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Should Games Trend Toward Realism or Avoid It?

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Marcus Estrada


blog-0356078001360801618.jpgFirst, a disclaimer: I believe video games are art. Rather, I think that video games have the ability to be considered art. This is necessary to be aware of as this theme is my jumping off point for the discussion of how visuals should be handled in games.


Video games are a medium that are still incredibly young in the artistic world. With drawing and painting starting in caves, and cameras capable of saving moving images came about in the 1800s, there are long histories of how those mediums progressed. In the case of video games, we only really have the 20th and 21st century to go on. Thanks to technology, we have been able to see massive jumps in what is possible visually in some fifty years.


If you chart the history of video game visuals, you will find many times when it lines up with other forms of art. The earliest video games had only a few objects on screen and only slightly depicted whatever they were meant to be. Early games like Atari“s Adventure used a sprite that looked more duckish than monster, but gamers understood the connotation all the same. These early, very low pixel games were “cave paintingsé. At this point, the entire industry, as well as its fans, were pushing purely for realism. That“s why ads pitting companies against each other would show two pixelated screenshots and say how much more realistic their orientation of pixels were.




1982 Intellivision versus Atari ad


With the era of SNES, Genesis, and Turbografx-16, we saw a shift forming. There were way more pixels available for artists. The concern was no longer how to make the most human-looking figure in four/eight pixels, but how to create something aesthetically interesting. The games may not have been realistic, but they did look pretty close to cartoons in the eyes of a child. Even now, many of these 16-bit era works look fantastic. There is not really an artistic comparison for this era if only because once artists were really able to go at it, they were gunning for realism.


Similarly, as game consoles and computers became more powerful, many developers pushed for excruciating realism. Of course, “realismé meant something different in the 90s. Full motion video (FMV) games had a brief flourish which could easily be considered the most realistic video games ever. Sure, no one will ever suggest that Night Trap is “realisticé, but it did have one thing going for it - real actors. How more real can you get than actual human flesh recorded on screen? Both the artistic movements of Realism and Romanticism pushed artists to the best of their abilities, although in different ways.


In the current gaming landscape, we see that many developers are still doggedly pursuing graphics so real that they are indistinguishable from reality. Although it doesn“t seem we have gotten there yet, we are much closer than ever before. Does this mean that we should focus all our efforts on making more and more realistic games? Should we instead impose that games work further on making their own identity for themselves? These are the questions that were raised with Impressionism, Cubism, and even Dadaism. As the art community grew staunchly opposed to anything other than real, many artists broke out to smash the preconceived notions of what art could be.




Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2


For all intents and purposes, gaming never really had a moment that games deviated from realism because they have yet to attain it fully. Still, it“s easy to read gamer opinions and see that many are hungry for the most graphically intensive, “realé experiences out there. The audience is huge as is evidenced by many triple A titles. The highlight of posting screenshots is often to say “look at how much better this looks than games X and Y!é. Of course, anyone who has been playing games for a while is probably aware that realism is not the only way to handle games.


There have always been games which do not strive for that unattainable look of reality, and this will continue to be the case. Many truly loved games such as The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Okami, Psychonauts, and so many more have rejected reality in favor of artistry. These kinds of games do something that no other medium is capable of. They create some sort of fantasy world with its own look and invite players into it. Unlike a painting which you can only view and comprehend, a game allows you to actually manipulate the world. Instead of an animated film that takes you on a roller coaster ride, you are able to set your own path.


In a way, the same is true of more realistic games as well. As they are not 100% authentic to reality, they are still an experience different than movies. If there is a point when game and movie visuals are imperceptible from each other, games will still have an edge for those who want to truly experience the world. Still, these types of games do not force developers to strain for an artistic identity. Instead, they tend to draw from what exists in the world. This does not make their art any less relevant, but an experience which is not fully new.




Screenshot of Naughty Dog's The Last of Us


Has an end to artistic debate ever come to decide which is the better artstyle? No, but there are still people in both camps. Many artists today refine their photo-realistic art so that it really is impossible to tell if it is painted or photograph. Then there are many others who balk at such studious art and create pieces which confront preconceived notions as to what art even is. That“s why it seems that the gaming community will never be able to agree as to what they wish to see. Developers will seek to feed one audience or the other over time but never settle on only one way.


There“s nothing wrong with this being the case because both styles are viable mechanisms for enhancing play. When a game is realistic, it may help engross some into the experience further. As a child, I viewed Star Fox on SNES and felt that the graphics were as good as in a Hollywood movie. This was a participative experience, one where I did not have any expectations of the title and simply enjoyed my role as a spectator. However, as we age the ability to induce a participative experience is hindered (due to having more experiences and challenges) which means some may only view more realistic games as the way forward.


As was said earlier, it seems to me that not chasing realism is the more interesting path. By allowing artists to create truly beautiful, disturbing, and strange worlds untethered by reality we are able to get more interesting games. That“s not to say realistic games can not be these things either, which is why this is also not a put-down of those titles. It just seems that the possibilities of creating new and wondrous experiences have a higher chance of flourishing when not seeking to attain the most realistic graphics. As so many games exist, there is room for realistic, semi-realistic, not at all realistic, and symbolic games. There will never be a point that everyone pursues only one method as there are too many developers in the world. Thankfully, there is no need to.


Games are stories and experiences brought to us from a great variety of people. If they feel that they can best convey emotions through realistic depictions, then they should go for it. Those who prefer to do otherwise can as well, and often with as strong an impact. As with more formally established arts, games should feel free to pursue any graphical medium they choose whenever it fits. By seeking to limit ourselves to one way or the other, we would only serve to deprive the audience of many fantastic experiences.

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I like it when the article doesn't really give you a straight answer from the writer. It's nice to have different perspective on things from both sides and not a straight answer at the end. That way you can make up your own mind on the subject.


I also liked your metaphor at the beginning.. Out of all the developers I think Quandic Dream focuses more on realism then anybody else. Specially on the graphics and emotions side.


I was expecting the nod at Naughty Dog though. They also strive for realistic block buster feels.

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