Video game graphics have come a long way since I was a pup. One of the first video games I remember watching my sister play as I drooled in neonatal awe was Batman on the Commodore 64, which by modern standards looks somewhat like Teletext if it bought some TK Maxx yoga pants and hit the gym for a few weeks. At the time, though, it was a beauty to behold. As I grew (and found video gaming controllers had another use besides being chewed on), I started to play games on my own, and with every passing year the graphical capabilities on display grew too.
2D games got prettier and developed in clarity and their overall general polish: Super Mario Bros. 3 on the NES was remade and re-released on the SNES only five years later, but already it was clear that every new generation of console was opening new graphical possibilities. What would happen over the next ten years would change the course of video gaming visuals forever: the advent of 3D polygon graphics, texture mapping and filtering, and the use of pre-rendering (think Donkey Kong Country’s backgrounds on the SNES, or the mansion in Resident Evil) changed the way games would look forever, and led us to where we are today – it’s a beautiful kind of place.
This beautiful place, a resort rife with visual seductions like Tomb Raider, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, The Last of Us, and Destiny, is a place game developers of the late 20th century could only fantasise about from their 32- and 64-bit bedsits, but where gaming graphics can go next is actually very limited. Nowadays, one of two options becomes available: the first is creating something visually unique or artistic; video games like Flower, Braid, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, or Okami swerve away from the somewhat expected avenue of gaming visuals, opting instead for something more stand alone and special. The second option?
Make the game look as realistic as possible. Game series with long histories best display this common trend: consider the Grand Theft Auto series, or Final Fantasy. I remember playing Final Fantasy VII and, with a tear trickling down my cheek, feeling like we’d come just about as far as we ever could graphically. My memory of the game, too, tricks me into believing it looked better than it did, because, at the time, nothing came close to it. Myst is another example of this, with its pre-rendered point-and-click goodness; in my mind, Myst was literally a real world I got to explore without ever having to change out of my Fireman Sam pyjama bottoms, but in reality, if today’s graphical achievements are gourmet meals in Lyon, Myst’s visuals are chips and curry sauce in Skegness. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a cone of vinegary spudlings along the blustery beachfronts of the English coast, but once you’ve tasted fine cuisine, it’s not so easy to slip back down the slope. Graphics, for many, are viewed in a similar vein.
Photorealism in video gaming is the aim for many when looking ahead. Ever since video gaming machines became more than bleeps and bloops with dots and dashes, there has been a desire to create the most visually stunning and authentic graphical experience possible. Old cutscenes in games often came closest, but as the years crept towards the new millennium, so too did actual in-game graphics creep ever closer to photorealism.
Games like Shenmue and Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty started to stand out as games with clear intent towards recreating reality, and were talking points at the time for their incredible visuals. As newer and more powerful consoles came to market, further and further improvements were made, which left many asking the question of how far video games would go graphically until someone decided it stopped being a game and became something ‘real’. Games like Heavy Rain, LA Noire, and, later, Beyond: Two Souls, began using real actors.
They would map facial expressions, and use performance capture much like the CGI made famous in the film industry, and this upped the expectation of the video gaming world again. Photorealism, it seemed, was not far away.
Now, with the use of Unreal Engine 4, game designer Benoît Dereau has created what is simply a ‘demo’ of things to come: a recreation of an apartment in astonishing detail. Though not true photorealism, at a quick glance the quality of the different surface textures, reflections, and lighting are unlike anything before it, and are evidently just a taster of what we can expect from video games moving forward. Dumbfounding and breath-taking as these visuals may be, it does leave me questioning what this could actually mean for the video games of tomorrow.
The footage shows an environment that is static, for a start: how will this level of detail and realism map onto a moving, interactive character model, for example? And, should photorealism be achieved for both playable and non-playable characters, how will we find gunning down our enemy in the first photo-realistic Call of Duty? Your kill-to-death ratio is palatable currently, as you’re very aware that what you’re ‘killing’ is only a representation of a human being, albeit a highly detailed one. But what happens when graphics are so good, it gets a little too real? Maybe, as in more modern horror films, it’ll just be another aspect of our entertainment that we eventually become desensitised too, and something most of us will still be able to separate from the real world.
And I hope that’s the case, because I worry that once video games visually imitate reality they’ll lose something about them that makes them so astonishing and captivating. The Marios and Minecrafts of the world needn’t worry, as they’ll just keep on getting more vividly colourful and wonderfully wonderful, but when we get to the point where we stop saying “Wow, aren’t these graphics amazing?” and instead say “I feel like I actually just robbed that car!”, will we feel the same kind of awe? The same magic?
Time will tell. There is no doubt that we’ll get to the point where photorealism is the common coat of paint in video game visuals, and maybe graphics will one day surpass even photorealism and make way for hyper-uber-post-photorealism – if our brains and eyes could even comprehend such a thing! One upside to photorealism is surely that, once it’s achieved, we can do things in video games that are impossible in the real world, but they’ll look – and maybe even feel – as though they are real. Flying a plane with the current graphical capabilities of consoles is fun, sure. But what a hoot it’d be to fly a plane under the sheen of photorealism! And how great will it be to explore photo-realistic caverns and tombs?! And imagine being able to pick up all of the photo-realistic women in GTA…
…yeah. That’s enough video gaming for today.