In some ways, the tone of the game is the actual game. Let me explain what I mean:
The received wisdom on the internet is that gameplay is more important than graphics. But this really misses the point. The visuals are an integral part of the experience. If a game is fantastic running on low powered hardware, the graphics aren’t actually bad, they are simply constrained. Bad graphics are graphics that hamper the game by changing the feel of the game.
Why is the feel of a game so important? A game is nothing more than an interactive experience with an objective. Completing their objective gives the player a rewarding sense of satisfaction, hence games are fun. But this process is affected strongly by the emotional journey that the player is being taken on. Are these small victories significant towards a larger objective? What makes the protagonist care about this objective? What is being promised if you succeed? If you fail? This is why a game should begin and end as the creation of a complete experience. Limitations such as graphics will affect the tone of the game, but with proper planning this doesn’t have to be a negative effect. More advanced graphics broaden the canvas of experiences available to a game designer and therefore provide richer game experiences.
Here are some videos that I’ve found thought provoking. They are resources aimed at writers, broadcasters and film makers, but I don’t think the lessons are difficult to translate to game design: