With next month heralding the release of Crysis 2, a game that will quickly bend my computer over and reduce it to tears, and the fact that I'm kind of stuck for ideas, I guess I may as well talk about graphics in videogames.
Graphics are one of the most common complaints I hear about games. Things like "It looks terrible," "It's too cartoony, it can't be for adults," and "Are you sure it wasn't made for the PS2?" and other such criticisms get thrown around quite a lot when a game has anything other than stellar graphics. People seem, sometimes, more concerned with the aesthetic aspects of a game than the game itself. For example, a friend of mine once claimed he finds it impossible to play a game more than four years old, regardless of whether the game is any good or not. When I brought up the fact that by following this philosophy he was cutting off his access to a number of 'classic' games, he simply snorted in derision and muttered something about the graphics being shit. The media are at it as well - games such as Darksiders, Prototype and Dragon Age were mocked for having relatively poor graphics in some reviews, and games are often chastised for something that, in all honesty, has very little impact on how fun it is overall for most people.
It's not just the consumer and the reviewers who are to blame for the newfound focus on visual quality, though. Developers themselves are adding more fuel to the fire, some more than others. While a number of developers are obviously not too worried about sacrificing aesthetically pleasing aspects for the sake of gameplay (Bioware, and Harmonix for instance), many seem to follow the Bible of Graphics. Square Enix is probably the most infamous, in that Final Fantasy 13 has been commonly derided as little more than a movie that has you pressing buttons occasionally (a criticism which is not entirely unfounded). Indie developers seem to work on a fairly level playing field - for every platformer with different graphics, there is almost always a deep, original game.
It's impossible to deny the fact that graphics can enhance gameplay, though. They can have an effect on the ways in which people feel while playing the game - for example, the grey and brown wastelands of both the Fallout series and Stalker series can improve the potential for immersion in the deliberate bleakness of the settings. Valve use graphics in an interesting way, as well, especially lighting. An old interview (which I can no longer find, but can remember fairly well) with an employee of Valve discussed how lighting could be used to show the player where their goal lay without being overt. The same interview, and a few others, touched on the fact that people tend to associate certain things with visual stimulus, so graphics can help in tapping into the player's psychology to maximise the game's playability, and, thus, the enjoyment of the player.
In the end, though, the importance of graphics comes down to a personal level. Each individual experiences things in their own way, and each individual measures enjoyment using their own system. One person could put extra importance on graphics, another the emotional response (comedy, humour, etc.) another playability, and so on. To use an analogy, my aforementioned friend obviously placed great importance on the visual aspects of games, while I have another friend, an experience musician, fittingly enough, who finds a good soundtrack can improve his enjoyment of a game. Personally, I prefer a good storyline, character development, and opportunities for roleplaying over graphics and sound, and, in some cases, even playability (pretty much any Infinity Engine game). Graphics aren't the thing that makes games fun for me, but that's obviously an opinion others would disagree with.
So, what about you? How important are graphics to you? What is actually important to you in a game?