Virginia vs. Firewatch – A Tale of Two Frame Rates

With 2016 over, it’s time to discuss the year’s best games. Alongside a top 10, I’ll be posting a few “Versus” articles pitting two games against each other. Really though, it’s just a silly way for me to talk about some of the titles I may not get to in my final top 10 list. Enjoy!

Firewatch and Virginia are two excellent pieces of interactive fiction that I found impossible to fully enjoy thanks to rough performance on PS4. If you own a decent gaming PC or you aren’t sensitive to frame rate issues, you may take this as some pointless whining — but for me it’s a big deal. This lack of polish on tightly scripted, film-length experiences is inexcusable, distracting, and if I were writing for Giant Bomb, it would probably show up as my “Please Stop” nominee for 2016.

As a general rule, I think games need to pick a frame rate and stick to it. They should also strive to match or exceed the resolution of the device they’re being displayed on, with as few visual distractions (like screen-tearing) as possible. This isn’t because I’m some kind of graphics snob, and I don’t think it’s a lot to ask when many games of all sizes can meet these requirements. The reason is that for the keen eye, all these hitches and glitches are distracting.

When testing out the new PS4 Pro I came across an interesting phenomenon. The Last of Us — an amazing-looking game that can now be played at a locked 30fps while displayed at native 4K — didn’t “blow me away”. The picture before me was crisp, clear, nearly perfect — but I wasn’t bowled over. Of course it helps that I’d already played the game before on a normal PS4, so the initial wow-factor had already faded. But that’s not the point. The point is that I didn’t notice anything crazy, and I wasn’t distracted.

It’s human nature to look for the flaws in things. In fact, a lot of the craft in video games goes largely unnoticed when it’s really, really good. Millions of tiny touches that took months to perfect are likely to fly under the radar because their quality allows us to focus on other things.

With Firewatch and Virginia, the opposite happened. The games would suddenly drop down to single digit frame rates or run worse when I moved the camera too fast. I found myself playing conservatively, incapable of ignoring the many times these games would sharply pause in the middle of what should be fluid sequences.

You wouldn’t release a movie with these kinds of weird technical issues. I think most directors would probably fall on their own swords if they came across such things in their final cut. So I have to ask why this is okay in a game you typically play for a few hours. When they are as story-heavy as Firewatch and Virginia, every hitch takes a toll on the impact of the next story beat.

For me, these games shouldn’t be held to a set of standards because I need to be “blown away”. I don’t need my console purchase justified with next-gen visual perfection. The reason I care about resolution and frame rate so much is the same reason every storyteller should — because perfecting them allows the story and gameplay to shine in their best light.

Update: I’d like to note that while these games launched on PS4 in an inexcusable state, Firewatch developer Campo Santo was diligent about fixing the issues. They even added PS4 PRO support to the game. That said, it’s important to remember that these are not the kinds of games that players will necessarily replay or stop and hope for a patch. The first impression is the most important, which is why I must stress that developers polish these kinds of games well before they’re available to buy and experience.

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