Thursday 7 June 2018

Discussion point: What kind of game deserves a high score in Sounds and Graphics?

By The TAG Team

Sounds and Graphics

There’s a central dilemma in reviewing this category: should the scale reflect the technological development or be completely independent of it? In other words, should an EGA game always score worse than a VGA game? There are clear arguments for both sides. Certainly CGA graphics and PC beeper are hellish innovations and since then we’ve moved on to something much better.

Even monochrome would be better than this

Then again, one might say that we shouldn’t judge the worth of the artist on the tools they have in their use. And indeed, whatever the tools are (monochrome, EGA, VGA, 3D graphics etc.), there are better and worse uses of them.

Unless the second picture with its angular style is trying
to recreate Picasso, I am in favour of  the first picture

Other questions you might consider are:
  • How much subjective opinion should be allowed in evaluating this category? For instance, if a reviewer finds a graphical style or a music genre not to their taste, can this be reflected in the score?
  • Is the increase of realism in graphics always a positive thing? Could we give a game with cubistic, surrealist or abstract graphics a high score in this category?
  • Should we review the sounds and the graphics independently of the rest of the game, just deciding how beautiful or agreeable we think they are? Or should we be more interested in how well they enhance the game? In other words, if the music and the graphics disconcert us, but they are clearly meant to do so, is this a positive or a negative?
  • What emphasis should be given to the two aspects of the category? Should the score be divided 50-50 for sounds and graphics? Or could there be e.g. a game made in silent flick style, which would get a high score just for its graphics?


  1. "should an EGA game always score worse than a VGA game?"

    Ahem: Loom.

    1. Also: back when I was 11, I still had a CGA monitor. I played games on it, and din't know anything better, until I got a VGA monitor a couple of years later. At the time, who knew? My first graphical adventure I played was PQ1, in 6th grade, in CGA. The first time I replayed it on a VGA monitor (seeing the EGA graphics) was incredible, but I still enjoyed the game.

      Digression aside, I agree with Rowan 110%. Compare, say, EGA Monkey Island to VGA Les Manley: In Search for the King. I don't think there's any room for debate on this one.

    2. It's easy to say that VGA Les Manley looks worse than EGA Monkey Island, but a more interesting question is what we should do with remakes: should we rate their graphics and sounds against the original game or against the "current" games. We've had difficulties with this...

    3. Les Manley 1 was barely VGA. It was still limited to 16 colours, and the only difference was that the palette could be modified in VGA mode to allow things like slightly more natural skin tones.

    4. My point exactly. Les Manley 1 claimed to be VGA but was pathetic looking even for EGA.

  2. Realism isn't really the goal of visual media anyway, since then you might as well as keep watching real life. Games, much like movies, try in various ways to be larger than life, with colors that pop and imperfections smoothed out.

    Graphics really only deserve a bad score if the artists, with all due respect, just weren't yet very experienced at their craft. Especially in games of the 80's and 90's, game developers mostly had more enthusiasm than hard talent, and they couldn't afford experienced artists from established media, and no one really knew how to do computer art to best effect yet.

    But if it looks good, it looks good.

    Actually, if I were setting scores, I'd just go with a 0-4 star rating on everything. It's much easier then to affix labels to the ratings: 0 = didn't even try, 1 = well, they tried, 2 = serviceable, 3 = appealing, 4 = really nice. And save half-star ratings for when I can't decide between two ratings. (Of course, the blog can't go changing rating scales one third of the way through history.)

    If a game deliberately eschews sound, I'd suggest taking that part of the category entirely out from the total maximum score possible, so the game's entirely evaluated on those merits it did put forth.

    1. >If a game deliberately eschews sound, I'd suggest
      >taking that part of the category entirely out from
      >the total maximum score possible, so the game's
      >entirely evaluated on those merits it did put forth.

      I don't think I said (typed?) it out loud at the time, but I did have a problem with Trickster's complaint of the minimal music in Colonel's Bequest. There was instead a focus on ambient noise, and the lack of constant music created an atmosphere of unease and anticipation. And when you found a body or traveled the underground passage, there *would* be music to enhance the mood. The Chzo mythos uses the same aesthetic principle. Pacing is important: The high moments won't stand out if there are no surrounding low-key moments to contrast them.

      That said, I would put some soft upper limit for games lacking sound and good music (maybe 8), because the very best games in a certain category should excel in most if not all areas in that category.

    2. Kirinn: I would point out that there have been a lot of different realist movements in various forms of visual art, which have explicitly tried to represent mere life as it is. I am not saying it is necessarily better way of doing visual art than any other, but it does exist. In adventure games, I suppose the use of FMV has often tried to give a semblance of realism to games.

    3. You are, of course, correct. Actually, I was to an art museum some months ago, and they had various very realistic paintings from around the 1600's. It struck me that even then they tended to use more saturated colors than strictly realistic, subtly enhancing the depiction.

      But I don't know enough about specific art styles to argue strongly one way or the other...

      The lower pic of Elaine, by the way, feels like a textbook example of the uncanny valley.

    4. Laukku, I tend to agree with Trickster on that point (Colonel's Bequest). By the time that game was released, Sierra was advanced enough to have background music constantly (see, for example, LSL3) and the quiet I found to be more annoying than mood creating. I suspect that a lot of people turned on music in the background, because who wants to play a near-silent game? A subtle, eerie background theme would have been better than nothing at all.

    5. "who wants to play a near-silent game?"

      This might have been just a rhetorical question, but at least CRPG addict has clearly said that he prefers games with no background music, because the music just distracts him from gaming.

  3. I remember being own away the first time I saw Monkey Island in VGA after playing everything previously in EGA. Same for Prince of Persia.

  4. Interesting that you use those two images of Elaine Marley for your comparison, as the second one hails from that period of the late 90's and early 2000's where 3D polygonal graphics looked terrible almost no matter what the skills of the artist were. Which begs the issue that hasn't come up on the site yet since this time period hasn't been reached, but should games like Escape from Monkey Island, Gabriel Knight 3, or even the soon-to-be-reviewed Alone in the Dark be docked because the technology wasn't up to snuff? Or should you compare 2D games to other 2D games, FMV games to other FMV games, 3D rendered games to other 3D rendered games, etc.?

    Also some games were able to turn the weaknesses of a certain technology into strengths due to the storyline involved. Grim Fandango, for example, turned everyone into calaca dolls which were far easier to render than a human would've been at the time. Would that be a point for graphics itself, or a point elsewhere since the storyline is what enabled the 3D graphics to remain simple enough to render effectively?

    1. I think the Grim Fandango point is really hitting it on the head. Even with basic technology they were able to create a unique visual style that really fits the games' atmosphere.

      When games started going 3D there were so many that were horrible because the developer didn't understand the technology but simply made their new game 3D for the sake of being able to call it 3D. A lot of games in this transition period suffered because of this, where games like FF7 and FF8 tried mixing static and 3D effects to play to both's strengths, to good effect in my opinion. Personally I think if they couldn't make the limited tech look good they should not have tried to adopt it while it was clearly too early and they didn't have the right talent to handle it.

  5. Realism was certainly not more appropriate all the time. Sometimes, it was great -- think PQ3, it certainly was a good match for the subject matter and setting. Unlike the article though, I think going away from the realism in the Monkey Island games matched the spirit of the games a lot better.

    Better comparison -- Maniac Mansion to Day of the Tentacle. Yes, I know there was years of technological change in-between, but certainly, as good a game as MM was, if it was in the DOTT art style, that would have been incredible.

    This category more than others, I think it needs to be be heavily weighed against other games of the time period -- because it isn't fair to fault a game for either technical limitations of the time, or limitations in the player's budgets (game companies often waited a while before adopting some features, because none of their customers could afford them yet). The example of Monkey Island in the article shows a beautifully rendered scene that used the hardware of the time as best as possible. COmpare that maybe to the game Altered Destiny, from the crack team that brought us Les Manley.... this image should make the point:

    1. I don't think it's the unrealism of the second Elaine that makes the picture somewhat less palatable than the original Elaine. Indeed, the more cartoonish style of the Curse of the Monkey Island is quite OK in my eyes (see for instance: The problem is more that the 3D Elaine has a hexagonal ear, her hands appear to be encased in blocks of marble and a wooden spike has been glued on to her forehead.

  6. Sounds & Music -- again, some leniency should be given for games made BSB (before SoundBlaster[tm] ), and for the same reasons. There's no way, for example, that Leisure Suit Larry 1 could have given us any better music, both because a) sound cards weren't a thing yet, so the only instrument available was the PC speaker and b) disk space would have prevented it anyways. The games of that era were made to be played from a floppy, because not everyone could afford a 10MB hard disk that cost hundreds and hundreds of dollars. Certainly, a game of that era like LSL1 deserves at least a few extra points for having a few songs (disco, theme, alley music, etc) making good sounding music working with a crappy instrument, while another game from that year, Maniac Mansion, did nearly nothing with music (but had a lot of good sound effects...)

    1. That brings up another question: should music/sound games be judged on the most common hardware setup at the time, or the best? Early AGI games sounded far better on a Tandy than the single beeps and boops from a PC Speaker (the Tandy version of the Space Quest I theme is still one of my favorites), and mid-period Sierra games sounded way better when using a Roland MT-32 than a simple Adlib/Soundblaster. Many people didn't have Tandys, though, and MT-32 machines were (and are) even rarer, so it's not how most people would've experienced these games, so which standard do you go by?

    2. The impression I got that most reviewers have so far gone with whatever were the default (or easiest) settings, usually Adlib/SoundBlaster.

      Trickster complained about the music in King's Quest 3, not realising he missed the polyphony in the 3-voice Tandy version. It was deliberately composed in contrapuntal baroque style, and the intro piece is particularly heartwrenching with its rich harmonies. One could also argue that Sierra should've done a better internal speaker conversion.

    3. Tough call, this. I suspect, if I was reviewing one of the games, I would default to using my MT-32 because I would want to experience what they felt was the best presentation of their game. Certainly now, with the use of emulators and such, we should be able to have a reviewer at least touch upon the different qualities. Some games were well translated in all musical directions (Monkey Island, LSL3 are a couple that come to mind, where the SOundBlaster versions of the music are not bad at all, and don't leave you depressed for not owning an MT-32.)

      Laukku -
      > One could also argue that Sierra should've done a better internal speaker conversion.

      Except that, when it came to PCs, Sierra didn't know what brand of compatible someone was playing on, so they had to write the software to work on all hardware, which means lowest common denominator...

    4. Firstly, I'd note that all reviewers are not accustomed to tinker with the more advanced emulator settings, so they just hear what comes out of the "standard" setting of DosBOX.

      Secondly, some reviewers might also not have that strong opinions about the quality of music - that is, if the music just isn't awful and distracting, they might have difficulties to differentiate between, say, SoundBlaster and MT-32 versions of music.

    5. >> One could also argue that Sierra should've done a better internal speaker conversion.
      > Except that, when it came to PCs, Sierra didn't know what brand of
      > compatible someone was playing on, so they had to write the software
      > to work on all hardware, which means lowest common denominator...

      True in most cases, but to be specific, the PC speaker was a very standardised part that worked exactly the same on every IBM compatible. The speaker itself has a 1-bit input - low or high. The input is normally hooked up to one of the PC's programmable interrupt chips, and its frequency is controlled by a simple 16-bit port.

      This means if you were willing to do a bit of software mixing, you could totally output multiple notes together on a speaker. Of course, that was too expensive CPU-wise at the time, but another option would've been to make your speaker code mix, say, 4 channels by arpeggiating any combined notes. This would've been totally possible with minimal cpu power. And Sierra could've written the driver just once, since their games shared drivers. But I guess it didn't occur to them, or didn't seem worth the effort.

    6. > And Sierra could've written the driver just once, since their games shared drivers. But I guess it didn't occur to them, or didn't seem worth the effort.

      Honestly, I doubt it would have occurred to them. The minimal amount of sound in those games was, compared to some other publishers, plentiful. And their only real musician employee pre-SCI was Al Lowe.

    7. Another issue complicating the matter is that not all games sounded better on "more powerful" hardware. Dune was composed for the AdLib Gold and sounded merely decent on the MT-32. The OPL2 (AdLib/SoundBlaster) conversion, while still a downgrade, sounds more faithful to the original.

      AdLib Gold
      Roland MT-32

      I think reviewers can go with "common" hardware settings supported in vanilla DOSBox (SoundBlaster 16), and only if it's SO much inferior to other options as to become a legitimate problem should the companions point it out, and the reviewer can listen to YouTube samples for comparison or something. Few games have particularly horrible AdLib/SoundBlaster conversions, so this shouldn't be much of an issue.

    8. That brings up another interesting "feature" of the times, and one that's harder to emulate today. Lucasfilm Games (among a few others) had this habit of releasing CD versions of some games with the soundtrack pre-recorded as CD tracks. Loom, Monkey Island, among a few others got this treatment. In the case of those games, the soundtrack you heard from your CD-ROM, assuming all the cables were set up correctly, was somewhat equivalent to a clean MT-32 setup, with some tweaks made to perfect the recording. Not sure I cared for it, but I did have copies of those CDs at some point...

    9. CD tracks do require a little more DOSBox know-how, but only a little. You should be okay if you mount the .cue file of a bin/cue pair, or the physical CD-ROM (and setup the game correctly).

  7. Will Death Gate be among the first games to get a 10? Current record-holders (score of 9) are limited to 320x200 pixels and 256 colours, whereas Death Gate has a higher resolution of 640x480. It looks pretty damn gorgeous with its use of scanned artwork and it sports impressive animated sequences (mild spoilers) in a painterly style (although in a lower resolution). The soundtrack (while much better adventure game soundtracks do exist) is very skillfully made too, with plenty of memorable and appropriately emotional themes:

    The highest EGA score is Loom (8), and no CGA game has scored higher than 3 as far as I can see. I think that at or above the 640x480 & 256 colour specs we are hitting diminishing returns, at least in 2D, and further technical improvements become irrelevant compared to things like art direction and artistic skill. Will a 320x200-resolution game ever get a 10?

  8. Sorry if I'm starting to sound like a YU-NO fanboy/shill, but I cannot resist gushing about its soundtrack.


    The full OST is 5 hours, covering all kinds of emotions, overt and subtle, atmospheric and catchy, with a consistent virtuosity; inventively twisting harmony, tonality and melody. A tour-de-force of musical composition and FM synthesis.

    The main composer, Ryu Umemoto, was a legitimate genius, a math prodigy. He was extremely industrious and would often write hundreds of pages of musical notes and ideas for a single game project. The way he incorporated math and religious symbolism into his music even kinda resembles how J. S. Bach did it.

    Read more about him at these links:

    Umemoto is, in my opinion, one of the very best video game composers, rivaling the likes of Nobuo Uematsu. In fact, the way I discovered the game and the composer was by randomly stumbling onto one of the more abstract YU-NO compositions on YouTube; I was impressed enough to want to know more about the composer and what kind of a person could have possibly made it.