Although this is an article about all visual storytelling mediums (eg: comics, films, games etc…), I’m probably going to spend quite a bit of this article talking about computer games. This is mostly because I recently saw a brilliant game-based example of why substance matters more than style.
Although I’ll probably review both of them properly at some point in the future, I ended up getting both the second and fourth “Saints Row” games during a sale several days before I originally prepared this article (last November). And, with two lengthy open-world games to choose from, I had to work out which one I was going to play first. So, I decided to test both of them out before making a decision.
I’d heard so many horror stories about how badly-optimised the PC port of “Saints Row 2” (2008) was that I set the graphics and resolution to pretty much the absolute minimum just as a precaution. The game ran smoothly enough, but looked like something in between a Playstation 1 and Playstation 2 game. Even then, the mouse had all sorts of weird glitches (which, amongst other things, led to me re-mapping the left mouse button to the “Q” key, so that that the game’s combat was actually playable). Not to mention that the game’s user interface also has it’s fair share of unintuitive annoyances on the PC port too.
In comparison – even on my computer’s Intel HD 2500 integrated graphics, “Saints Row IV” (2013) ran smoothly and looked amazing. The lighting was lush and vivid, everything looked detailed and the game just had style. The controls and UI were also just intuitive, with none of the annoyances of “Saints Row 2”. Here’s a visual comparison of both games:
Yet, as you can probably guess, the game that I chose to play first was… “Saints Row 2”.
Why? Because the beginning of it was slightly more fun. In technical terms, the game had a much better difficulty curve, a less spectacular (but more suspenseful and gameplay-focused) opening segment, a completely different setting to “Saints Row: The Third“, a better selection of in-game music and a story that focuses more on compelling small-scale drama than on large-scale spectacle.
In other words, the first hour of “Saints Row 2” had slightly more substance than the beginning of “Saints Row IV” did. The underlying core of the game was compelling, challenging and novel enough for me to overlook the horrendous graphics, rough interface and mouse-related glitches. I was having so much fun with the actual game itself that these things didn’t matter. Yes, I’m very much behind when it comes to modern gaming (eg: two years ago, I was still using a single-core Windows XP computer with ancient integrated graphics as my main gaming machine) so I already know that graphics aren’t everything, but it still surprised me.
Of course, this made me think about style and substance in visual mediums.
If you have to choose between the two, always go for substance over style. A well-written comic with rough-looking art or a compelling, intelligent film with terrible special effects will almost always be more interesting and memorable than a generic comic with photo-realistic art or a film with a multi-million dollar CGI budget.
Yes, if something has style, then it will grab your interest more. It’ll make you think “this looks really cool”… for a few minutes. But, the thing to remember is that you will be spending quite a bit of time with it. As such, the novelty value of cool visuals will wear off after a while. If there isn’t some underlying substance to keep you interested, then – at best – you will feel mildly bored and, at worst, will end up feeling cheated.
Yes, if you’re an artist or have an interest in art, then you can get a lot out of enjoying something on a purely visual level. But, even the best-looking works of visual storytelling can sometimes seem a little bit hollow if they aren’t backed up by things like good characters, a compelling plot, interesting ideas, innovation etc…
Of course, the ideal thing to aim for is both style and substance – watch the movie “Blade Runner” and read Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality” for excellent examples of this – but you should see style as an optional extra that is there to enhance the main substance of something. To give a cookery-based example, style is a bit like smoked paprika or BBQ sauce – it makes food taste even better, but you wouldn’t want to eat a meal that consisted of just these two things.
In the coldest and most cynical terms, one of the main reasons why comic publishers, game companies and film studios place so much emphasis on “graphics” is because they are attention-grabbing. They make you take notice and think “This looks cool! I want more of it!“. This is a quick way of selling you stuff. Of boasting to you that “Our stuff looks better than anyone else’s“.
Again, this isn’t to say that style is a bad thing. It really isn’t. But it is very much secondary to substance.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂