There’s no two ways about it: The way that WildStar looks is just plain going to turn some people off. And while I’m hesitant to say those people are wrong, exactly, I think they’re missing the mark something fierce.
When the game’s first trailer hit, the look was what immediately attracted me to the game. Not that it had a whole lot of competition; back then, we knew the name, we’d seen a couple of vague concepts, and we had a wonderfully animated trailer. Picking the last item out of those three was almost just choosing the more substantial option. But I won’t lie — I loved the visual style, and when it became clear that the game was bearing that out all the way along, that just made me pleased as could be.
Some aren’t as fond of it, that’s for sure. But I can think of some good reasons for the game to look how it does and at least one major flaw in the arguments against the look. I might be wrong, but heck, I’d be doing a disservice not to speak my mind on the subject.
Missing the mark by aiming differently
Every game’s graphics look different; I wouldn’t claim otherwise. But most games look fundamentally as if they’re trying to replicate something as close to the real world as possible. EverQuest was trying to make a fundamentally realistic world within the limitations of graphics back when it was first created.
I ask you this, though: Does EverQuest look like the real world? Does Darkfall: Unholy Wars look like the real world? Does EVE Online? PlanetSide 2?
The fact of the matter is that when you aim for the best possible simulation of the world, what looks fine or even shiny now is not going to look nearly as good in another five years. Ten years have passed since the original launch of Grand Theft Auto III, and if you look at the game now, it looks almost hopelessly primitive despite having been lauded for its graphics on release — with good cause, on both ends.
Letting your graphics adhere to pure style alleviates that. It’s the reason pixelated sidescrollers don’t look bad to us now: These graphics were always stylized representations, and the fact that we can draw a cleaner line on a computer display now doesn’t obviate the style of the original. And it’s why World of Warcraft’s graphics, while older, hold up remarkably well after nearly a decade. By freely admitting that you’re not going to manage perfect simulation, you look better longer.
The emotions matter most
Every piece of visual art is trying to set the mood with its design. It wasn’t by accident that the Matrix films had protagonists in shiny black against a background of sickly green; it gave a sense of smooth professionals in a contaminated environment. Star Trek’s bright uniforms against smooth and futuristic ships set a mood of hopefulness, especially when contrasted with some of the more desolate planets found scattered throughout the series.
Heck, odds are good you make use of this rule in your day-to-day life. If you want to look good at a job interview, you’re going to wear clothes that fit the part, like a sports jacket with shoulders padded to make you appear larger or a tight shirt that makes you look fitter. Heels to make you look taller. Vertical stripes to slim. And so on.
The point is that visuals carry a lot of the impact of a piece, and stylized graphics do so quite directly. Yeah, the Granok are kind of top-heavy, but that’s the image that they should convey. Humans are wiry and lanky. Aurin are lithe and slight. Everyone looks different to convey a sense of how he or she should seem at a glance.
No damage on impact
For some people, the fact that WildStar looks a bit brighter and stylized makes it harder to take the game seriously. I mean, really, how can you take a character that almost looks like a cartoon with any seriousness? (For full impact, shudder and sneer when you read the italicized word there.)
That? Well, that’s just demonstrably wrong.
Stylized art doesn’t detract from a story’s emotional impact. Go watch the original Land Before Time. Or The Lion King, or half of the Batman animated series, or pretty much anything Pixar has had a hand in. Go read Bone or Powers or Maus. Play through Bastion or Final Fantasy Tactics or Persona 4. Then look me in the eye and tell me that somehow, these pieces of art would have been improved by having more realistic designs for the characters and scenery.
Style is just a visual tool used to create a mood and create a cohesive look. When used correctly, it augments the feel of a given scene. You can say that the graphics of WildStar are ill-suited to telling certain sorts of stories, but those aren’t the sort of stories that the team behind WildStar wants to tell in the first place.
Do we know exactly what sort of story is being told? We know bits and pieces. This is a game about adventure, about being on the wild edges of the universe. It’s about trying to find a place in a world that doesn’t necessarily welcome you, about meeting the unknown and the strange. It’s about independence, individuals who are larger than life, and a need to make your mark. It’s about finding your place distinct from others.
It’s something well-suited to characters with bright colors and unique designs. It’s something that works well with a broad visual spectrum. It doesn’t preclude serious stories in the game or in roleplaying, but those stories benefit from a visual style that supports the underlying ideas of the game’s setting.
And that’s exactly what WildStar’s graphics do. In fact, I’m going to be right up-front and say that if they weren’t so stylized, I’d be a sight less interested.