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Analysis: Here's Another Strike Against 'Realism' In Games
Analysis: Here's Another Strike Against 'Realism' In Games
August 17, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander

[In the fast-paced, relatively impermanent culture of gaming, what qualities help a title last forever in our hearts -- and on our hardware? Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander takes a look at the realism fallacy.]

One of the difficult things about being into video games, whether as a fan or as a developer, is that the space moves so fast from a cultural perspective. Publishers want to win this holiday season, journalists want to agree on a "game of the year," and there's a lot of pressure to keep up. If you're still excited about summer's blockbuster when the fall's marquee hits shelves, no one's really going to listen to you.

The current business trend sees games' increasing migration away from the "ship and forget" model of yore and toward sustainable products that are valuable enough to users that they'll keep on buying DLC rather than sell the disc back to GameStop. You'd think this means individual games stay more popular longer, but even franchises that never seem to lose their players' interest in online experiences -- Call of Duty, for example -- still release bigger-badder-better annual installments.

Who knows whether the culture has become so obsessed with immediate popularity because the games industry marches forward so quickly and so persistently, or whether the industry's just trying to keep up. But an unfortunate consequence of this environment is that new games can present major technological advances over ones just a year older. In hardly any time at all, a game that isn't very old can look and feel as if it is.

The rapid evolution has shallowed somewhat in the current console generation, the duration of which has managed to constrain the past decade's often-stunning leaps and bounds. But the fact remains that a decade-old game may now look so rough and dated, may feel so clunky, that it's impossible to enjoy it now, even if it was an achievement in its time.

Surely not all of gaming's past should be left in its past; some of the most memorable and resonant entries in our history are over ten years old now, and are part of franchises fans still love today. The upcoming release of Deus Ex: Human Revolution has reminded countless gamers of formative experiences playing the original title ten years ago, and has inspired many more to try the original for the first time.

But the initial presentation of the game, from its premise to its graphics and sound and controls, are prohibitively dated, to where it's likely to deter all but the most seasoned gamers. And there are many more about which we can say the same: fellow stealth title Metal Gear Solid 4 was designed to show off the incredible fidelity and horsepower of the PlayStation 3, but original Metal Gear Solid on the PlayStation feels coarse and confusing to newcomers.

In both cases, there's a barrier to gamers understanding the enduring craft of a franchise, and it's a shame -- franchises with spiritual and emotional permanence in the gaming world seem to lose some of the possibility that people will return to them in actuality.

Perhaps in recognition of these barriers, there's been a massive surge in high-definition and/or 3D upgrades and re-releases of classic titles; The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on the 3DS, for example, is a loving re-rendering of a game that was beautiful for its time but is much less so now. Fans eagerly anticipate games like MGS 3, God of War, ICO and Shadow of the Colossus in HD.

These efforts on the industry's part are a heartening show of respect for some of history's most beloved and important games, and although of course HD re-releases don't exactly place old-school titles on the cutting edge, they go a long way toward narrowing the gap that prohibits younger generations and nostalgic longtime gamers from enjoying some of the classics.

It's not, however, as hard for some games to hold up. Somehow, a title like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, with its fascinatingly-detailed pixel art, is still just as playable as it once was -- if not moreso, in this era obsessed with film tropes and low friction. The watertight Mario formula -- bright, simple visuals and reliable mechanics -- is as fun in Super Mario 3 as it is in Galaxy 2 and even moreso when you've mastered all the levels and secrets. The joy of Katamari Damacy is so basic that its visuals and tech never had a thing to do with it in the first place.

In the case of ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, the symbolism of their visuals was always more important than the sophistication thereof; in that regard, a little HD spruce-up just allows the games' well-loved artistic spine to show better on new televisions. But what all the games that hold up well have in common versus the ones that look ever rustier in the rearview is one key thing: They aren't realistic.

I've written before about how abstraction serves immersion, and that "realism" isn't really what players want from video games. By being less literal, games give players the room to engage their imaginations and to personalize their experience.

But the pursuit of creative interpretation of characters and worlds, versus highly-detailed direct rendering, has the added benefit of lending games more permanence. Games that rely less on highly detailed graphics translate better as time passes, and are easier to return to, making them relevant longer.

Developers that want to invest in creating long-term franchises might do well to keep in mind whether the images, objects and symbolism they're crafting will suffer with the passage of time, and would benefit from focusing on visual structures alongside which technology can march appropriately and gracefully.

Because ten years from now when we want to remember the foundations you've laid, it would be amazing to experience them close to your original intention, rather than with the air of revisiting an anachronism.

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Lincoln Thurber
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Sure, ten years from now I might not want to play what passes for realistic today. But SO WHAT? Because today I want to play BF3 or any of the other more 'literal translation' of realistic graphics. Today, I want to play what looks fresh now. Therefore, why should I care about how I will feel about a game in ten years?

You argument is that we should "doll up" our games now so that we do not abhor to look upon them at exactly the time would SHOULD tire of looking at them. It is like telling the next hot young actress, "You look good now...but at age forty you will look like a leather hand bag. Therefore, we have decided to cover your face in pancake makeup and give you this artificial nose now; and thus, at age 20, 40 or even 60 it will be less jarring when people look at you.

What a backwards way to view the world -- you want to correct the present to preserve some theoretical please we might want in the future.

matthew diprinzio
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I think I got a different message from it. From my understanding, it's more like telling the young "hot actress" to try and succeed based on her own unique style/personality/talents rather than pure youth/looks. That way, when she does turn forty, she will still be relevant because style/personality/talent etc do not age.

Randy OConnor
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I agree with Matthew

Arahmynta Duhamel
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Yeah I agree with Matthew too... you missed the point he was getting at.

(Caps are meant for emphasis of particular points, I'm not shouting. :) )

What he's saying is that the advantage of using an art style over merely going for realism is that "realism" can only get as good as the technology available. But when something is intentionally done in a particular art style, everyone EXPECTS it to only look like what it is presented as, whereas games that are clearly aiming for realism may be looked at later and people will think "Oh, that looks wrong."

Think of Borderlands versus Crysis. Borerlands is not realism, but it has an incredibly strong style, and because it has chosen a particular style, no one will look at it and say "You did that wrong", or "That part doesn't look good enough", because as viewers, we know it looks that way on purpose. WE VIEW ITS SUCCESS AS STATIC.

The original Crysis, when it first game out made people say "OMG This is the most amazingly rendered thing ever!" But when seen in light of Crysis 2, it doesn't look as good to us as it did when we first saw it, because now we can see "Oh, these shaders are old. Newer gen ones look so much better." That's because when the aim is realism, WE VIEW ITS SUCCESS IN TERMS OF THE PRESENT.

Hence, if you want your IP to last as long as possible, you can help keep your visual appeal as long as possible by being STYLISTIC over REALISTIC.

That is what he's saying.

matthew diprinzio
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Interesting read, never thought of that before. Although "realism" can be a double-edged sword. Take BF3 for example, people are going nuts because Frostbite 2 is delivering some incredible visuals and taking "realism" to the next level in games, but 10 years from now it will most likely be forgotten since the next big "realistic" game will be out. However, a game like Bioshock Infinite could probably still entertain players 10 years from now because of it's unique art style and ideas, but BF3 will most likely outsell Bioshock Infinite.

This is a great question to keep in mind when developing a new game.

Benjamin Quintero
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I'm not sure if it's fair to compare against a game that isn't coming out for 3 years.

matthew diprinzio
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I'm more than sure the boys at Irrational Games will deliver the goods.

Zan Toplisek
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Bioshock Infinite is set for a 2012 release...

Benjamin Quintero
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Believe it when I see it. Last I heard; at least 2014.

Nathan Bleigh
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I think this has more to do with aesthetic coherence and consistency than it does with "realism" vs. "abstraction". In my opinion most games last because they have consistency and vision throughout the game world, whether realistic or not.

Bart Stewart
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I'm curious: was this for real? Or just a reversal to see if it makes sense or yields interesting insights?

Either way, I'm not persuaded that it holds. Processing power ten years ago was good for blocks-with-textures, it's true. But since then game systems have become capable of such high-quality graphics that developers have actually gone through "realism" to "stylized." To put it another way, graphics have become realistic enough now that they will age far, far less than a 2000-era game.

So I don't think I'd counsel developers to deliberately pre-crappify their game art now, any more than they should implement only 2-channel audio just because we might have duodecaphonic recording in 2020.

Also, I thought it was a little surprising to say:

> In the fast-paced, relatively impermanent culture of gaming, what qualities help a title last forever in our hearts -- and on our consoles?

when the image used to illustrate the article came from a classic PC game. :)

Steven An
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I would say it has more to do with changing tastes and conventions rather than realism. I think the main thing preventing "new gamers" from enjoying Deus Ex is probably just its gameplay. It's relatively complex, it relies quite a bit on trial and error, and it requires the player to navigate independently and figure a lot of things out. This is in stark contrast with modern gaming conventions, such as Call of Duty's linear "go this way and shoot". So, if they don't like it, they don't like it. Oh well.

Luke Shorts
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I can agree to a call for not pursuing realism in games as an objective in itself, however I cannot subscribe to the idea that games that do not have realistic graphics are relevant for a longer time; at most they stay accessible to a large audience for a longer period of time, which is not the same thing. There are plenty of classics in the literature and cinema that were fundamental for the definition of a genre and are ignored today by the majority because the way they deliver content is difficult to approach by modern standards, and there's no reason why this should not happen to videogames as well. What is peculiar to videogames is their rapid evolution, which means that a sizeable chunk of the contemporary audience has been there for most part of the medium's history, and this causes an odd sense of disconnect when revisiting old titles.

I also don't agree with the statement: "when we want to remember the foundations you've laid, it would be amazing to experience them close to your original intention, rather than with the air of revisiting an anachronism". If the "original intention" was to deliver a realistic representation of the world, the only way for them to do so was getting the best out of the currently available technology and relying on the fact that the audience is - at least unconsciously - aware of the limitations of the medium and therefore will "fill the gap" with suspension of disbelief (pretty much the same thing that happens with props in a theatre play). Of course, when the medium changes quickly, that sort of covenant with the audience can't hold up in the long run, but (as Bart put it in the comment above) "deliberately pre-crappify"ing graphics doesn't seem a solution either, and the result may actually end up looking like an anachronism more than not doing so.

Ernest Adams
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Strange that there's no mention of Microsoft Flight Simulator or Madden NFL in this article. I'm afraid that Ms. Alexander, whose opinion I respect on many subjects, has made the elementary mistake of thinking that video games are all about fantasy worlds. Do the players of Microsoft Flight Simulator want realism? You bet they do! Ditto sports games; with the exception of arcade-style games or imaginary sports, realism is the standard by which a sports game is judged: does it look and play like what we see on TV? Golf games pride themselves on the exactness with which they represent real golf courses, and I know from personal experience that developers spend thousands of hours a year researching the performance capabilities of every player in the NFL -- 1,696 men.

Vehicle sims and sports games never get the attention or credit that the other genres do, which is kind of stupid considering that the represent 22.5% of all console units sold. (