Modern gaming has come an incredible way in a short amount of time. Growing from a relatively niche hobby to a full blown inter-generational obsession, video games have become art, entertainment, and creativity, all rolled into one. It’s a multi-faceted, dynamic industry with as many different perspectives as there are players, but there seems to be one particular thing that has continued in gaming throughout its history: an obsession with the next level of graphical fidelity, to have characters and environments that are utterly convincing, to turn the screen into something closer to a window.
And it’s holding back the industry.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some games where convincing graphics are a major part of the experience. Atmospheric titles absolutely need photorealistic graphics to create immersion, though I would argue that is a cheap means to an end when games like The Long Dark manage to make do with a relatively minimalist art style. Regardless, it’s understandable why many developers would want to go for it – but is it really needed, and does it add anything to the experience?
When you play a game, what do you remember about it? The older gamers reading this might be thinking back to some of the early consoles and their titles, and are perhaps feeling a certain level of nostalgia. But the thing is, if you played one of these titles that attempted high-fidelity photorealism today, you would quickly realise how poorly they have aged. What looked fantastic twenty years ago now looks positively ugly. It will be similar for modern games, even in just a few years time.
On the other hand, we have games that go for a very specific art style, and they not only age better but they hold a far stronger position in the gaming landscape. Borderlands, Bioshock, FTL; games that go with a very particular art direction stand out from the crowd, while the generic Call of Duty-esque shooters falls by the wayside, blending in with the crowd of other attempts at photorealism.
But then we have the other games that take a different approach entirely. Those that put absolutely no emphasis on graphics at all, using the bare minimum that they can get away with. However, for everything they have lost in terms of realism, they have gained in gameplay. Less time was spent on visuals, so far more resources were devoted to diversity and complexity in the actual game. Even for a big studio, there is only so much time and money you can devote to a single title, and each of those has to go to each different department. The more is spent on graphics, the less ends up being spent on gameplay.
Look at titles likes Dwarf Fortress or, my personal favourite, Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead. These rogue-like Ascii-based games use numbers and letters to convey what is going on, and they somehow manage to do an excellent job. While the differences do take some getting used to for most new players, the gameplay options that appear due to time being refocused away from graphical fidelity is incredible.
Now, those two particular pieces have been in development for years (and are still ongoing), so they have the benefit of a long build time, but they are excellent examples of where we could be going if we weren’t so utterly obsessed with realistic graphics. So much time and money are being put into this one thing that it feels like other areas are being neglected.
And, ultimately, attempts at photorealism are doomed to failure. As far as we have come with our technology, we still haven’t quite breached the point of the uncanny valley. New technology and techniques are improving the odds, but we still have yet to make a game where the characters are utterly convincing. Rather than focusing our efforts on photorealism for games that don’t even need it as part of the experience, couldn’t the industry take a different route and move towards greater creativity in their visuals? There will always be room for high fidelity graphics, if they are used well, but should they really be the default? Take the Borderlands or the Long Dark route, provide us with games that stick out in our minds, allow yourself the chance to move away from simply trying to copy humanity.
You might find that a new direction is the next true great leap forward. What do you think? Share with us your comments and feedback below!