Realism in games – a step in the wrong direction?

Image by Flickr User: Jurvetson
Image by Flickr User: Jurvetson

Hello my pretties! This week I’m writing on an issue that’s close to my heart – realism in games and the general trend in the games industry of making games that are more and more realistic. When it came out, everyone was gushing about Half Life 2‘s physics engine and the ability it gives you to manipulate objects or affect the environment in ways  that closely mimic real life. With every new innovation in technology, we are brought closer and closer to games that not only look like real life, but actually behaves like it and contains people that seem as solid as you or I. If you aren’t convinced, just take a look at Quantic Dream’s impressive tech demo:

It’s incredible isn’t it? People love this kind of thing and it’s no wonder that developers are scrambling over themselves to provide it for them.

You might think that being a huge fan of immersive RPGs like the Mass Effect series, I would love realism in my games. I’m not denying that it has its place or that I am eagerly awaiting the day where virtual reality becomes more than a game and becomes almost like a second life. However, I believe that there’s more to games than that, that we can take the medium further and that this obsession with realistic graphics, physics engines and AI and so on will have a negative impact on the industry we love so much.

My main issue with the trend towards ever greater realism is that I think it hampers progress. There is, at the moment, a huge focus and expense paid for tech that will make the game look amazing, but often at the cost of the narrative and characters – LA Noire and Uncharted are only two examples of this for me. This focus also hinders creativity and the development of other ways of telling stories or enhancing gameplay. Instead game studios are restricted by the narrow limits of gravity, realistic facial expressions, lifelike movements and getting rid of that dreaded deadness behind the eyes that 3D models often have. Major developers don’t experiment much with what has worked for them so many times. It’s understandable, considering the sway that hyper-realistic games like Call of Duty have had on the gaming community. They seem to leave the real innovation to indie developers like Blendo Games of Thirty Flights of Loving, which I reviewed here. What that game achieved, which so many modern games shy away from, is that it found a new way to tell a story. No words were required, there was no real linearity of time and it took your conception of what a game is and turned it inside out. Whether you like games like that or not, the fact that games like that are made, I believe is a good thing for video games and for storytelling generally, whether it’s movies or books or games. Reality hampers the imagination and limits the tools at your disposal in creating a work of art.

What developers fail to realise is that realism and immersion, although they often go hand-in-hand, do not necessarily lead on from each other. I love the unique cartoony animation style of Borderlands 2 and the game wouldn’t have been what it was without it. It’s also not realistic in any sense of the word, but it’s no less immersive as a game. Pandora was just a different kind of world to ours. I think that the trick is to build a world so full and rich that you’re transported there immediately and can’t help but be immersed in it. You don’t need realism to leave the real world behind you. How many hours did you spend on Mario and Sonic when you were younger and did you really think about the outside world during that time or were you not fully involved in that universe and its characters? True, you were probably younger and had a boundless imagination, but I don’t think that’s all there is to it. I obviously don’t need to remind you how unpolished those games look compared to the AAA titles of this day and age. The things we could achieve with the technology we have now! I’d like to believe that given the option, many people, even if its not the majority, would choose a game with an incredible story and gameplay over a game that has nothing going for it except shiny, pretty graphics. I feel that in modern day society we have been conditioned to believe that art is only beautiful if it closely resembles life and to me that’s a tragedy, especially considering what we have at our fingertips. You can see this happening everywhere from Hollywood movies to the proliferation of reality TV shows and even in pop music. In my parents’ day, songs told stories, whether personal or fictional.  Now, not all, but much of pop music focuses on slice-of-life situations or specific inane aspects of people’s lives. Creators want you to relate to their game, TV show, song or movie and yet what they don’t realise is that all of the effort put into mirroring our regular lives isn’t necessary. In the days before all of this technology, before TVs and radios, people used to tell stories by word of mouth with nothing to aid them in their storytelling other than their talent and their own imagination. Many of these stories still live on today.

Lastly,  a slightly more minor, but still important issue is centred around the uncanny valley effect, which states that as a robot or animated model’s similarity to humans increases, empathy also increases until there comes a point when the likeness is pretty close, but not 100% where we feel instead feel revulsion. As has been pointed out before, there are many creepy examples of this  and you can probably think of a few yourself. My point is that sometimes when attempts to create extremely realistic characters and environments are almost achieved, but inevitably fall short (as we simply don’t have the tech at the moment to create animation that is indistinguishable from the real thing) what happens is actually the opposite of the desired effect. Rather than feel completely immersed, because the setting feels so familiar and the people look so much like us, we end up, sometimes unconsciously, noting the things that make that world false. LA Noire, for instance, uses advanced tech to very closely imitate the facial expressions of the actors to the point where you can tell if they’re lying (indeed, that’s the point of the game). The result is impressive. However, there is no chance that I would look at a screenshot from the game and think it was a real picture. It’s not an easy thing to pin down, as I think humans, to an extent, automatically identify those of the same species as us in ways that are subconscious, but there’s something about the deadness of the eyes, the slight stiffness of the movements and the lack of subtle nuances of the face that humans are capable of. Not to mention that the environment just looks kind of flat by comparison. Rather than feeling like I was really a cop in LA in 1947, I was even more aware of all the slight differences between the world of LA Noire and real life. The more they tried to convince me that this was real, the more I noticed that the people just weren’t moving right and that Cole Phelps, star cop, wielded a gun like it was a live fish he was wrestling. Countless other games are guilty of this. How many games have you played with amazing graphics where you couldn’t jump? It’s little things like that that actually take away from the realism of games for me, that actually makes games less immersive. I’m not saying that developers should just give up, but that they should perhaps try a little less hard to make everything perfect and focus more on creating a fully-realised world that works within its own boundaries.

In the end, I guess what I really want is more variety, more imagination, games that blow my mind and overwhelm more senses than just my eyes. I want developers to take realism less seriously and to expand their imaginative horizons and use the amazing tools at their disposal for more than just making faces twitch in just the right way. I want a revolution of what games actually are, of what they can do!

That’s just me anyway, what do you guys think?

[This article was originally posted on CheeeseToastieandVideoGames  February 25, 2013]


  1. duckofindeed says:

    I agree. I want a game that’s fun. If it looks great, that’s an added bonus, but if it doesn’t, that’s fine. It partly depends on the game, too. I don’t ever want “Mario” or “Zelda” to look realistic. The graphics improve and become less blocky, but they shouldn’t ever look real. (Imagine a real Mario. *shudder*) Realistic doesn’t mean better. In “Halo 4”, however, the graphics were amazing, and it works. (There are moments where the graphics look like a photo.)

    The graphics should fit the game and should not be the main focus. If graphics mattered most, I’d just watch movies with good animation. Why bother playing if gameplay doesn’t matter? And yeah, when graphics get too realistic, it gets really creepy. I have yet to see a game that has been like that, but I have seen animated people in videos or movies or real robots made to look human. It is chilling. (Like that “Beowulf” movie. So spooky.)


    1. Sam Leung says:

      Yeah it definitely does depend on the game. The idea of ‘Mario’ or ‘Zelda’ as realistic is just plain scary. What about a realistic Sonic? It would probably haunt me in my dreams. There are games where ogling at the graphics is one of the best parts about the game and it works. It all depends on the suitability of the game I think. Exactly, graphics can be a great bonus, but I really don’t think it should be the main focus either. As you said, why not just watched an animated movie instead if that’s what you’re looking for? Games are supposed to be fun, so I totally agree, gameplay is a crucial part of the experience! I haven’t seen the ‘Beowulf’ movie, but I just checked out a few images and it does look pretty creepy! Robots made to look human freak me out to no end. They can even make them realistically sound like humans now too! Every time I see something like that I just assume it’s a matter of time before they rise up and murder us all! I’m not paranoid at all…


  2. Hatm0nster says:

    Focusing on portraying the world as it is is a mistake for games. We don’t play games to act out real life or remain bound by its rules. We play games to leave those things behind. We want to experience the fantastic, the incredible, the impossible! All that happens when you focus on making a game resemble the real world is making it bland like the real world. Those games aren’t special, there’s nothing distinguishing them and making them memorable. I can’t name any locations that stood out to me in any of the games I’ve played that go for a very realistic world setting. When I do all can think of is a dark alley, or a house, or a sewer etc. As a point of comparison, I can very clearly remember tons of locations from Zelda games, Bioshock, Mass Effect, etc.

    Kind of off-topic, but this has affected AAA game music too, it’s all orchestral scores. The music is by no means bad, but does any of it stand out in your mind? So much of it doesn’t have anything to distinguish it cause they seem to think that simply having orchestral music is enough (there are exceptions: Mass Effect, Bioshock, Uncharted’s main theme).

    Real is bland and boring. Give us the extraordinary!


    1. Sam Leung says:

      Ah, wow, this comment was from a long time ago and apparently I somehow missed it! Well… better late than never right? I wasn’t ignoring you, I promise!
      I totally agree with you. I think most of us play games to see and feel something more interesting and fantastical than your everyday experience. Sure there are great games that play on that realism, but I think to focus on that is just the wrong way to go about it. The most memorable settings for me are also the ones that are completely unique like Pandora from Borderlands or the Citadel from Mass Effect.
      I definitely agree with you on the music front as well. Great dramatic orchestral music can be great, but it does seem like it’s become the norm.
      I think just going for realism is the easy way out. We definitely need a huge injection of creativity into the industry!


    2. I think this is generally true for ME, but what about the players that play Civilization V to no end? Or Euro Truck Simulator 2013? These are games that have MASS appeal, and I don’t understand it. But, whether I get it or not, those games are out there and people LOVE them.

      In adventure games, perhaps you’re right. But there’s literally a genre of “simulation” games out there. We can’t forget about that.

      Also, I’m so glad you mentioned Bioshock’s score. It’s a great exception, and superbly well-crafted.


      1. Hatm0nster says:

        You’re right, I did forget about the simulation genre. I suppose like most things there’s a place for realism. I was mostly focused on adventure, horror, and what not.


        1. Yeah. In those genres, simulation doesn’t really seem like the end-all be-all.


      2. Sam Leung says:

        That is a good point and yeah, I would definitely agree that there’s a place for simulation games, although I’m not really big them myself. After all, as you said, it’s a genre that has mass appeal and many many fans. There are also many other types of games that I think thrive on realism. It’s just the mainstream fixation on realism that bothers me. It seems like most games studios these days think that achieving the highest level of realism is the biggest success and while it is often very impressive, I think focusing on that limits how creative many modern games are. Anyways, basically I definitely agree with you about simulation games have their place!


  3. I’ve recently been playing The Last of Us, and I’ve noticed that the cutscenes are remarkably more emotionally evocative because the actors really have surpassed that uncanny valley. They’re eliciting human empathetic emotions in me.

    The difference is — and this is the heart of your article — that the game doesn’t give it better graphics JUST TO HAVE BETTER GRAPHICS. Instead, they serve a purpose in the larger, well-realized game world.

    The Last of Us makes me feel something, and so did Thomas Was Alone. It isn’t about polygon count, but sometimes it certainly helps.


    1. Sam Leung says:

      I’m just about to start TLOU! I’ve had the same experience with a few of the more recent games though and it’s the impression I’ve been getting from some of the E3 trailers. We’re definitely getting past the uncanny valley effect with facial expressions and movement becoming more and more realistic. I think it’ll take us some time to get to 100% accuracy, but we’re getting there!
      As you said, having a high polygon count can help with evoking emotion and making a story more powerful. I think the mistake that many developers make is thinking that’s all they’ll need to make a game interesting and that’s not true. But I totally agree, seeing ever-increasing realism and better acting in games is amazing!


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