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The Uncanny Valley: Should We Aspire for Photorealism on Consoles?

Quite recently, it appears that a lot of AAA game developers have been attempting to make their games more accurate depictions of real life with photorealistic graphics. Due to advancements in technology, recent attempts at photorealism no longer look laughable.

While today’s releases no doubt look better than ever before, there are many issues that
arise from the desire to have games look true to life. Chief among these are the three
specific issues I will be exploring: performance, aging and consistent visual appeal. So, let us ask the all-important question. Is photorealism necessary on consoles?

The Power of Performance

In the world of film, a consistent 25 frames per second is ideal. In the world of video games, things are much different. Since the gaming medium is interactive, a consistently higher frame rate is required to improve player reactions and prevent any potential frustration. This contrasts greatly with the filmic medium where audiences are unable to interact with the events on screen and incur no consequences should harm befall the film’s protagonist.

PCs are much for powerful than consoles. Therefore, they can maintain a high graphical
fidelity while still producing a relatively high frame rate. On the other hand, when
developers attain photorealistic graphics on consoles, a higher frame rate must be
sacrificed. If, on rare occasion, this is not the case then the frame rate will most likely not be consistent. As alluded to earlier, this can cause players great frustration. Should they need to react quickly in any given situation, a slower frame rate will severely diminish their speed and accuracy. This approach may work in horror games where suspense is key, but not so in action-adventure titles where constant quick thinking is a must.

Aged Beyond Your Years

Who can forget the dirty, gritty, noir streets of Max Payne (Remedy Entertainment, 2001)? Or the clever backdrops of classic Resident Evil titles which were essentially just 2D images? Those of you who do indeed remember these titles may have forgotten that they are no longer the visual masterpieces they were once revered as. Unfortunately, like all things, even the best console game graphics age, but certain games drink from the fountain of youth less frequently than others.

Time can be cruel, and these games know this all too well.

Grand Theft Auto III (DMA Design, 2001) is a perfect retro example of how cruel Father Time can be to console games who choose a more realistic aesthetic. For its time, Grand Theft Auto III provided the most true to life depiction of a large, bustling American city and was very pleasing on the eye. However, to the eyes of today’s gamers, there is little that impresses. Faces look steamrolled and the entirety of the game’s world lacks detail. Not to mention there are enough jagged edges to could cut you through simple contact with your TV monitor.

Conversely, Naughty Dog thoroughly knocked it out of the park with Jak and Daxter: The
Precursor Legacy (Naughty Dog, 2001), a game with a more cartoonish art style. When it
was initially released, it was most certainly the fairest in all the land in terms of platformers. Luscious environments, detailed facial animations and a generous helping of variety. It is safe to say that the game has been outdone by more recent console platformers, but that is not to say that it is visually unappealing. In fact, the game has aged gracefully over the years. All the points I expressed earlier still ring true to this day. When comparing this game side-by-side with the formerly discussed Grand Theft Auto III, the clear winner in terms of graphical appeal is undoubtedly Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy.

Unfortunately, poor Claude cannot compare to Naughty Dog’s dynamic duo.

Nice Lights, Shame About His Face

Today’s console games do indeed contain many visual delights. Top tier, dynamic lighting
and mesmerising particle effects are modern treats which should remain in demand.
However, for every positive I express towards photorealism, there will always be a negative to counteract it. This lies mostly in modern facial animations. Many look spectacular and almost fool you into believing you are watching real actors. Others pull me out of the experience completely.

For example, as much I love Marvel’s Spider-Man (Insomniac Games, 2018), I am afraid that Peter Parker’s facial model is far too distracting any time I am forced to bear witness to it. The developers have clearly put a great deal of effort into making him look like a real man, so players can empathise with him more, but every facial muscle movement is far too stilted.

Instead, I empathise more deeply with the shell-shaded expressions of Link in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo, 2017). Although the cartoony graphics cut down on detail, this allowed the developers to forego the need to make Link look like a real human being. Therefore, all of our little imperfections – which look unsettling and unnatural in video games – can remain happily absent from Link’s character model.

Less is more, especially when it comes to video game mugs.

In conclusion, instead of aspiring for photorealistic graphics on consoles, we should instead be aspiring for more stylised graphics. This ensures that AAA developers can get their games looking pretty without using frame rate as the sacrificial lamb. Implementing stylistic graphics will also keep today’s releases looking as fresh and clean in the future as they will most likely look upon release. Finally, eradicating the need to create character models which accurately resemble human beings will work wonders for AAA developers as it removes imperfections much more effectively than even the most highly recommended face creams. When all is said and done, video games should be proud to be a form of animation. Real life can be drab, but video games can be so much more.

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3 comments

  1. I don’t think aspiring for Photorealism itself is all that important.
    I mean sure, gorgeous graphics are nice but I much rather have more focus on a stable frame rate and rather making every world as big as possible, make them overal better. Many open worlds just feel the same.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s something I find odd in society at large.

      The conversations I hear about media where people say “like that would really happen” or an equivalent still surprise me.

      I’m all for sticking to rules defined within a fictional context, general continuity etc, but it’s that awful nose-up snooty ‘just a cartoon’ or ‘that’s for kids’ type attitude and refusal to engage in and conversation that gets me.

      Also, within the gaming sphere, the misuse of ‘immersion’ to skew its definition to mean hyper-realism alone.

      Back OT though, the points about stylised looks really hold. Just look at Jet Set Radio!

      Liked by 1 person

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