Every Blade of Grass: The Pros and Cons of Photorealism in Video Games

Last year, a new indie development studio formed called Tangentlemen, a studio which includes quite a number of heavy hitters from some rather big name games of recent and past years. The Tangentlemen are comprised of folks like Cory Davis, the lead designer of Spec Ops: The Line, Rich Smith, formerly of Infinity Ward, who worked on both the Call of Duty series and Titanfall, and Toby Gard, one of the team who created the original Tomb Raider and who is credited with the creation of Lara Croft. In an interview on Gamespot, Smith discussed the reasons that he had for leaving “big games” behind in favor of making smaller indie games:

I was finding the structure of making big games to be too rigid and restrictive. There seems to be a problem with chasing after photorealism — it makes everything else about the game very myopic. By moving into an illustrative space, the look of the game can become a voice in its overall intent, rather than a limitation to that intent. It’s indie games that understand this, and because of that, it’s indie games that are really progressing the art form of game making. (Josiah Renaudin, “Former Call of Duty, Tomb Raider Devs Jumping AAA Ship to Make Their Own Next-Gen Title”, 17 March 2014)

“Chasing after photorealism” does seem one of the chief interests behind the development of some video games and the hardware that they run on. In a sense, I understand this desire, as I too have marveled at times at the way that the wind blows across a field of grass or at the reflective qualities of water in video games. However, this dream of creating photorealistic video games seems odd to me when considering the medium itself, especially in contrast to other artistic mediums.

To be frank, there are other artistic mediums that don’t have to chase photorealism at all. Indeed, they have already captured the elusive beast, and they did so long ago — namely photography and film. Both mediums are quite excellent at representing visual verisimilitude, and one wonders why this aesthetic is so important to a medium in which so many other visual possibilities are left available due to the nature of the medium itself.

While realism is an artistic philosophy and style that has been valued in art on again and off again in a variety of media, it certainly isn’t the only approach one can take to visual aesthetics or as a goal for art itself. Modernism, abstract art, surrealism, romanticism, and many more artistic and literary movements have eschewed realism as an artistic goal and philosophy, and frankly, the mediums that artists of these various stripes have approached their aesthetics from have often been better suited to establishing new possible visual aesthetics beyond that of mere mimesis.

Other visual mediums like painting, sculpture, and comic books have, for the most part, not “chased photorealism” or the mere desire to seek verisimilitude as the ultimate goal of art. Once again, frankly these mediums, painting, sculpture, and comic books, are better at expressing not an exact representation of the world, but possibilities of worlds, exaggerations of worlds, grotesque visions of worlds, and highly stylized worlds and characters. These are “illustrative spaces”, not photorealistic ones.

In this regard, what Smith is talking about makes a great deal of sense to me. Video games offer possibilities in terms of visual representation that seem more akin to painting, sculpture, and comic books than they seem like the possibilities that photography and cinema can provide. Video games allow for exaggeration, grotesquerie, and a stylishness that defies verisimilitude and allows for the presentation of possible worlds rather than the real world. So, why not use the medium to its best advantage?

Indeed, in recent years, I find myself more and more drawn to games that “look like video games” than to games that look photorealistic (or put another way, like movies). Edmund McMillen’s The Binding of Isaac is a game inspired not by the imagery of cinema, but by the imagery of classic video games. It resembles an early Nintendo game, The Legend of Zelda, to be precise, and actually tells a rather important story about religion and its influences on parenting and children because of, not despite, its 8- and 16-bit-inspired visuals.

The Binding of Isaac (Headup Games, 2011)

Indeed, one of the things that Isaac’s mother in the game wants to do to “cleanse” her son Issac of his sinfulness is to throw out his video games. In that regard, that the game resembles what a little boy would be playing around the time that McMillen was growing up seems apt. The game is about transforming Isaac into a grotesque and exaggerated creature based on power ups that frequently arise out of the very stuff that his mother fears, The Anarchist Cookbook, Isaac wearing her lipstick or underwear, video game systems, and the like. These power ups become the things that allow him to confront his mother in the game’s end. These are things that are a part of a world of make believe and the imagination, and thus, are defined best by a visual aesthetic reminiscent of the imaginary worlds of childhood in the digital age.

Other games of this sort also speak to me as visually more interesting than the latest high def console game, and as a result of embracing the visual possibilities of video games, seem to speak more interestingly about their subject matter. Hotline Miami‘s similarly retro aesthetics allow the game to call attention to a grotesque form of violence generated out of our fascination with pixelated violence, very much apart from concerns with real life violence. Its disaffected protagonist is a killer whose acts mirror nothing in reality beyond the experience of the gamer who has massacred hundreds and thousands of sprites in a detached, almost socioopathic way for years, and indeed, Hotline Miami feels like a game that is more interested in exploring representations of violence and how we experience them than it is a discussion of the consequences of actual violence.

Hotline Miami (devolver Digital, 2012)

However, it’s even more than simply the style of representation that seems to be at issue when discussing the push for a photorealistic aesthetic. At various times, developers have attempted to unburden games of HUDs, minimaps, and the other accoutrements of a game screen that are important to play, but seem to clash with a world that wishes to maintain a verisimilitude with reality rather than creating an interface that is important to the medium and the player.

Indeed, HUDs, minimaps, and the like do interfere with mimetic representation, but again, mimesis seems to be a red herring as far as the goals of games go. These elements make games seem like games, which is what they should do. They become means of interfacing with a world in a particular way and the form of interface is important to an interactive art form like a game. Strategizing and thinking tactically are inherently a part of playing a game, as such they do not mar its aesthetics. Instead, they are very much a part of gaming aesthetics. They support the player’s experience of their materials. In many ways, they are most truly what the game is “about”; skillfully designed mechanisms that help to establish a perspective on the game world are very much the art of the video game developer.

Pong (Atari, 1972)

This isn’t to say that these devices should clutter up a screen (Though, if need be, in a sense they should. For example, I can’t imagine playing League of Legends without all of the user display data present onscreen as I play.) Indeed, Pong required little (besides two lines and a square to represent paddles and a ball) other than a scoreboard as an aid to the player in understanding the way to apprehend the goals of the game and to comprehend how progress is made in it. Pong is an abstraction of table tennis, not a photorealistic representation of it. It wants to be nothing more than it is, nor should it.

This is not to say that I’m advocating exclusively using pixel art or retro art in video games, only that a game makes me more interested, more excited when it embraces all of the things that visual design can allow for in a digital space. I find the trailer for the forthcoming new Legend of Zelda game on Wii U mesmerizing in its visual design. Like photorealistic games, I marvel at how the wind moves blades of grass and the reflections in water in this game, but not because the game generally resembles a real world. Rather, it’s because the details resemble and construct a fantastic world that isn’t possible without spilling paint on a canvas or drawing panels in a comic book or rendering characters, places, and animations in a video game. Link resembles not a real person, but a fantastic avatar to inhabit in a digital space. Again, as he should.

In short, I couldn’t agree more with Smith’s advocacy of moving games as an art towards “an illustrative space”, rather than chasing down an aesthetic goal that is better suited to other mediums. Let video games look like video games. Let video games be video games, so we can admire them for what they do best, transporting us away from the real into realms of the possible or even the impossible.

Splash image from The Legend of Zelda for the Wii U (Nintendo, forthcoming)