Unrealistic Expectations for Realism in Games
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Painting process by JW-Jeong, Photograph (DeviantART)
MIKE by JW-Jeong, Acrylic on canvas, 80 x 117 (DeviantART)
"Sometimes I get a rather blunt and sneering criticism that there is no point in doing realistic paintings when one can always take a photograph.
And then I reply, ‘well, then what’s the point in having sex when one can always masturbate?" (JW-Jeong)
I have found that many modern artists, including myself, have questioned the merit of pursuing “realistic” art, specifically to the extent of photorealism. Many argue that painting or drawing from a photo and copying every last detail and hue is pointless and carries no artistic value, that these sort of pieces only challenge an artist’s technical skills rather than their own voice as a creator. One artist I follow online exclusively does large-scale, extremely realistic portraits, capturing every wart, hair, and pore with paint and brush. Joongwon “Charles” Jeong (also known as JW-Jeong), based in South Korea, uses photos of seemingly ordinary people, and spends thousands of painstakingly long hours recreating their portraits. The magic touch he has with his pieces is unique—he manages to give each portrait a sort of solidarity and beauty, despite his almost neurotic attention to accurate detailing. While his work does warrant some criticism from photorealism skeptics, Aristotle once said “a corpse is repulsive, but the painting of a corpse can be beautiful”; this saying seems to relate to many hyper-realistic artists around the world.
However, as lifelike as his portraits may seem, you can still tell that it only has an uncanny resemblance to its portrait’s true owner—there is a degree of lifelessness to the piece. Is this destined to happen to realistic video games, as well? This paper aims to criticize the direction the realistic visual aesthetic that big-budget modern video games are pursuing and offers alternative routes to achieving a successfully immersive game (particularly in the horror genre).
Uncanny valley graph by Masahiro Mori
One reason why I believe that trying to achieve perfect realism is currently impossible is due the concept of the “uncanny valley”, a term coined by Masahiro Mori in 1970. Simply put, as inanimate objects look closer and closer to human likeness, they become more familiar; however, once non-human objects are designed to be as realistic as possible, people’s perceptions drop down into a “valley” of unfamiliarity that differs dramatically from their perception of a healthy person. These hills and valleys are greatly exaggerated if the object is moving as opposed to still. Examples of game concepts that would be in the uncanny valley would be NPC AI that the player interacts with, like Alyx from Half Life 2. David Hayward, designer, relates a comically disturbing anecdote of uncomfortable NPC interaction:
[…] Alyx being programmed to look at the player while talking to them to create a sense of eye contact was a step above the previous generation of art and AI, but the illusion snapped when she was talking to me on a descending lift: Her eyes kept slowly rolling upward then flicking back down to me, because the point she was scripted to look at wasn’t updating as fast as my location. (Hayward, pg. 3)
The feeling of revulsion and horror that humans get from seeing realistic-looking humans exhibiting decidedly non-human behavior may come from a psychological fear of death or facing our own mortality. Despite numerous innovations with prosthetic limbs, humanoid robots, and toys, most if not all designs have fallen victim to the uncanny valley.
Crysis 3 by Crytek, modded at 8K, external landscape (K-putt)
I discovered Jeong’s art early in my high school years, around 2011. After spending quite a long time mulling over the value of art, the value of recreating real life in art, and the effects that such recreations have on people, I began to consider the same values in videogames. Technology is advancing at an impressive rate, giving game developers more tools and more power to fully flesh out the worlds they create. However, while one can appreciate how much a game’s visuals can imitate life, it is an entirely contrary experience trying to appreciate the gameplay inside the realistic location. That brings up the question of what constitutes as a “realistic” game. What kind of barrier is there between realism and 3D-rendered/textured with predetermined NPC dialogue and pre-programmed actions and events? Is it possible for games to ever even be considered realistic, ever, or will players always be able to find a way to break the illusion of realism?
Silent Hill screenshot, foggy/ash-covered and ambiguous hub world (Silent Hill Screenshots)
The Silent Hill series, which enjoys the title of one of the forerunners of the survival horror genre of videogames, has not aged well with its recent games; however, the first game manages to achieve a multitude of effects. The graphics suffer, but the designers used that to their advantage and created a unique horror experience by using the game itself rather than its visuals. The first Silent Hill game, developed in 1998 by Team Silent from the Konami Tokyo division, was memorable to me not only for its disconcerting music or for its disturbing content, but for the unique, fearful atmosphere it ingrained in the player.
The most important defining aspect to the original Silent Hill game that contributed to its horror factor was the huge amount of obscuring the game did to the player’s field of vision. In the “normal” hub world on the streets of Silent Hill, the entire city was enveloped in a cloud of fog. It was difficult to see a stone’s throw in front of your character, which made it all the more alarming when a zombie pterodactyl flew in from the mist and attacked you. Funnily enough, Team Silent intentionally covered most of the Silent Hill world in fog and shadows in order to mask the limitations of the new PlayStation hardware, introduced in 1994 by Sony Computer Entertainment. The PlayStation hardware featured a whopping operating performance of 30 MIPS (Million Instructions Per Second) and 2 MB dynamic RAM—compared to the PlayStation 4, which combines a powerful central processing unit (CPU) and graphics processing unit (GPU) and a maximum memory bandwidth of 176 GB/s (Wikipedia). The decision to limit the player’s ability to see added to the game’s dominant control over the player. Much of the game involves finding certain items, solving puzzles, or getting from point A to point B all in a huge overworld with large, sprawling submaps in the city. Hiding information on the screen as the player traversed throughout the map attempting to accomplish some task created a sense of disempowerment.
Alien (1979) still of the alien (Thatfilmguy)
The way Silent Hill obscured most of the player’s screen may very well be a result of Team Silent’s direction of giving Silent Hill a “Hollywood-like atmosphere” and taking influence from horror/suspense films from the likes of Stephen King and David Lynch (Wikipedia). It is possible to draw parallels between the way Silent Hill handles revealing information with the way the film Alien (1979) does. Roger Ebert, film critic, notes that “Alien uses a tricky device to keep the alien fresh throughout the movie: It evolves the nature and appearance of the creature, so we never know quite what it looks like or what it can do” (Chicago Sun-Times). Similarly, Team Silent does not reveal everything on the player’s screen—instead, it only presents a little bit of information to the player at a time, making the player feel uneasy as they do not know what will be revealed to them as they progress. This is one of the most pervasive examples of Silent Hill dominating over the player.
Silent Hill screenshot, gross thing that the player is forced to look at (Silent Hill Screenshots)
Other intentional design choices by Team Silent further tightened the game’s ominous grip over the player: awkward camera angles are peppered throughout the game, forcing players to maneuver through threatening paths or rooms and heightening anxiety levels for potential of danger. In the second screenshot, the player is forced to examine a body hanging crucifix-style inside of an “Otherworld” elementary school bathroom stall. While special camera angles are crucial to let the player know that something about the area is important, like the shotgun weapon on the ground by the character’s feet, in this particular instance it forced the player to confront a disturbing image. It even looks like the hanging body could become reanimated at any moment, with the ominous under-lighting and its static, intimidating pose hovering over the protagonist. There were very few times when the player felt in-control of the situation, which diverted the player’s attention from possible flaws, such as the system’s poor rendering power or the small inconsistencies within the world. Ultimately, the PlayStation’s limited ability to render graphics and the forced lack of lighting and clarity opened up the player’s imagination greatly. The lack of polygons and resolution allows the audience to interpret the lost data in congruence with the horrifying story and atmosphere that Silent Hill sets. Somehow, Silent Hill taps into the fear of the unknown for each player and pulls them into the twisted world despite the chunky graphics, and that is why this game succeeds in capturing the player.
“Developers must give the players ways to interact with and change this self-contained world while at the same time design the protagonist, environment, and NPCs in a such way that prevents the player from thinking that they can make choices that haven’t been implemented into the game. The player will believe any world, no matter how far-fetched the premise, as long as the world is internally consistent.” (Bossche, p. 1)
To me, Silent Hill is successful not just as a horror game, but as an immersive game in its purest sense. According to Johan Huizinga (1950), he defines a game as “[…] a free activity standing quite consciously outside “ordinary” life…but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly” (Huizinga, p. 13). Silent Hill captures the player in an immersive experience that leaves them sitting at the edge of the seat with a raised heartbeat not because Silent Hill tries to build a realistic world—instead, it provides the player with a convincing world that subtly inspires the player to fill in the blanks with their own personal nightmares. Objectively, no sane person would believe the world of Silent Hill to be real, with zombified nurses and doctors and the game switching between normal versions of the game’s locations to hellish versions. While impassable portions of the game marked by deep chasms in the streets are truthfully unexplainable, Bossche argues that the chasms, amongst other oddities, provide a convincing justification for the game’s world and even adds to the game’s narrative and environmental canon. These random, disturbing aspects of Silent Hill add to the player’s innate uncertainty and anxiety of the city. Silent Hill 3, featuring Heather as a protagonist, fails in maintaining a believable control over the player at times: for instance, Heather is able to kill rabid zombie dogs with a heavy pipe, but she is unable to kick or jump over a few cardboard boxes to get past them. To the player, this blatant fallacy ruins the illusion of reality within the world that Heather resides in. Silent Hill succeeds in is giving the game culture—the designers truly put much thought and deliberation in the choices they put in to get the player to believe that the imagined world was real, and it evidently worked as the franchise has attracted many fans, content, and iterations on the premise.
Comparing the first Silent Hill to a more recent addition to the series, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (2009), one can see how the developers attempted to make the second game harken back to features that made the original Silent Hill so iconic—not to mention the shiny new graphics that the Wii could offer. Shattered Memories literally tries to make the game the player’s own personal nightmare, based on player choices and actions throughout the game. However, Shattered Memories suffers in its credibility as a game because the illusion of “realism” is gradually broken. I felt as if the gameplay mechanics of the game conflicted with the aspect of the game that initially brings the player into the world of Silent Hill: the opening warning screen. The game ingrains a seed of fear in the player from the very start, bluntly telling them that the game will control them and be an active antagonist—whereas in the original Silent Hill games, the game could only passively control the player with tricks like Dutch camera angles and sinister use of lighting.
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories screenshot, warning screen (Brainy Gamer)
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories screenshot, survey (Silent Hill Wiki)
What sets Silent Hill and Shattered Memories apart is that the original game is clearly telling the story of Harry Mason, a nondescript man looking for his daughter. Silent Hill was a hellish manifestation for Harry, not for the player. While Harry is plain enough that players can project themselves into him and live through the same experiences as him, developers could get away with having Harry solve outlandish puzzles on a blood-stained piano in an elementary school because it was his fantastically surreal story, not the player’s. However, Shattered Memories is more focused on the player and their psyche—players can use the Wiimote as a flashlight, cellphone, camera, notebook, and GPS as if they were interacting with these devices in the game themselves. They also take several psychological tests throughout the game, the results of which help contribute to four different possible endings. There are seven different psyche profiles that the player takes; at the end of the game, the player’s psychologist types out notes about the player’s behavior based on the survey answers and actions the player took, evaluating the player’s honesty and such. The player still plays as Harry in an alternate plotline, but the game has the player explore their own psyche—an interesting, introspective take on the Silent Hill series, for sure.
Shattered Memories actually has a creative premise, but constantly forcing the player to complete very “game-y” tasks in order to proceed with the story actually took away from the player’s ability to believe in the game within the magic circle. Much of the horror aspect of Shattered Memories is credited towards the jarring nightmare sequences, in which the protagonist’s world freezes over and they are pursued by horrifying creatures. The player is forced to hastily maneuver through a maze without dying to the enemies, signifying the character’s inner struggle within the narrative of the story. These are initially heart-pounding and adrenaline-fueled, and I am even reminded of the famous chase scene from Silent Hill 2 when Pyramid Head chases after protagonist, James, and secondary character, Maria. The entirety of Silent Hill 2 builds up the suspense and fear surrounding Pyramid Head to a climax, making the player panic by the time they get to the chase scene—Silent Hill 2 created a real fear in the player. However, the chase scene works in Silent Hill 2 because the developers only put one of these scenes in the game. Everything loses its effect if one experiences it time and time again, and this is true in Shattered Memories; eventually, the player gets used to the initial shock factor of the chase sequences, and they figure out the mechanics of overpowering the chasing creatures and getting through the levels. By the last chase sequence, it seems more like a chore and it loses its novelty and luster to the player. There is no doubt that Shattered Memories certainly looks much more realistic than Silent Hill and Silent Hill 2; however, Shattered Memories’ credibility is flimsy in comparison to the way the first two games bolsters its ability to captivate the player, and relies on using cheap tricks like puzzles that harken back to the original Silent Hill games and recurring, forced-scare chase sequences.
Maral Tajerian notes a trend in many horror games today, which may explain the dying nature of the genre: “It seems that with the growing tendency of video games to move towards more visceral action/gore…[this] signals that it is easier to design an action game based off of a terror franchise instead of a true horror game that can succeed in the…principles of animal behavior” (Tajerian). Much like the trend in many Western horror films, it seems like horror game developers falsely believe that just because they can give the audience a realistic and bloody cutscene of a needle being shoved into a character’s eyeball (Dead Space) does not necessarily mean that the game will keep the player engaged. There is a layer of deeper science and psychology in horror games that involve invoking the primal sensations of fear and fight-or-flight in humans. Exploring that aspect of a horror game gives them their realistic flavor rather than the visual gore it can offer to a player.
Killzone 3 and Killzone: Shadow Fall model comparisons (Examiner)
Currently, we may have the technology to achieve pure realism in videogames at first glance, but I believe that is only true in the graphics department. Modern game developers lack the code and time needed to create perfectly realistic AI and player interactions. Letting an infatuation with realistic graphics will eventually compromise innovative gameplay and narrative of games, which would be a step backwards in the history of game development. Developers who focus enormous amounts of time, money, and employee energy into creating visually believable game worlds only disappoint the player further when they realize the realistic world is not consistent with the things they can do in-game. Having graphical fidelity as a priority also does not make sense within companies, as the cost and time it requires in order to increase graphics enough to feign realism is enormous. Companies would have to hire more and more people to model every object in the game with more polygons; more artists would have to create high-resolution textures; more time and energy would have to be put into communicating the artists, designers, and engineers in order to cram as many realistic assets into the game as possible—essentially, it would be extremely intensive in terms of money and time. One has to ask if all that hassle is worth it in the game industry, when the focus should be on the core functions of what makes a game.
According to Chris Crawford, author of The Art of Computer Game Design, developers should aim for consistency, although it is “not something players consciously look for in a game…[players] don’t notice any problem until [they] run smack into a glaring inconsistency” (Crawford). After all, no one who plays any of the Mario games asks why the golden coins are floating in the sky, waiting to be picked up by the plumber. No one questioned these unrealistic features and everyone was immersed in the game because the game was designed and envisioned to be in certain worlds where coins were meant to be like so. Roger Chandler, writer for Intel, dictates that “as developers continue to improve how these objects and creatures look in-game, they must also meet the players’ heightened expectations regarding how these objects and creatures will act” (Chandler). Putting players into familiar, lifelike settings will give them high expectations of realistic interactions, whether players realize it or not: “if that tree looks nearly identical to the one in my front yard, then it will be a noticeable distraction if it does not act like the real thing.” (Chandler, pg 2)
One can also say that defining all visual traits of a game and making the world realistic detracts from the player’s ability to simply imagine. Writer Kirk Hamilton writes about his feelings about Final Fantasy XIII and its stunning yet empty cutscenes:
Have we truly forgotten how potent and vital imagination is? I daresay that many big-budget game developers may indeed have…For all the color-drenched dazzle of Final Fantasy XIII’s blu-ray cutscenes, I found myself shutting down as I watched them. My eyes were overwhelmed, but my imagination was left fairly untouched…over the last ten years, Square’s (and many other developers’) designers have finally gained the technology required to make their wildest concept art into a million-polygon reality, and sure enough, they have allowed their own imaginations to take center stage while pushing ours aside without a second thought. Perhaps that means that no one has “forgotten” about imagination at all; they simply no longer need to rely on it. (Hamilton)
The Last Judgment by Rogier van der Weyden
Oil on panel, 1443-1451 (ArtBible)
Much of art in recent decades has been increasingly selfish, not just concerning games. The transition from the traditional Christian triptychs, painted for rich patrons by artists like Rogier van der Weyden, to the modern image of the independent, free-spirited artist indicates that change. Artists strive to bring their worlds to life without taking the audience into consideration, leaving the viewer little room for imagination and interpretation.
While one can argue to the contrary, I believe that hyper-realistic portraits work because they only engage the viewer’s sense of sight and ability to perceive another human’s face and expression. However, games engage players much more—visually, cognitively, and physically—by requiring them to interact with the system, adding more responsibility on the designer’s end in making sure that people will be immersed in their game. The uncanny valley is tied to less aspects of paintings or drawings than it is tied into aspects of games, such as character AI, animation, player interactions, and more. Game development companies who battle to have the most realistic game will eventually come to the similar-looking end goal that will ultimately fail the player’s expectations, which is why I believe frantically attempting to develop lifelike games is a waste of time and creative resources. Damion Schubert echoes my sentiments on the issue fantastically: “At the end of the day, players play games [to] escape the real world, so designers shouldn’t be such a salve to it…Good games make those fantasies as immersive as possible, but they don’t always do that by making them realistic. Sometimes, too much realism gets in the way” (Schubert, p. 1).
As an artist, I find it more interesting to see how viewers interpret or “bridge the gap” between their own imagination and what I give them, visually; game graphics should not serve to confine one’s imagination. Games deserve to be explored for their immersive qualities not in graphics, but with their gameplay and stories that can be reaffirmed with appropriate and fitting visuals. Recently, I spent some time watching my friend play rounds of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and I marveled at how nice the game looked since its Source days, back when my older brother played it. But I realized that my admiration did not come from a genuine appreciation for the art direction and execution. There is no real appeal of simulating real life, something that I wanted to escape whenever I entered a game world. On any given day, I would rather play a few matches of Team Fortress 2 instead of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive not just because it is a more familiar game to me but also because everything about the game is more appealing to me, personally. I have a deep appreciation for Team Fortress 2 and Valve’s hard work in its iterations of the style, evolving it to the cartoon feel it has now. I am sure Team Fortress 2’s aesthetics pleased many people—after all, there’s a reason why it’s still immensely popular, even after seven years. Similarly, this is why I am drawn to animated film features instead of live-action films such as The Polar Express, which struggled in the box office as The Incredibles dominated. Perhaps this is a result of my upbringing as an artist, since I understand the work put in the art of games and animation on a deeper level. However, any person can tell when the world, narrative, and aesthetics of a game or film mesh well together. I believe that having coherence in aesthetics is the only way to fully communicate a plethora of ideas clearly without distracting or dragging the audience away from the reason why developers are choosing to make a certain game.
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