The Fallacy of Photo-Realism

Assuming better games are the natural consequence of better technology is a dangerous game to play, writes Johnny Minkley

Last week, the British Film Institute's venerable Sight & Sound magazine published its once-a-decade countdown of the 50 greatest films ever. And this time headlines were seized by Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo for toppling Citizen Kane, which had occupied the number one spot for half a century.

I'll leave it in the capable hands and foaming mouths of movie professionals to cheer or chastise the choices therein, but the aspect that leaped out at me was the age of the selections, with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) the most recent to feature in the top ten.

"The persistent belief that triple-A is the be all and end all of interactive entertainment is part of the reason why the console business is in such an uncertain mess"

I relay this here since the games industry's unhealthy obsession with its movie counterpart has reared its botoxed head again over the past week. First, 2K Games boss Christoph Hartmann told this site: "Until games are photorealistic, it'll be very hard to open up to new genres. We can really only focus on action and shooter titles; those are suitable for consoles now".

Then, in an interview promoting LucasArts' Star Wars 1313, a guy from VFX wizards ILM said: "We're getting to the point right now [with real-time rendered graphics] where we're matching the quality of an animated movie seven or eight years ago, and another ten years from now, it's just going to be indistinguishable from reality."

Which may or may not be factually correct, but what's troubling is the implicit belief - made explicit by Hartmann - that what we really need to connect gamers more deeply to their games is the next big leap in graphics.

I understand that such opinions are inevitable in an industry whose brief creative history has been defined by the limits of technology. But they're views which, given a moment's pause to consider the breathtaking variety and quality of experiences produced over the last few years alone, do little to inspire confidence in the near-future of blockbuster console gaming.

The persistent belief that triple-A is the be all and end all of interactive entertainment - witness the reality-avoiding dinosaur E3 has become - and greater emotional engagement will simply be driven by better visuals, is part of the reason why the console business is in such an uncertain mess.

Remember 'Father of PlayStation' Ken Kutaragi's words in 1999, when PS2 was first detailed? "We want to propose 'emotion synthesis'[…] we want to realise the generation of emotion by calculation. We want to bring emotion that moves people into the real-time entertainment world."

The ambition was noble and important at the time, while calling a chip the 'Emotion Engine' was a brilliant bit of spin. But consider the phrase "emotion by calculation", by which I'd like to think he meant that with greater power comes greater possibilities for evoking an emotional response. Thirteen years on, alas, far too many major game makers seem to be taking him rather too literally at his word.

The danger of a default mindset that considers true innovation always to be just out of reach in the future is the impact it has on the present. As a representative of a label that has BioShock, Borderlands and Civilisation on its books, Hartmann's remarks are curious to say the least.

"I can't recall a time when there's been less general enthusiasm for the arrival of the next generation of console hardware"

I sympathise with his idealistic vision of the "final console" and a time when games will be "all about the content and no longer about the technology". But he also must realise that it is already a reality for many developers operating outside of triple-A. Similarly, ILM is in the business of pursuing ever more realism in rendering on the grandest scale. But LucasArts must also know that knocking out an Uncharted clone using next-gen tech won't be enough to beat Naughty Dog at its own game.

To be fair to Hartmann, he's right that improvements in console tech have facilitated massive gameplay innovations in the past, such as the open-world genre, as he is in pointing out that an interactive medium cannot trigger emotions in the same way a passive one can. But in suggesting photo-realism is an answer to this he's sending out exactly the wrong message.

Only one video game has ever made me cry: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. Never mind photo-realism, that's not even in HD. And it's irrelevant either way. It reduced me to a pathetic, sniveling mess as an act of catharsis: relief at the climax of weeks of engrossed play, triggered by the irresistible sweetness of the epilogue and its familiar musical cues straight out of the Richard Curtis school of emotional manipulation.

Of course more powerful tech will provide developers with tools to improve the experiences they craft, particularly those in the 'Hollywood action' category: the performance-captured drama and majestic cinematic sweep of Uncharted could hardly have been achieved on earlier hardware. But it's the special combination of great storytelling, gameplay, acting and direction that makes the series a success, not the verisimilitude of the stubble on Nathan Drake's face.

To go back to the movie industry, each new Pixar release usually ushers in a dazzling graphical innovation that makes its creation possible, but no-one in their right mind would attribute the success of Monsters Inc. to its realistic depiction of fur. Movie makers, though, are a lot more comfortable in their art. This is, after all, an industry whose greatest work, we are assured by Sight & Sound, was made in 1958.

Technology, as ever, should be the means not the end, and the longer games companies believe the opposite, the longer they will continue to spit out the type of blandly generic, box-ticking filler already boring consumers, and the deeper their troubles will become.

I can't recall a time when there's been less general enthusiasm for the arrival of the next generation of console hardware. And a large part of that, I think, is because few are expecting anything other than the same old expensive triple-A experience with fancier visuals. That may have been enough when we moved from PS2 to PS3. But with so many more ways to consume games than on a console, it isn't any more.

And so the real danger for those who continue to hold out for the day the technology of tomorrow will magically transform their games into uncanny valley-leaping emotional masterpieces, is that they may not still be around to make them.

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Latest comments (27)

If games have "heart" everything else is a bonus!
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Dan Howdle Head of Content, Existent9 years ago
While I agree that innovation doesn't necessarily need better graphics, I would not personally use films or books as an example. The lists mentioned are voted for by a section of the public particularly conversant with these branches of artistic and cultural history, and most will vote in a way that is likely to make them feel a part of the perceived intellectuals among whom they aspire to be counted.

If many of those people were honest about the films they enjoyed the most, there would be a lot more big-bang sci-fi and slushy tear-inducers near the top of that list. But people are not that honest. Few genuinely enjoy Citizen Cane even though they may fully understand its technical brilliance. Even fewer would dare decry it superceded by a litany of examples across the last eighty or so years, because they fear the pointy moron finger may be turned on them by a fearful intellectual elite who make a living out of protecting anachronistic notions of greatness.

Games get better with better technology behind them, but equally, people will always look back and say, "Yeah, but I enjoyed Pac-Man back in 1982 as much as I'm enjoying Gears Of War now, so what's the difference?"

The difference is that our expectations change. Bring out Pac-Man now, as if it has never before been seen or heard of, and stick it in a box for 40 quid. Just, no.

Games like Red Dead Redemption, BioShock, Forza 4 and so on would not even be possible without today's tech and it irks me that we can't seem to see past the ends of our own noses in this respect. We lack the vision to see what a geometric increase in grunt will provide us that's new.

And perhaps that's because the answer is too big to merely speculate upon.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Dan Howdle on 7th August 2012 9:35am

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This dose seem to be 1984-repeated. At that time claimed successor hardware failed to enthuse a misused and hard pressed player-base who voted with their feet and the sector imploded.

Gen-8 preparation has been abortive and underwhelming - worst still there have been signs of nefarious activities in the process of deployment (fixed pricing, private agreements, inflated subscription model). All this leading to player indolence to buying new hardware.

I would say that DAYZ has rammed home that Gen-8 is not a game changer - the way players see that the latest mod'ed PC's offer a compelling game environment that even next-gen will not achieve; no matter how the consumer media tried to avoid mentioning the success of the game. And now with the whole VR head-mount discussion, confirmed as only a "PC thing", consoles look on very shaky ground with Gen-8.

The greed of that seven year life cycle, blocking pre-owned and avoidance of DLC, will come to haunt those executives that still have a job by Christmas!
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Show all comments (27)
Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 9 years ago
Fow how long do graphics suck up most of the budget now? Even if visulas do get better, they can not cover up the fact of games being relatively static over the years.

Graphics might be on the trail of getting photorealistic, gameplay is just inches above a gameplay cavepainting so to speak.
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Dominic Clarke Programmer, Slightly Mad Studios9 years ago
"We're getting to the point right now [with real-time rendered graphics] where we're matching the quality of an animated movie seven or eight years ago, and another ten years from now, it's just going to be indistinguishable from reality."

Until you move your character through 180 degrees in the blink of an eye and the scene quickly becomes distinguishable from reality.
The holy grail of photo realistic graphics that are indistinguishable from reality isn't compatible with many genres of games - games that require player input to quickly manipulate something or drive an animation.

Or even FPS games that feature animated NPCs - The difficulty is getting the characters to move, act and respond correctly, not so much how they are rendered.

Photo realism may be attainable in 10 years time.
Dynamic realism that is indistinguishable from reality? - That's another challenge altogether - and maybe not a challenge that it's worth taking on (my personal opinion).
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Raphael Honore Localization Assistant Manager, Blizzard Entertainment Europe9 years ago
Dan has said it very well.
It really depends on the type of gamer you are! Movies or games, I generally can't seem to play/watch anything over 7-8 years old. Especially movies. There are exception but really, special effects that old already appear so dated... It spoils the experience for me. Sure, Minecraft is awesome, but let's say a photo-realistic MC clone is released tomorrow, how many will still play the 8-bits pixelated version? I respect the fact that angry bird players don't need awesome graphics, but many passionate gamers are litterally living for the final frontier to be reached. I know I am.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Raphael Honore on 7th August 2012 10:59am

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Great gaming fidelity can really help sell the immersion and experience of a core game, however it isnt the be all and end all of gaming development. And as there are horses for courses, different gaming experiences can have their graphical fidelity tiered to requirement.

Again, the only worry is developers may be focusing on high graphical fidelity but this does not paper over the cracks of poor overall gameplay/writing, design or mechanics
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Dominic Clarke Programmer, Slightly Mad Studios9 years ago
Would a photo-realistic MineCraft actually work though Raphael?
Do you not think that creating/deleting perfect cubes (MineCraft's main mechanic) out of a photorealistic world might not be a litle jarring?
MineCraft is great because it is blocky, not despite it.
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James Prendergast Process Specialist 9 years ago
@ Raphael - Coming directly from playing through Icewind Dale for the first time (actually, not playing it right this moment! ;) ) I think that sort of thinking isn't really very helpful to society in the long run and perhaps says more about what you value in entertainment than the actual technical or other merits of that self-same entertainment.

Realistic MC clone tomorrow? A small percentage of the playerbase would probably move to it in the long term. Reasoning? Justification? Lego is still very popular despite being completely unrealistic and yet any other more realistic building toys do not have the same marketshare and some have even fallen beside the road through the years.
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I keep hearing that more hardware power would mean budgets would explode, indies would be bullied out of the market and the console business model would collapse.

Are you aware how much time and effort is spent to work around the limitations of outdated console hardware? How many specialist coders you need to get advanced features to run acceptably and constantly squeeze the last bit of performance out of the tech? Through how many hoops artists have to jump to butcher the already high-res art they make down to hundreds of triangles, creating lods, and strugfgle to reuse textures efficiently?

With more horsepower, I'm willing to bet that the price of an average-looking game might actually come down. You could build decent looking procedurally generated cities because everything doesn't have to be optimized to the nth degree, by hand. Having destroyable stuff wouldn't be a huge performance headache anymore. Level and world design would be much less restrictive with more memory.

Sure, the elite developers would push the envelope so much that all of the new performance would instantly be tied up in rendering amazing graphics, but indies and mid-tier devs would have a much easier time to create the genre-expanding, fresh and new experiences everyone is craving for.
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Thomas Luecking9 years ago
From a hardcore gamer's perspective it is always very easy and very cheap to condemn the calls for better hardware and graphics. But the fact is that until we reach a level of real photorealism, graphics will stay among the most important features for mainstream AAA titles. It was like that in the past and it will be like that in the future.

The article above compares apples and oranges. Movies show realistically moving pictures. As an ordinary consumer, I do not need additional imagination to complete my experience. No "buy-in" investment has to be done. Same with a book. I do not expect a book to take over the imaginative experience for me.

A casual gamer sees a video game with "comic graphics" and does not expect it to be a serious experience; more as some schematic representation of reality in which he has to achieve something. As soon as this graphic barrier is out of the way, people will have different expectations towards a game, hence will be more open towards more serious content.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Thomas Luecking on 7th August 2012 1:20pm

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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 9 years ago
You know this whole thing about photorealism is just as annoying as people declaring ultimate doom on console gaming and people are going to choose to play angry birds on their ipod touch for the rest of their life.

You know when playing a game, being real never was important to me. I just want a game thats fun to play. And I appreciate, imaginative, creative and unique, visual aesthetics over realistic graphics like heavy rain, anyday. Cause then it just becomes a movie. And honestly, I find graphics like the ones found in borderlands, Persona 4: Arena, blazblu, Darksiders to be much more interesting. In games like heavy rain or many first person shooters that aim to be realistic, the way they are implimented make the graphics, world and characters cold and lifeless.

im not against realistic graphics, I just dont think realistic graphics will make a game any more interesting then other less realistic graphics, like cel shaded or hand drawn graphics. At the end of the day, its all about game design and if the graphic aesthetics are relevant to the type a game made.

Photo realism is ok, but when creating a game, their are many more factors involved then when creating a movie. Im sorry, but I think making a game is much harder then making a good movie.

You know Im not looking for more realistic graphics, Im looking for better physics and AI, better ways to interact with the virtual world. And i dont necessaraly need realistic graphics. The most relavant thing in a game is what you can do in it.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Rick Lopez on 7th August 2012 2:03pm

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Thomas Luecking9 years ago
I totally agree with you. But this is the point of view of "hardcore gamers" not people who are not used to play games.

Another thought: Among the most successful blockbuster games, most of them try to deliver realistic worlds (e.g., GTA, CoD, Skyrim). Thus, people seem to like to play within realistic environments. Maybe because this helps them to imagine an alternative reality where they can be someone else...
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Ivan Pedersen Technical Artist, ARM Ltd.9 years ago
Felix: Very good points. Definitely reflects my experience of working with games and real-time graphics for over 12 years. A lot of man hours are spent getting things on budget and getting to 60 through cumbersome work arounds.

It seems like a lot of the current gen hardware and the software immediately above it are targeted pushing static, flat geometry out with some shaders on it as opposed to atmospheric, dynamic scenery. With new hardware hopefully we'd get much more dynamic games.
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Martin Klima Executive Producer, Warhorse Studios9 years ago
It should be also noted that on that list of the 50 greatest movies of all time, only six are from 1920s and none is older than 1925. That is to say, all were created when the technology of movie making (montage, sound, camera angles, etc.) were in place and the artists could concentrate on the content; the movie was no longer a novelty and curiosity.
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"Photorealism is just a convenient measure of complexity." -John Lassiter, CCO and c0-foudner of Pixar

Game graphics have always lagged 10 years behind the 3D animation industry (due to the constraints of having to be real-time as well as equipment limitations.) Thus it is appropriate that this question, which was decided a decade ago in computer animation, is now being discussed.

Lassiter realized more then 10 years ago that the goal of entertainment is not to duplicate reality. We have reality for that. It is to go *beyond* reality to give us visions and experiences not possible in our day to day lives.

HOWEVER as a way to measure how complex those visions can be, reality is a good starting yardstick.
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Gareth Edwards Director, Cubic Motion9 years ago
The rate at which graphics capability increases isn't matched by the rate at which compelling content can be created (by most current studio models anyway). I have a specific axe to grind - because in my little world (facial animation) we're trying to convince studios to change their production models - but this is true in many other areas of game development too. We already see the consequences of this: look at facial animation for example - you've got games with great eye-candy in a few places and then horrible mouth-flapping lip-sync because there's neither time nor budget to do the rest properly (under the "we have to do it all in house" model anyway). No other art form would tolerate it. It's like Jurassic Park switching to cardboard cut-out dinosaurs half way through the movie. I'm more interested in consistent experiences (and lots of media, from text-adventures through to photo-real worlds) can achieve that in the right creative hands. The challenges in effectively exploiting the graphics capabilities we'll see in the next 10 years are less about technology, and more about how the industry organizes itself to create content in a scalable way.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Gareth Edwards on 7th August 2012 5:33pm

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You dont have to go full realistic to be a perfect 10. Just ensure the dynamic environment works well. Look at uncharted.
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Charles Herold Wii Games Guide, about.com9 years ago
Thank you so much for this article; it's nice to see someone looking beyond the game industry's obsession with technology.

And @Dan, just because all you like are special effects blockbusters doesn't mean everyone else is lying. I love Citizen Kane (look, I even know how to spell it). I love The Third Man and Seven Samurai and Hiroshima Mon Amour. And yes, I also love Terminator 2; but it does not effect me on as deep a level, and thus, as much as I love it, I would not rank it above those black and white classics. And I am lying neither to you nor to myself.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Charles Herold on 7th August 2012 5:41pm

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Brian Smith Artist 9 years ago
Regardless of improvements in graphics and even other areas we'll always be short of being able to provide the level of immersion and believability we are used to seeing in movies.

When you look at games like Fallout 3 where we have conversations with characters, the biggest things that affect immersion and believability are not the graphics, animation, voice acting or writing, it's the timing, or lack of it to be more precise. In the need for our games to be interactive we destroy their ability to remain immersive. We also introduce deliberate mechanisms for the player to use that leave fluidity completely out in the cold. These are areas that technology won't fix for a long time. Until then we just need to get used to wooden conversations and awkward pauses and enjoy the pretty visuals while we wait.
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Ashley Gutierrez Animator 9 years ago
As always, it doesn't matter how pretty it looks, if the story is crap, the whole thing is crap. (see Avatar. -_-)

Also, if you take a look at Minecraft, you'll find that you don't need fancy graphics to make a boatload of money, you just need a little brains.

There's a reason old films like Kane and Vertigo rate higher than anything now, and the secret is not in the graphics...but I doubt EA or those other big names will figure that out anytime soon.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Ashley Gutierrez on 7th August 2012 9:18pm

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Ashley Gutierrez Animator 9 years ago
Not true. I consider myself an avid gamer.
Games like Skyrim are not appealing because of it's realism, but because of it's storyline, its gameplay and its sandbox qualities. Sure, the graphics help out, but the only reason I play Skyrim over say, Divinity- is Divinities' gameplay is hard to jump into. It's very clunky. (To be fair, that is much older than Skyrim)

But I also love playing games like Minecraft, Bastion, Limbo or Zelda (OoT and MM, not even the newer ones) where the graphics are not even close to hyper-realistic.

The games you listed as super popular are majority shooters. Shooters tend to have a very large audience, and realism is somewhat expected in that genre. But FPS, by no means, makes up or should make up the whole of the gaming industry. Besides, games like Halo Reach and Gears of War 3 have excellent storytelling. I wanted to cry at the end of Halo. Not because of the graphics, but because of the story.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 9 years ago
I'd say the same has to be said for ANY 3D, VR or "Holodeck" fantasies people keep having about games. THe fact is not everyone wants (nor can see) the effect, finds it too distracting and some games can't even be played for longer than a few minutes.

Anyway, my crystal ball says we'll see the usual crap launch titles on next gen that look great, but have little to offer in terms of the same old gameplay (bang, bang! cover, stealth kill, blow up building/bridge, rinse & repeat). Some will eat it up for sure, but without actual innovation in stuff that actually matters, we're headed for another crash at some point in the next five or so years.
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Raphael Honore Localization Assistant Manager, Blizzard Entertainment Europe9 years ago
I never thought video games were particularly 'useful to society in the long run', to start with :) This is entertainment we're talking about. Products designed to "make believe". For some games, immersion will be eased by good graphics (note that I'm not saying photo-realistic). I disagree with some comments on Skyrim in this thread and I will take it as an example. Skyrim was my first experience with TES, and once I was done, I immediately picked up Oblivion, but sadly, even maxed out on my PC, the graphics were not good enough to make *me* believe, and the magic just didn't operate. When a new milestone is reached graphic wise, it becomes difficult for *some* gamers to go back to older products and enjoy the same immersion level. I never said it was the majority, and granted, the MC example was a bit far-fetched; I'm just saying we exist. Btw, very good game - I had a wonderful experience with it - back then ;)

Edited 4 times. Last edit by Raphael Honore on 8th August 2012 12:57am

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Dan Howdle Head of Content, Existent9 years ago

If you don't agree with my point because it does not apply to you, fine. Broad statements seldom if ever apply to everybody and mine were not intended to. However, highlighting a spelling error in my post as a means to undermine it is an uncivilised way to make a counterpoint.

Look, if those films still do it for you, props. But I do not believe the majority care, and so have to wonder how they always make it to the top of those lists. As far as I am concerned, they do so by the mechanism I previously described. If you don't agree, I'm fine with that.
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Sandy Lobban Founder, Noise Me Up9 years ago
You are missing one important factor that makes Uncharted great. The audio. There are a lot of comments about believability, story telling, connecting etc. Humans are social creatures who thrive on emotional cues to consequently feel happy or sad. If you want to immerse the player in your story and with the game emotionally, then look no further than quality sound effects and music to guide your player. There really is no better way to connect than through rhythm and /or well paced story telling. This stands true for Pacman or Uncharted. How it looks is simply a bonus.......but I would say that! :)

Interesting link tho if it interests you....
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 9 years ago
@Sandy - that's true with any great film as well. Audio is equally as important as story, characters and gameplay. As film isn't interactive, it's immersion in terms of actors doing their jobs well enough that the viewer can suspend any disbelief and enjoy the ride.
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