Can Video Games Be Saved From Reality?

Do Better Graphics Result in Better Games? Short Answer? Nope.

Monet Painting
Proof that art can feel more real than technological reproduction.

The first video game I ever played was Pong. A little computer pixel bounced between two paddles made up of a few more pixels. You could slide those paddles up and down. The game didn’t look like much, but it was a lot of fun.

Video games look a lot better than they did in the 1970s. And that’s great, because there aren’t that many games you can make about a single pixel gliding across a black screen. But as we wait for Nintendo's next console, The NX, questions are once again arising about whether it will reach for the cutting edge of console graphics or whether, like the Wii and Wii U for it, the console will be stay a step behind. And once again I am thinking of how foolish the chase for supergraphics is. I have to ask: Have games gotten bogged down in reality?

The History of Reality

The search for a better emulation of reality has been with us for decades. In movies, silents gave way to sound, black-and-white gave way to color. Screens got wider to fill in our peripheral vision. Movies frequently ventured into 3D, with varying success, always trying to reach a perfect of reality.

Video games have also been working on their reality. From simple monochromatic displays of pixels, games added color, scrolling backgrounds and 3D environments. With each technological leap we have seen higher frame rates, more detailed textures, smoother animations. The 3DS brought glasses-free 3D to gaming, and we are just entering a new era of VR.

In some ways, this is all good. The power of modern consoles allows game designers to create rousing scenes of vast crowds moving effortlessly through huge, elaborate, detailed worlds. But the graphic processors that make that possible also encourage game designers to strive ever onward towards something that looks “real.” And sometimes that hyper-reality creates not a believable world as much as it does a rather boring one.

The Unreality of Reality

I still recall playing a little of Call of Duty: Black Ops on the Xbox 360 at a press event. Since I mainly played Wii games at the time, I was truly dazzled by the visuals. The reflections in the water, the convincing physics of explosions, the chickens walking around, were all amazing examples of exactly how far technology has brought games.

And yet, I didn’t really like the look. It was too crisp, too shiny, too slick; war shouldn’t look so clean. In a way, the attempt at perfect real world graphical fidelity just made everything feel false.

A photograph can show you a woman standing on a hill, but for me, no photograph has ever felt as real as Monet’s Woman With a Parasol. The painting wouldn’t be mistaken for reality, yet I can feel the sun, I can feel the wind, I can feel the grass blowing. It is the reality of imagination.

Copying reality sometimes feels unreal. The team that made Ico at first tried motion capture for its character’s movements and found it looked artificial. They wound up using old-school animation instead, and the characters came alive as living, breathing people.

Of course, there’s no need to even attempt reality. Games like Okami and Mad World were purposely, flamboyantly not real, and they were visually stunning. But it feels like such attempts at high style are fading away in favor of glistening surfaces and HD textures.

Even among games that want to look like the real world, they are at their best when that real world is approached artfully. The first Splinter Cell game is, for me, easily the most visually striking, not because of the raw graphics processing, which has improved mightily since then, but because of the incredible art design. The game had an amazing sense of light and shadow, and I still remember seeing the shadow that moths cast on a wall and drapes billowing in a hallway. Subsequent games approached their visuals in a utilitarian fashion, offering finer details but less art.

This does not mean that I hate graphics improvements. As much as I love Ico, with its impressionistic, PS2 visuals, the sharper visuals of the PS3 HD version are appealing. But the reason that either version is beautiful is because of the underlying art direction; the technology is just a tool.

The Problem With a Graphics Obsession

This was always my issue with complaints about the lack of HD in the Wii. The problem with Wii games was not that they weren’t HD, but that few of them had decent art design. Graphics improvements are a brain disease that makes game designers incapable of thinking about anything other than frame rates and textures, and the Wii games that looked good, like The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and Disney Epic Mickey, looked good because the designers were working to make something that looked good on the Wii, rather than scaling down something that would only look good on a PS3. They were games that put imagination ahead of technology. 

I think much of the reason Nintendo didn’t worry about competing graphically with the other consoles when it released the Wii was simply because Nintendo has always been more concerned with imaginative visuals than with realism. Nintendo’s gaming-god-in-residence Shigeru Miyamoto has said that he wasn’t interested in making things look real, and that’s pretty much Nintendo policy. Even when they put out something with more realistic graphics, like the Metroid Prime games, they tend to choose colors and designs that are a little more cartoony.

Ultimately, technological progress is always a trade-off. Many filmmakers were horrified by the advent of sound, having spent years defining a medium that beautifully told stories through visuals. Their fears were justified at first; cameras stopped moving, scenes went on and on. Eventually filmmakers found a way to use their new tools. But in videogames, new technological leaps don’t arise once every few decades but rather every few years or even months, and game designers often become so obsessed with getting that hyper realistic sheen that they have no thought left for making something visually unique.

Reality < Beauty

Better graphics don't make better games. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD is not more fun than the original, and while it looks better in a side-by-side comparison video, I barely noticed the improvement while playing, because a game is not about studying the pixel count but about having an experience. 

The one year I went to the gaming convention E3 was the year of the Xbox 360. I remember walking around, seeing games that represented the current height of technology, and feeling they all looked like the same damn game. Of everything I saw there, the only game whose visuals excited me was Okami, a PS2 game with unique watercolor-style graphics. It wasn’t a game that pushed the possibilities of visual fidelity, but rather a game that pushed the boundaries of what a game could look like.

Many critics objected that with the Wii U, Nintendo shirked its responsibility to join in the graphics war, and these same critics insist that the NX needs to offer the best possible graphics for Nintendo to get its mojo back. Instead of insisting Nintendo join the race, though, I wish I could persuade the industry to slow down. In the world of high-powered, HD graphics, I still ask only one thing of the world’s game designers. Don’t use graphics power as a crutch but as a tool, and make something beuatiful.