Realism in games – a step in the wrong direction?

Hello my pretties! First things first, you may have noticed from the title that this post is not going to be on the PS4. I toyed with the idea for a while, but decided that many amazing people have written very informative posts on that already, for instance LadyCroft3. You can check out her post here for an excellent rundown on the big PS4 reveal that happened last week and what it might mean for the future of console gaming. Instead, this week I’m writing on an issue that’s close to my heart – realism in games and the general trend in the games industry of making games that are more and more realistic. When it came out, everyone was gushing about Half Life 2‘s physics engine and the ability it gives you to manipulate objects or affect the environment in ways  that closely mimic real life. With every new innovation in technology, we are brought closer and closer to games that not only look like real life, but actually behaves like it and contains people that seem as solid as you or I. If you aren’t convinced, just take a look at Quantic Dream’s impressive tech demo: 

It’s incredible isn’t it? People love this kind of thing and it’s no wonder that developers are scrambling over themselves to provide it for them.

You might think that being a huge fan of immersive RPGs like the Mass Effect series, I would love realism in my games. I’m not denying that it has its place or that I am eagerly awaiting the day where virtual reality becomes more than a game and becomes almost like a second life. However, I believe that there’s more to games than that, that we can take the medium further and that this obsession with realistic graphics, physics engines and AI and so on will have a negative impact on the industry we love so much.

My main issue with the trend towards ever greater realism is that I think it hampers progress. There is, at the moment, a huge focus and expense paid for tech that will make the game look amazing, but often at the cost of the narrative and characters – LA Noire and Uncharted are only two examples of this for me. This focus also hinders creativity and the development of other ways of telling stories or enhancing gameplay. Instead game studios are restricted by the narrow limits of gravity, realistic facial expressions, lifelike movements and getting rid of that dreaded deadness behind the eyes that 3D models often have. Major developers don’t experiment much with what has worked for them so many times. It’s understandable, considering the sway that hyper-realistic games like Call of Duty have had on the gaming community. They seem to leave the real innovation to indie developers like Blendo Games of Thirty Flights of Loving, which I reviewed here. What that game achieved, which so many modern games shy away from, is that it found a new way to tell a story. No words were required, there was no real linearity of time and it took your conception of what a game is and turned it inside out. Whether you like games like that or not, the fact that games like that are made, I believe is a good thing for video games and for storytelling generally, whether it’s movies or books or games. Reality hampers the imagination and limits the tools at your disposal in creating a work of art.

What developers fail to realise is that realism and immersion, although they often go hand-in-hand, do not necessarily lead on from each other. I love the unique cartoony animation style of Borderlands 2 and the game wouldn’t have been what it was without it. It’s also not realistic in any sense of the word, but it’s no less immersive as a game. Pandora was just a different kind of world to ours. I think that the trick is to build a world so full and rich that you’re transported there immediately and can’t help but be immersed in it. You don’t need realism to leave the real world behind you. How many hours did you spend on Mario and Sonic when you were younger and did you really think about the outside world during that time or were you not fully involved in that universe and its characters? True, you were probably younger and had a boundless imagination, but I don’t think that’s all there is to it. I obviously don’t need to remind you how unpolished those games look compared to the AAA titles of this day and age. The things we could achieve with the technology we have now! I’d like to believe that given the option, many people, even if its not the majority, would choose a game with an incredible story and gameplay over a game that has nothing going for it except shiny, pretty graphics. I feel that in modern day society we have been conditioned to believe that art is only beautiful if it closely resembles life and to me that’s a tragedy, especially considering what we have at our fingertips. You can see this happening everywhere from Hollywood movies to the proliferation of reality TV shows and even in pop music. In my parents’ day, songs told stories, whether personal or fictional.  Now, not all, but much of pop music focuses on slice-of-life situations or specific inane aspects of people’s lives. Creators want you to relate to their game, TV show, song or movie and yet what they don’t realise is that all of the effort put into mirroring our regular lives isn’t necessary. In the days before all of this technology, before TVs and radios, people used to tell stories by word of mouth with nothing to aid them in their storytelling other than their talent and their own imagination. Many of these stories still live on today.

Lastly,  a slightly more minor, but still important issue is centred around the uncanny valley effect, which states that as a robot or animated model’s similarity to humans increases, empathy also increases until there comes a point when the likeness is pretty close, but not 100% where we feel instead feel revulsion. As has been pointed out before, there are many creepy examples of this  and you can probably think of a few yourself. My point is that sometimes when attempts to create extremely realistic characters and environments are almost achieved, but inevitably fall short (as we simply don’t have the tech at the moment to create animation that is indistinguishable from the real thing) what happens is actually the opposite of the desired effect. Rather than feel completely immersed, because the setting feels so familiar and the people look so much like us, we end up, sometimes unconsciously, noting the things that make that world false. LA Noire, for instance, uses advanced tech to very closely imitate the facial expressions of the actors to the point where you can tell if they’re lying (indeed, that’s the point of the game). The result is impressive. However, there is no chance that I would look at a screenshot from the game and think it was a real picture. It’s not an easy thing to pin down, as I think humans, to an extent, automatically identify those of the same species as us in ways that are subconscious, but there’s something about the deadness of the eyes, the slight stiffness of the movements and the lack of subtle nuances of the face that humans are capable of. Not to mention that the environment just looks kind of flat by comparison. Rather than feeling like I was really a cop in LA in 1947, I was even more aware of all the slight differences between the world of LA Noire and real life. The more they tried to convince me that this was real, the more I noticed that the people just weren’t moving right and that Cole Phelps, star cop, wielded a gun like it was a live fish he was wrestling. Countless other games are guilty of this. How many games have you played with amazing graphics where you couldn’t jump? It’s little things like that that actually take away from the realism of games for me, that actually makes games less immersive. I’m not saying that developers should just give up, but that they should perhaps try a little less hard to make everything perfect and focus more on creating a fully-realised world that works within its own boundaries.

In the end, I guess what I really want is more variety, more imagination, games that blow my mind and overwhelm more senses than just my eyes. I want developers to take realism less seriously and to expand their imaginative horizons and use the amazing tools at their disposal for more than just making faces twitch in just the right way. I want a revolution of what games actually are, of what they can do!

That’s just me anyway, what do you guys think?

10 responses to “Realism in games – a step in the wrong direction?

  1. Interesting post! I think of TV and how we have cartoons known for unique art styles — South Park, The Clone Wars, and The Simpsons all have very different styles, for instance — and I sort of wish video games would do that more too. Your Borderlands example is perfect, because that’s such an immersive game that relies on imaginative art, setting, combat, and characters to make it engaging rather than realistic graphics.

    To The Moon is the best example I can think of when considering games that have very unrealistic visuals but still grab you. Even though the graphics are really retro, the story is so good it made me tear up at the end!

    Still, I wouldn’t mind seeing more realistic graphics in some games… just not at the expense of other important things like story development, as you said. And game mechanics! That’s where a lot of people seem fussed, because developers are focusing more on improving graphics than innovating the way we play games. I wonder if we will get to a point where we’ve gone as far as we can with graphics… so we’ll feel freer to move in any creative direction, making visuals suit a game’s mood whether that means realistic graphics or something more cartoon-ish, retro, or just brand new… Also, I suppose indie game devs with smaller budgets still get creative with art style!

    • Exactly! Your examples of animated TV shows are exactly the kind of thing I was thinking about. They’ve all got huge followings and yet none of them have particularly realistic animation styles. In fact, I think their unique styles add to their own distinct flavour. I definitely think it would be nice to see more of that kind of imagination in games, like for instance, in BL2.
      I haven’t played To the Moon, but I read about it on your blog and it seems really interesting and exactly the sort of game I’m always on the lookout for! Like you, I definitely appreciate the advances in tech that give us increasingly beautiful and realistic graphics, but I also love seeing exploration of new ideas and innovations in game mechanics. There are, in my opinion, too few games that challenge how we think about games, although I would agree with you that there are plenty of indie devs who aren’t afraid to experiment and often come up with amazing things!

  2. You raise a number of great points CheeseToastie, however I disagree with your beliefs on how the realism of games is limiting the imagination of the developers. I agree that games nowadays are employing gorgeous visuals and are frequently attempting to outdo rival developers, yet I do not believe it is at the expense of the storyline or the game itself.

    I will admit that I am one of those gamers who will often jump at the opportunity to play a game with very pretty graphics, but at the end of the day, much like yourself, the storyline and immersing capabilities of the title additionally are vital in my enjoyment. However, I still believe that graphically gorgeous games will often provide to the gamer what it is they are looking for.

    Recent titles the likes of Crysis 3, Dead Space 3 and Halo 4 looked unfathomably impressive, and yet the developers still managed to have powerful storylines that effortlessly captured the attention of their audiences. In fact, the story and immersive qualities of Halo 4 were so well conceived, that by the game’s end I turned into a huge sookie la la and cried my eyes out.

    I do not believe that realism is something that gamers should turn their noses down at. Back in the day, games were simply massive shoot-em-ups. Today however, it is mandatory that games have rich, detailed storylines and impressive characters because the audience for games are after something more. Suspension of disbelief is still a requirement, but I think gamers today are intelligent enough to not only know the difference between virtuality and reality, but also have the want to experience worlds that seamlessly transfer from ours to the next.

    Playing a game with ancient graphics does not have the same affect as playing a visually stunning game. Perhaps you are right CheeseToastie, and I ignorantly believe that beautiful visuals are not dominating the gaming arena when in fact they truly are. However, I would like to think that beautiful graphics efficaciously benefit a game’s experience. We are drawn into the world so much easier by the sheer power of graphics. We after all live in a real world. Real world graphics simply help us believe the games we are playing; the fictional characters we interact with; and the vile antagonists we fight against are all the more real.

    Seeing is believing after all.

    • Thanks for the comments. Hmm, I’m not actually sure we do disagree that much. I didn’t mean to suggest that all games with amazing graphics will inevitably sacrifice storyline or other aspects of the game or even that this happens with most games. As I mentioned in my post, I think most people do play games for more than just the graphics, but I accept of course that they are still a major part of the game experience. I would never want to suggest otherwise! I love amazing graphics and visuals as much as anyone. Most of my favourite modern games like Half Life 2 or Mass Effect are undeniably easy on the eyes and that’s definitely a large part of why I love them.
      However, I would make a distinction between beautiful graphics and realistic graphics. I would agree with you that most gamers, although not exclusively (as the popularity of Minecraft or retro-style games prove) enjoy playing games with the best graphics that technology can produce. Games like Borderlands 2 and LittleBigPlanet show that a visually appealing or technologically advanced game does not necessarily equate with realistic graphics. Games like this have huge followings, showing that people are drawn to games for their unique art styles, of course, in conjunction with story, characters and so on. I completely agree with you on the power of graphics and their ability to draw you into their world and immerse you. I just don’t think that games NEED to be realistic to do this. Take anime for example. There are tons of anime fans out there who invest in the worlds and characters created as much as any live-action TV show. In fact, many take it to a level of obsession! I’m a bit of an otaku myself :).
      My point is basically that I want more variety in video games. As an art form, it’s very young and hasn’t had the decades of experimentation that TV shows and movies have had or centuries that other art forms have had. I don’t suggest that anyone turn their noses up at realism! In fact, I think people should embrace realistic graphics as they have a very important role. Like many gamers, I want developers to create increasingly stunning and realistic graphics until it feels like real life. That’s definitely one form of immersion. However, there are many examples that suggest it’s not only the only way, like BL2 proves. There are also games like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time that I can still play today and feel completely immersed in, despite the crappy graphics, realistic or otherwise. All I’m saying is that I want to see more. I don’t want to developers hampered by the idea that they have to create realistic-looking games simply because they think we want it. I want more innovation and art styles like BL2 or like you get in anime alongside games like Crysis 3 and I think there are a significant number of gamers want that too.
      Basically, I think we agree on the importance of beautiful graphics and in our desire for more realistic games. However, I would disagree with you that real world graphics help us believe in the games that we are playing, but that may just be personal preference. Maybe I would be immersed in games that you wouldn’t and vice versa. Each to their own! :)

  3. I’ve yet to see a game that includes properly believable expressiveness, and that includes Half-Life 2. The game did a lot right in terms of animating the characters’ eye movements, but the elastic eyebrows throw me off. Still, it’s sad that HL2 is maybe the game that’s come the closest to truly emotional character expression despite being released almost a decade ago.

    David Cage and Quantic Dream think that with a high enough polygon count, video games can accurately represent human emotion. Well, if that creepy-ass old man they showed at the PS4 event was “the future of emotional gaming,” then I’ll be a monkey’s uncle. Mass Effect is also living proof of this: Shepard has the kind of face that looks great in a still photograph because it is a very accurate representation of the human face at rest, achieved through an excessive number of polygons. But once the artists try to stretch Shepard’s expressionless face into any kind of human emotion, the results are disastrous (see Shepard’s creepy smile in ME2 or his comically sad face from ME3). Will MOAR POLYGONS fix this? Probably not.

    OH, and buy the way, David Cage, it’s not your polygon count that’s keeping your games from being emotionally driven cinematic masterpieces. If a game ever makes me feel any kind of emotion, it’s either due to the gameplay itself or the razor-sharp writing; I’ve never been moved by the expression on a digital actor’s face.

    • I know exactly what you mean! There are games that have got it almost right, like HL2 or LA Noire, but it’s just never quite there. Haha thank god someone else feel that way about that man-thing they showed at the PS4 reveal. It was freakin’ terrifying! Sure it moved somewhat like a real face, but the subtler movements and emotions just weren’t there. I’m totally with you on the whole more polygons doesn’t mean a more accurate representation of human emotion. Much as I love Shepard and ME, those awkward grimaces plastered on his/her face were just… not good. Not good at all. The stuff of nightmares kind of not good.
      Maybe that’ll change in time, but like you I don’t think a realistic expression on some character’s face has ever drawn me in like the writing of ME or the game mechanics of Portal drew me in.

  4. Great article! I do love games that make the attempt to have characters look as real as possible, but as you pointed out, if the story and other aspects of the game suffer because of it then it’s not worth it. I can think of Dragon Age 2 having this problem. The graphics are a huge improvement from the first game, but the story was less than great. Dragon Age: Origins had the better story, but the graphics weren’t quite as good as its sequel.

    I also wouldn’t want every game I play to have all characters looking close to real human beings either. I enjoy the cartoony aspect in game characters like Mario or Borderlands. It adds variety in my opinion and it avoids having games look like everything else.

    • Thanks! Absolutely, graphics are important, but shouldn’t be the only thing that a game has going for it. There are some games I’ve played that do feel like nothing but eye candy and maybe that’s enough for some people, but for me, I generally want something more out of my games.
      I think with any form of entertainment, whether it’s video games or movies or anything else, variety is a good thing and prevents the medium from getting stale with the same thing all the time. I would definitely like to see more games like Mario or Borderlands as well!

  5. Pingback: Borderlands 2: The single-player experience | CheeeseToastieandVideoGames

  6. Great article,I completely agree with you.At the end of a playthrough,all that remains in a game is the gameplay,for me.Games can only benefit from technologies if it serves as a vehicle to enhance the fundamental ideas of games.After all,games are all about ideas.I also think art direction is more important than technicalities.Just look at Medal of Honor Warfighter & Bioshock.The former has only technological improvements going for it while the latter uses the pretty visuals to just amplify the immersion of the world full of innovative narrative & gameplay ideas.Also sometimes level design is ignored in pursuit of realism & that’s really disappointing.All in all,fantastic article.

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