I’ve been playing a lot of Uplink recently. It’s a very confusing, brilliant, terrifying game. For those of you not in the know, Uplink is a game were you play a rookie hacker on your way to the big money. You start out taking jobs to steal files from mostly unprotected servers, and work yourself up to hacking bank accounts and taking over government databases. The most brilliant thing about it, though, is that it creates all the staples of a great game; tension, excitement, strategy and a compelling narrative without ever giving you more than a few task bars, a world map and some text. It’s a triumph of mechanics over aesthetics, and it’s the antithesis to games like Crysis and Call of Duty.
It’s not a new argument. The whole ‘gameplay over graphics’ debate has been discussed, and mostly proved, over the past few years quite often. But it wasn’t until I was playing a game that really had nothing graphically to recommend it, that I really understood how true it is. Uplink is a game that could easily be released today, and be just as good, and just as critically laudable. It’s graphics can’t age because it has none. Even something as styalised as Psychonauts, and something as brilliant as it, has started to show its wrinkles. The game remains just as fun to play, but you can’t help but think how much more pleasing it would be to enjoy if it had a bit more graphical umph.
Uplink denies all that. It presents you with a stripped down display, and a few tools that never get more graphically elaborate than a progress bar. The fact that it’s probably the most nerve-wracking game I’ve played in ages is really quite alien. Just by having that slowly increasing ‘beep’ of someone trying to track me down and throw me in jail is enough to make you rapidly tap your fingers in frustration at how slow your password breaker is going. Even once that’s all over, you have to methodically delete all traces of where you’ve been so you don’t get tracked down after you’ve made off with the important files. It really is a terrifying game.
I can’t think how you could really improve it graphically. Sure, you could up the resolution on the world map, and maybe add a few more effects on the windows, but really, there’s not much more you need from it. It’s the apex of it’s graphical need. Some things could be improved upon concerning the game itself, but such qualms are minor at best. What remains is a game that is, essentially, timeless. At least insofar as the world will have computers, an internet, and people who take advantage of such systems.
It makes me wonder about the desperation to achieve photorealism. Is it really that integral to what we need from games? Surely if more developers were making games like Uplink, that are interesting despite having no redeeming graphical features, we’d have a far more diverse and wholly original range of games to play today? I’m by no means saying we should get rid of games with realistic and advanced graphics. I’m merely stating that we shouldn’t see a PC, say it should be able to manage X, and then try and achieve X. Just because our systems can reach a certain level of graphical power doesn’t mean that all our games need to push that far. What would happen if we decided to lower down the graphical settings and raise the powers of the AI, or the physics? Wouldn’t these aspects create a more enjoyable game?