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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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Johnny Minkley

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Johnny Minkley is a veteran games writer and broadcaster, former editor of Eurogamer TV, VP of gaming charity SpecialEffect, and hopeless social media addict.

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