We've all seen the popular argument furiously typed by forum members everywhere: "Gameplay > Graphics!" But is that really true? Is a game with bad graphics but good gameplay really so much more redeemable when compared to a game with good graphics and bad gameplay?
In a certain sense, absolutely. It's why games like Super Mario Bros have held up so well. They excel so much at simple, addictive gameplay that their aged appearance suddenly becomes less important. Even though a game like Guitar Hero really isn't much of a technical showcase, it's so fun that it can stand the test of time regardless.
However, in another sense, absolutely not. It's why games like Forza 2 and Halo 3 are already being criticized for having less-impressive-than-expected graphics, and these games aren't even finished yet. It's why a game like flOw that has impressive visuals but mediocre gameplay and has been compared to "an interactive screen saver" can still garner favorable opinions.
Killer7 is a game that relies solely on presentation. The story, visual style, and sound were so much the concern to Suda 51, the game's director, that halfway through development, he apparently was still "unsure" about what they'd decided to make of the gameplay, and it definitely shows in the final product. The gameplay is basic and flawed, but the game looks phenomenal.
Yet, if "gameplay > graphics" is true, then surely this game should have automatically garnered horrendous review scores the likes of which no one had seen before. It should've been crucified. But alas, it did not. Reviews were mixed, yes, but Killer7 is either a rule-breaker or an exception.
What Constitutes "Good" Graphics?Condemned: Criminal Origins is a very good example to demonstrate what "good" graphics really are and should do. In that game, it's all about the mood and atmosphere and creeping you out before all of a sudden some crazy-ass motherfucker comes running out of the shadows with a lead pipe screaming bloody murder. Graphics are a huge part of that kind of game and they exemplify why we need so-called "good" graphics.
We need to define what actually makes "good" graphics. "Good" graphics are not just eye candy, but actually serve a purpose. In Condemned, they immerse you in the world. In Burnout, they show where to go and any obstacles you need to be aware of without thought. In Resident Evil, they frighten you and make you dread going around the next corner.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, gameplay can also serve graphics. With killer7, the gameplay was not the main attraction, but rather the story and presentation. Design choices like running on rails promote a focus on the graphics and allow the player to experience the game rather than merely play it.
How Important Is Art Style?Regardless of what machine a game is running on or how many polygons it pushes, inevitably it all comes down to art style. While The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time has aged considerably since its release, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker still looks amazing and will continue to look amazing for years to come, all thanks to the phenomenal art style.
WarioWare: Smooth Moves is a great example of a terrific art style. The simple, fun gameplay is paired with graphics that are often so basic that you have to wonder if they used Microsoft Paint. This overly simplistic art style actually goes a long way in enhancing the gameplay and charming the player. The whole thing is totally bananas, but it works.
There aren't many games with a more distinctive art style than Okami. You may know it as "that weird Japanese water-paint wolf game." And you may be right. It's impossible to discuss Okami without gushing over how gorgeous it looks. Without that art style, Okami would've merely been labeled a Zelda clone and fallen into obscurity. Instead, it's regarded as a work of art, and for good reason.
Drawing ConclusionsMany people claim that great graphics are not important to a game's quality. They claim that gameplay is all that really matters, but they aren't thinking things through. They regard games as singular, mindless experiences without any concern for what effect the presentation has on the overall game. Games are complex experiences that require gameplay, graphics, and sound design to all do their part to create a cohesive and memorable experience.
Simply put, both graphics and gameplay have equal importance to a game.