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Photorealism In Video Games - A Worthy Goal
by Aleksander Adamkiewicz on 10/21/12 03:33:00 pm

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Cross-posted from my blog at


A response to Errant Signal - Photorealism

In his video Campster details why we should not be chasing photorealism in video games, I explain why we should.

Pipe Dreams

I have to chuckle every time someone uses this term in context to anything technological. Not because the tem amuses me in itself (which it does, considering the context and etymology), but because it reminds me how history tends to not only repeat itself, but also how people still lack the imagination to extend their way of thinking past the here and now. I will quote the first of Clarke's three laws that has held true over the decades:

When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

What baffles me is that Campster, a man of certain respectable age (i.e. older than me), sees Photorealism as a pipe dream, unachievable (or so fantastical and uneconomical as to be almost unachievable in our lifetime) while he has lived through the amazing technological revolution of video games in the past 20 years or so.

Ultima Underworld - The Stygian Abyss, the first ever full 3D first person RPG, 1992 (according to Wikipedia)

Witcher 2, most advanced graphics in an RPG as of 2012, sets computers on fire @Ultra

What can we expect in 2032?

Can you really, honestly, say that photorealism is unobtainable or uneconomical? A Witcher 2 level of fidelity was unobtainable and uneconomical in 1992, the level of fidelity of 2032 is unobtainable and uneconomical in 2012.

Campster brings up the hurdles that need to be taken: realistic mesh deformation, detailed animation, hair simulation, realistic cloth and physics interaction. They are all true, they are all hurdles that are hard to achieve, even harder to put together into a coherent whole, but claiming them to be inherently unreachable?

Inklings of solving those problems already are beginning to take shape:

Hair simulation:


Real-Time Eulerian Water Simulation:


Real-Time Soft-Body deformation:


Organically Grown Procedural Animation and Interaction:


Many more are working on other parts of photorealism.

Why, why are they all doing this? Do they want to produce the next Modern Warfare? Do they want to "pollute" our games with more brown filters?! Monsters!


The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

~Clarke's 2nd law of prediction

Wow this article certainly is Clarke-heavy.

The people working on photorealism are working on it because its the way forward, its progress.

You couldn't have your Windwakers without dynamic shadows/lighting and depth of field/motion blur post processing effects, technology that was not designed for Windwaker, or artistically expressive games, but for photorealism and photorealistic games.

Developing techniques and solutions for 3D graphics is time and resource intensive, no singular artist, designer or developer can afford to do the RnD themselves. Not even the large publishers (except maybe Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo, hybrid technology companies) can afford to run their own graphics RnD department.

Every single one of the effects you showcase as being not photo-realistic, were developed because of photorealism. We take our ideas from nature, from photorealism. Neon glow effects and styles did not come from the ingenuity of the artist, they came from neon lights we see in real life.

You don't see the old masters paint in the style of Tron, because the real life counterpart did not exist, the inspiration that made the style happen.

Photorealism is the single, most effective, driving factor for developing new technology and artistic games are benefiting directly from the solutions this research provides.

Video Game graphics are at the stage of medieval art, we are still trying to figure out our techniques for expression, finding the right tools and the right solutions. Only if we achieve photorealism can we move past it.

Abstract, expressionism, impressionism, Cubism, surreal, etc. art-styles only emerged after painting was firmly grounded in realism (or at least as close as the technology of a paintbrush can get to realism).


Medieval Uncanny Valley, Madonna de Santa Trinitá, Byzantium, 1285

Realism, 1854, Courbet

Photorealism, 2007, Baeder


No matter how artistically expressive your game is, our brains are wired a certain way, they see reality every day and expect things to behave in exactly (or approximately) the same way in simulations.

This is why we can tell that 3D graphics look "fake" and its the reason the Uncanny Valley exists. However, we can only take out certain aspects until something becomes less then simplified and becomes "fake" as well.

It has mostly to do with shadows, proportions, lighting and perspective, those are the things that our brain has an, lets say, intuitive understanding off and can immediately tell from fiction.

Color is far less problematic it seems, we still recognize black and white film as depicting photorealistic characters, and we don't feel its somehow "off". The problem starts with tonal changes and fake coloring when our brains reject the image as photorealistic.


Still photorealistic, tones are preserved, light and shadow is realistic. (c)Jenna Herman

Jenna Hermans photo fucked around with in photoshop. The face loses its recognizable definition. Uncanny Valley.

3D graphics technology strives to be authentic, be it in Windwaker, Torchlight, or World of Warcraft.

Light casts shadows realistically, water reflects the environment, the perspective is realistic, the world is believable enough to our brain to not reject it outright but fantastical enough to entice us.

The most persuasive argument are the Toy Story movies. The enriched, higher fidelity and -physically realistic- lighting and shader models made Toy Story 3 the experience that it is and could not have been made with the distinctly less realistic technology of 1995.

Especially if you look at the fire-effects in the furnace at the ending, the dramatic physically authentic lighting with scattering, multiple dynamic sources, displacement and normal shaders. All this could not have been done unless someone worked on achieving the photorealistic effects in 3D graphics.

Subsurface Scattering and softbody meshes would not be present if it wasn't for trying to make realistic skin (Shrek), refraction, caustics and photon scattering wouldn't exist if someone didn't want to simulate realistic water (Finding Nemo), realistic fur and hair simulation wouldn't exist if it wasn't for the desire to render authentic animals. etc.

All those techniques would not be here if photorealism didn't motivate them to be created.

To ask to not pursue photorealism, is to ask to not have progress. Its to limit yourself to what we know and never take a step further into the unknown.

I do not advocate -only- photorealistic games, but the last time I checked, we didn't have a problem with stylistically and artistically diverse games in the marketplace.

Sure, not very often from tripple-A publishers, but can you blame them? Tripple-A titles are the Blockbusters of the industry, they cater to what the majority of the public wants, and the majority of the public doesn't watch experimental cinema, so why would they want to play it?

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Jack Garbuz
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I fully agree that more mature - or perhaps I should say older - gamers probably veer off from the comic-book look that juveniles seem to relish in preference for more realistic looking games. I myself started playing videogames at about age 50, or some 16 years ago, and I eagerly anticipated the development of more photorealistic games such as Max Payne 3 or Red Dead Redemption, et al. I read that the average age of games today is over age 30 now, but the industry still treats games as something primarily for teenagers. But the cost of such "blockbusters" today have risen to equal and sometimes exceed the cost of making major motion pictures so I can see why in these economically tougher times they would have to cut corners. I recently played "Dishonored" which is a decent but somewhat over-touted game made by Bethesda, generally well known for very lavish productions. While it is a game that did keep me playing from beginning to end - which is a good sign - nonetheless with my experience with having played well over 400 videgames (mostly FPShooters and western style RPG's such the most recent Deus Ex), I could plainly see the compromises Bethesda had to make in it. Nonetheless, in Disohonored they pulled it off nicely, getting very high ratings though definitely not being up the high standards Bethesda is generally highly esteemed for.

Still, I can understand why independent game developers working on shoe string budgets outside of the large studios, would try to nay say and downplay the importance of such expensive features as photorealism, and good storytelling, et al., as those features are expensive luxuries. Nonetheless, I agree that as the game playing public matures, and with that video games becoming mainstream entertainment, the masses will most likely prefer realism to "impressionism" just as they generally prefer realistic art to modern art - the latter being seen as being touted the snooty, artsy elite for their wealthy patrons but not for hanging on their lower middle class living room walls.

I also agree that shooting for true photorealism represents technical progress in and of itself.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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First a quick correction, Dishonored was not made by Bethesda, it is merely published by them.
The developer is Arkane Stuidos, creator of Arx Fatalis and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic.

There is a broad spectrum of gaming experience to be had in todays market and as the industry matures, there only will be more of it rather than less.
Worrying about too much photo-realism in games, is like worrying that there are too many action movies in cinemas, its just a misperception if you have a limited field of view.

Looking at the sum total of games released today, most of them do not strive for photorealism at all, they merely utilize elements of it.