It's an argument that arises every time a new game is shown, and with it being E3 week, it's an argument we're seeing a lot. "Graphics aren't what's important," people will say, pointing to games of yesteryear. "Gameplay is the only thing that matters in games."
It's a stance that makes sense. The gameplay is what makes a game fun, and if a game wasn't fun then you wouldn't play it. But dismissing graphics entirely and championing only gameplay as important completely undervalues the importance of visuals.
When you're playing a game, 100% of what you're looking at is graphics. From beginning to end, whether it's a two hour indie title or an eighty hour RPG, you're spending the entire time looking at the game. If the graphics are bad, then you are spending that entire time looking at something that is bad. There's a reason we swapped out VHS for DVD in movies - it's far more enjoyable to look at something nice than something ugly. Same applies to games.
Now, that could just mean rough edges or blocky models, which most will be fine with ignoring. But it could also mean confusion over what's in an environment, or a headache of squinting to work out what's happening on the screen.
There's a game on PC titled 4PM. It's a short narrative title, in the same ilk as something like Gone Home but with a few more gameplay mechanics, and graphically it looks atrocious. The whole game is blurred slightly, making the low-res textures appear even more low-res and the bright lights even more bright to the point that it becomes quite an eyestrain to play through the game. There is a point to the style, but the game becomes almost impossible to play simply due to its bad graphical design.
Or for another example, you need look no further than last generation. A lot of designers seemed to forget colour pallets outside of brown and grey, meaning almost all of the PS3/360 shooters were muddy and ugly to look at, making each game blend into blandness with no individuality between them. There were games that were probably great that I just couldn't get into because the graphics were uninspired, relying too much on certain colours and using various filters to hide some of the shortcomings. Games like Clive Barkers Jericho, Medal of Honor or Blacklight all have very bland visuals that completely put me off even looking at the games, let alone playing them. If something isn't visually appealing, why would I look at it for eight hours?
Graphics matter. It's simple. How you look at a game, how the game presents itself to you, and your reaction what you're seeing are all part of the visuals. I've given bad examples, so how about some good? The way the smooth water in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker makes small waves around your boat as your sail through Hyrule is such a visually pleasing thing to see, and it really helps you on the long journeys from island to island. The underwater city of Rapture in Bioshock would be nowhere near as interesting without the bright and colourful yet off-beat and strange presentation of the city. Would the world of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt be just as fun to explore if it wasn't gorgeously rendered with every nook and cranny begging to be seen?
Even games that don't have amazing visuals, like one of my personal favourites Mount & Blade: Warband, can still be great with a great design. But, with that being said, even Mount & Blade: Warband suffers for its appearance. Sometimes it's hard to see at a distance what type of enemies you're facing, towns are all painted with the same muddy textures, characters are hard to take seriously as their bears look like pieces of fruit smashed onto their face - Even one of my favourite games makes it challenging to play sometimes due to the graphics.
Are graphics the most important thing in a game? No, definitely not. As I said, there are some great games with bad visuals. But to say graphics don't matter at all is plain wrong. Your first impression is shaped by the graphics. It's the graphics that wow you and draw you in to learning the gameplay. It's the graphics you have to look at throughout the whole experience. For people to continually say they don't matter is doing a huge discredit to game development and the advances we've made over the years. I will always champion graphics as an important part of game design, and I urge you to reconsider next time you go to claim they don't matter.