screenshot via Tomb Raider
If you pay any attention to video game news, you're about to hear a lot about Tomb Raider. That's because the new and improved version of the game, Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition, is going to be released for the next-gen PlayStation 4 and Xbox One next week. As a smart and engaging retooling of a gaming franchise that had been slouching into obsolescence for years, the relaunched Tomb Raider was widely praised as one of the best games to come out last year, and a press release for the Definitive Edition promises that Lara will be even more "obsessively detailed" this time around.
Anticipation for the new game is understandably high as a result, particularly amongst the crowd of people who've already bought the PS4 and Xbox One only to realize there aren't many good games to play on either device yet. There's just one problem, however. A producer for the game said last night during an interview with GamesRadar that the game will run at 60 frames per second on the PS4. This contradicted earlier statements that the game would run at 30 fps, and sparked concern and some sketchy-looking online reports about what the Xbox One's frame rate would be.
The frame rate of a video game, as Giant Bomb explains in a handy article, "is the rate at which a game can render individual and unique consecutive frames in order for the game to be seen on screen by the human eye." It can be anywhere from a single frame per second to 60 fps, which is the new gold standard for next-gen consoles. It effects the gameplay experience in some minute ways that are usually only apparent if you're really looking for them, or if something is going wrong — say, if a game's display suddenly becomes very choppy. Like screen resolution, it's the kind of figure that appeals mostly to gearheads.
So why do video game journalists write about frame rate issues so much? I don't know, but they do. A lot. Resolution, too. Last year, the influential site Eurogamer kicked up an issue about the resolution of the latest Call of Duty on the PS4 and Xbox One so extensively that it started to refer to the ensuing controversy as "resolutiongate."
Comparing slight differences in the resolution of a popular first person shooter to a political scandal so intense that it triggered the first and only resignation of a US president might sound a bit audacious. But when you consider the fact that at least one Call of Duty developer has been swamped with death threats after slightly retooling how three guns in the game work, you can start to understand why people consider stuff like this an issue. There's an audience for this somewhere on the internet, the same way that there are apparently hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of people who will scour every possible blog post about iPhone features.
If we want to understand video games as the cornerstone of pop culture that they are, we have to question whether or not these technical details are actually important.
I played both of the next-gen versions of Call of Duty, and didn't really notice a difference between the two. Sure, maybe if I squinted at my TV screen I could parse out the various inferiorities of the Xbox One version, but after poring over articles about "resolutiongate," the main question I was left with was: who gives a shit?
If we want to understand video games as the cornerstone of pop culture that they are, we have to question whether or not these technical details are actually important. Pitchfork saves its best critical faculties for discussing the artistry of music, not the technical details of sound systems and headphones. The New Yorker and New York Magazine only glosh over screen specifications and 3D technology in movies when things like that actually say something interesting about the authorship of a film. Good critics talk about the work itself first and foremost (although there was that critical flare up over The Hobbit's frame rate last year).
A good friend of mine who now serves as my de facto travel guide through the vibrant world of online gaming forums explained to me that people like him care about resolution because, to them, the fact that Call of Duty only runs at 720p on the Xbox One is indisputable, definitive evidence that the PlayStation 4 is a more powerful device. Gamers love a good rivalry. And they're spending a lot of money when they buy a new console, so I can understand why they'd care about this.
Journalists, however, face another question when they start to see stories like this appear. When you write about something as a controversy, you're telling your audience that they should be viewing it as a controversy.
I suppose an editor could defend their choice to run with these stories the same way people riding atop the iPhone rumor mill can: people are interested in these stories, and they deserve to read them. But the problem here is that it's not that simple. Publishing isn't a zero-sum game, but choosing to continually inquire about stories about frame rates and resolution takes time and energy away from other, more human questions.
When we ask ourselves whether the Xbox One or PS4 version of Call of Duty is better, we're choosing not to ask ourselves why we're even still playing a game like Call of Duty long after the series stopped trying to be culturally or politically relevant. When we focus on the amount of pixels that are being used to render Lara Croft, we overlook the implicit creepiness of the game industry's androcentric obsession with creating such an "obsessively detailed" version of someone like Lara Croft in the first place. And if we continue to nitpick over just how "obsessively detailed" this young woman's virtual body is, we forget that the real controversy of the new Tomb Raider came from its uncomfortable participation in rape culture. To borrow a quote from Evgeny Morozov, work like this refuses "to evaluate solutions to problems based on criteria other than efficiency."
I'm not saying that we should ignore stories about how gaming technology like, say, the Oculus Rift is pushing the medium in new and exciting directions. But does a slightly faster frame rate or denser resolution say much of anything about the role of video games in society today? It's time that game critics started separating out the signal from the noise.