Friday 29 April 2011


The term "bullshot" is sometimes used discussing videogames (apparently originating from a Penny Arcade strip); it refers to images released from an upcoming game that do not accurately represent the graphics of the game. And people say this like it's a bad thing, like they're somehow being cheated by seeing something that looks good. I want to debunk this as a meaningless complaint. Yes, it's not giving an accurate representation of what the game LOOKS LIKE, but how is that even relevant? We don't play games for what they look like; if that was all we wanted we would look at pictures or movies. We play games for the experience of playing them, for what goes on inside our heads as we play them, and a "bullshot" can be a more accurate representation of that than a direct screenshot.

Take ADOM for example.

If you've never played a roguelike game, this looks like a chaotic mess. But I see a quaint little village with a shop selling packaged meals, a few trees scattered around, and a small lake. Through playing the game, I've learnt what the symbols mean, new structures have been built inside my brain to interpret them. I still see the ascii characters, but they now mean something to me. ADOM has an intricate, detailed world, and just showing someone a screenshot doesn't communicate that, it wouldn't be a good way to sell the game to someone. If you had to come up with an image that expresses what the game is like, you wouldn't use a screenshot. You'd use a bullshot. And for many players, that might help them to grasp the game - there's a steep learning curve as you master the interface and learn what the symbols mean, and having this image of the world already in your head might help you get through this until you understand the game enough to form your own image.

This is the same with any game. When you first play an FPS, you see detailed pictures of monsters, wall textures, vegetation.. but after you've been playing for a couple of hours, you've internalised the meaning of what's going on screen. You don't see a high-polygon model of a red spiky demon thing, you see "IMP, shoots fireballs, choice: get out of the way or shoot it quick". Your brain has reduced the enemy to a symbol; you're no longer paying attention to what it looks like, because you know what it means.

So if the graphics of a game don't matter anymore once you're playing it, their purpose is purely for the first impression. This first impression is something the videogame industry pumps millions of dollars into crafting, and it's clearly something that sells games, but after the initial hit it doesn't do anything for the player (in fact, so-called "good graphics" often impair play by cluttering the display and making the symbolic meaning of game objects on-screen harder to discern). A bullshot just moves this first impression outside of the game; it gives a more vivid image of what the game objects represent than the in-game graphics can convey, and thus eases the process of building mental symbols for them.


  1. I agree with what you're saying initially (yay adom) but I don't think that means that graphics are only useful for the first impression.

    It really depends on the kind of game you're playing I suppose. Specifically, how much it leans on the side of game and how much it leans on the side of "interactive movie", but less specifically how important "ambience" (or feel, or something) is to the game.

    Morrowind was (for the time) super pretty, and that was super important, because the land being beautiful and strange and wonderous was delivered to you via the graphical quality. No matter how much we want it to, adom and games like it will never achieve that same feel.

    (Note here that I'm talking about art quality, not polygons per frame, which is another story entirely.)

  2. Yeah, that's a good point! With a game like that, there are "first impressions" throughout, as you visit new areas and find new stuff. I should put a disclaimer somewhere, "I write things that pop into my head while I'm buying groceries, not necessarily things that I think are correct."

    And yeah, polygon count IRRELEVANT, check out Proteus - it's a beautiful ambient exploration thing with lots of sense of wonder and very few pixels.