to this site, I remember that I was heavily against focusing on visuals and partly music in games. Sure, every game has some form of both (except the earlier text-games perhaps), but gameplay is the most important part to a game, right? What is a game without interactivity? However, it is clear that this medium has changed a lot. We have story-driven games that might be visual novels or walking-simulators, and we have the saying “style over substance” with some games from earlier days, such as “Splatterhouse” or the recently released “Cuphead” fitting this description well. But how far can a style go? I wanted to start this with asking Casper: why did you decide that presentation would count in a review as much as say gameplay or story (if a game has a clear focus on that)?
Casper: Wow, way to put me on the spot there. Like you, I don’t count describing visuals and music as my strong suits, simply because I have no artistic background and can’t really tell you much about color composition, lighting, sound and the works. I fear my reviews are too general in this sense, like I am just describing if the game looks and sounds nice to me, rather than going in the kind of depth some of these titles deserve.
With that said, a major reason why I wanted to include presentation in the core 3 criteria we judge games on is because it fit my vision for a website where we debate nostalgia and timelessness. Some games I remember fondly for their story (Higurashi, Catherine, Persona), some for their fantastic gameplay (Dynasty Warriors, Disgaea, Monster Hunter), and some titles carve out their place in gaming history by their visuals and music. This can of course be games that have highly distinct styles, but also games that still look great today due to pure competence. I may not be a Castlevania fan on your level, but the presentation of the Super Nintendo’s Super Castlevania IV and the jaw-dropping beauty of Symphony of the Night truly cemented those games in my memory.
S: Haha, we needed to start somewhere and what else would be better than how this site got started? This is very true though: many games are memorable due to their style. I would not be able to tell the difference between the Modern Warfare-games, though I can without question point out if something is from Wind Waker, being it music or visuals. That is surely an artistic part that easily can get stuck in your head and make something not just memorable, but also personal and unique.
Personally, I studied art and music at a higher degree, although I would not call myself an expert. I try to understand a game’s direction in presentation, but that is not always easy when a game either ages poorly (Gabriel Knight 2) or can be a mess (That, Dragon Cancer). It is important to use it for creating a clear atmosphere so we can feel attached to a product somehow. Though an art-piece or a soundtrack can be hypnotizing, it is when it creates a clear style that it works best. I am a huge fan of how Papers, Please made this work with its dreary colors, unsettling artstyle and the eerie silence, with only one music-piece, giving the game a monotone and dark atmosphere, complementing the gameplay. When you said “ I am just describing if the game looks and sounds nice to me”, what would nice to you be? And have you ever thought that the presentation to a game was insignificant (similar to how a story could be) or possibly was the most important part to it?
C: I feel that my preferences towards visuals and music work the same as what I like in stories and gameplay: I like things that are odd, surprising, or just do something really well you can’t get anywhere else. I often bring up Recettear as an example when talking about gameplay because the concept of running a store in a fantasy RPG is exactly the kind of stuff I mean. At the same time I also have to praise Recettear for it’s presentation because I really love the medieval Europe as seen through the lens of moe anime aesthetic. Recettear is the kind of fantasy RPG you’d see characters in an anime play and I am so fond of the costume & character design in particular I hired an artist to draw Recette for me. That drawing is framed above my bed.
I find your mention of Papers, Please fitting too, we both like that game’s presentation for the same reason. The oppressive, commanding tone of its theme song and the depressive nature of its visuals really sell you on the setting. But to steer this discussion towards the game that prompted you to start this debate, I was actually kind of excited for Cuphead before you said it was pretty bad. Care to elaborate on that one?
S: Interesting you brought up Recettear as an example, cause it also shows a tad how we differ as reviewers. I won’t deny I do enjoy something that is unique in gameplay, style, and story, however I had a harder time appreciating Recettear’s visuals. They had a mash of different technical approaches with 3D hand-drawn backgrounds, 2D-humans and fairies, with every enemy presented in pixelated 3D. For me, focus is quite important in a game and while I think artistically Recettear had a lovely concept, the execution could be a mess. Though I would love to see that drawing of yours. And yes, I think Papers, Please is fantastic in those regards as it immerses you in an interactive medium. It is an amazing accomplishment to make you feel a part of this dark world despite that you only look at a screen with a mouse in your hand (or touching your phone).
Regarding Cuphead, I will try to be short, despite how easy it is to go into a rant. Pretty bad might be strong, but it definitely was a disappointment. For those unaware, Cuphead is a 2D-shooter which consist of 70% boss-fights, similar to Alien Soldier if anyone is familiar with that one. The biggest problem for me, is that Cuphead can be unimaginative in its gameplay. It focuses on making enemies take forever to kill and have a lot of elements on the screen to kill you with, which would have been fine if we had more interesting designs around this. There is such a good idea with a parry-system, but it can only be used for pink objects, only works in the air, and your playable characters can’t defend above themselves with it.
The same lack in interesting mechanics can be applied to the other parts of the game. The run and gun-segments contains a bunch of enemies that takes ages to kill, and the flying shoot-em ups have neglected the special powers you can equip your characters with, which can include a highly useful dodge-maneuver that teleports your character. I can only recall two times the parry-system was well used, but that’s it. It is a shame though, as it has a lot of good design-choices otherwise, such as weapons being more about your playstyle than being better or worse than others, and the co-op is of course fun. I suppose it also goes to show that art can go far in its marketing, as I bought Cuphead purely for its style, but if I ever look at something representing this game again, I am only going to be sad.
C: I have since played Cuphead and must say I was rather fond of the gameplay myself and it´s exactly what I like in an indie game: gameplay, style, and a story that no big corporation would ever consider viable for a product. I see it as a middle finger to an industry stuck in its ways and the bosses didn’t take too long for my liking.
You cite a lot of gameplay-technical issues here, but I feel Cuphead is exactly the kind of game you may hear YouTubers praise in 10 years as an obscure gem, along the same lines as Earthbound. It’s a game whose unique hook, visuals, and style cement it in gaming history, and which will have people talking about it years after the gameplay issues you mentioned have faded from memory. People love to talk about how pretty Ōkami was, yet few people really talk about how the brush mechanic could be picky and the game recycles bosses too often.
In a way, that is where we come in to stomp all over nostalgic things people love. It’s a thankless job sometimes, but somebody has to do the stompin’.
S: I don’t think it will be as obscure as Earthbound, but I will definitely imagine many will fondly remember Cuphead. Though I suppose this also goes to show how far a style can go and as you just showed: Ōkami is well loved, but the recycled bosses were an issue (though I don’t remember the brush being picky. With the exception of the Wii-version, my God that could be terrible). What I can say, is that I think what made Ōkami better, was that it was more solid. Then again: that’s only what I remember. Nostalgia is a seductive liar, so I can’t say for sure if it holds up well without giving it a more recent shot. I am happy you found Cuphead enjoyable though, but I unfortunately don’t share your enthusiasm.
To get back on track, it is important to establish something memorable and endearing. Though I am afraid that presentation can excuse a game for the lack of good mechanics. It is kinda sad to say, but while I despise most of the gameplay in The Elders Scrolls 4: Oblivion and Kingdom Hearts, I also feel such love for the imaginative visuals and soundtrack. Pokemon and Assassin’s Creed are very distinct by their presentation: one for the imagination and inspiration from eastern lore, and the other for recreating historical places from specific time periods, but neither franchises takes big leaps from previous installments. Even recent games like Overwatch I feel wins people over more for the style and just forgets it is a commercial version of TF2. Have we come to the point where presentation excuses gameplay so much, that it might even be the reason why walking-simulators are more forgiven for having absolutely no form of interactivity?
C: I am going to be honest here and say that I think you are seeing this all a bit too gloomy. You might recall I recently bought Overwatch, and sure, part of the reason was that I liked the way it looked and the character design appealed to me, but what pushed me over the edge were the character trailers for Mei and Reinhardt. Similarly there is a genuine subset of people that enjoyed the exploration aspect of walking simulator Gone Home, where a story of a family torn apart unfolds as you move between rooms. If anything I feel we have reached an age of experimentation, where both independent developers and large studios are trying their hand at new concepts. I’d rather have a game that is more ‘style over substance’ than another bland, Ubisoft-style sandbox game where “gameplay” involves hours of climbing towers to unveil repetitive side-quests.
Do you have any closing statements? This piece is running on a tad long.
S: Haha, I might be a tad gloomy as gameplay is very important to me and I feel presentation can take a huge place. However, you make a good point, as I was thinking more about Dear Esther instead of more interesting titles like Gone Home, when I mentioned walking simulators. It goes to show that games (especially today) can provide a lot of personality outside of its mechanics thanks to story or as we have talked about: presentation. So I think your ending-comment is very suitable. A clear style at least shows creativity and that is perhaps one of the most important parts to a video-game, as long as you have some interaction that goes beyond pushing a play-button.