Photorealism And The Confusing Myths Of Innovation

By Jim Rossignol on August 2nd, 2012 at 1:00 pm.


In an excerpt from a forthcoming Games Industry International interview, we find this statement from 2K boss Christoph Hartmann:

“Recreating a Mission Impossible experience in gaming is easy; recreating emotions in Brokeback Mountain is going to be tough, or at least very sensitive in this country… it will be very hard to create very deep emotions like sadness or love, things that drive the movies,” he said. “Until games are photorealistic, it’ll be very hard to open up to new genres. We can really only focus on action and shooter titles; those are suitable for consoles now.” He continued, “To dramatically change the industry to where we can insert a whole range of emotions, I feel it will only happen when we reach the point that games are photorealistic; then we will have reached an endpoint and that might be the final console.”

Let’s examine that.

I can’t remember the first time I heard the idea that games could one day be “photorealistic”, but I suspect it was in an early issue of Edge, with a columnist or interviewee from the early Nineties making hand-wavey statements about the future of graphics, and therefore the future of games.

Concluding that innovation in videogames is tied to technological progression is an easy mistake to make, of course, because the entire history of the form has been framed by a racing acceleration of both hardware and software. That connection to rapid technological change makes the nature of games quite confusing, and if there were to seem to be a goal or an “end” for it, then it should surely be for games to have the same (or somehow better) fidelity as the real world. This is a mistake has been pervasive, and I can see precisely why it has come about.

Denying that graphics have been important to gaming would be like denying that printing had been important to literature. Graphics aren’t incidental to the medium, they *are* the medium. It was one of the reasons the old “graphics vs gameplay” dichotomy never really made sense. It’s hard to extract one from the other. Wolfenstein wouldn’t have been Wolfenstein if Id hadn’t figured out how to make the graphics to protray first-person Nazi-killing. Of course you can white-box anything, and boil it to down to its most primitive elements, but the truth is that it does not remain the same game. It’s the combination of visuals, audio, and mechanics that make the experience of a game what it is, and none of these can be fully extracted from the other without changing the nature of the game.

With this in mind, the mistake that Mr Hartmann seems to be making in that GII article is almost understandable: “Until games are photorealistic, it’ll be very hard to open up to new genres.”


Let’s not be unfair here: New technologies have always been tied to new types of games. Hartmann is trying to say that conveying emotion will be easier, somehow, when game characters can look like real people. He’s saying that the technology will open up the emotive space. He’s spectacularly wrong, of course – blinkered like a man whose only exposure to human culture is HD Hollywood movies – because there’s nothing photorealistic about half the animated movies that can readily make you cry, and a long history of highly emotive written words have no “graphics” at all. Fidelity has nothing to do with emotional affect.

What’s most intriguing about Hartmann’s statement is the idea of “the final console”. Perhaps, in some way, he’s right. Perhaps when there’s a machine which can render all potential visual styles in real time – from the crudest 8-bit imagery to photorealistic intricacies – that will be the “final” console. But ultimately the ideal of a final machine misses the point: we already have formidable technology. If we’d stopped having new technology in 2003 we could still expect years and years of exploration in the space provided by that technology. Simply creating more technology, and systems that will allow us to be “photorealistic”, is actually not the challenge at all. In fact, it’s almost inevitable. That’s the easy part of progress. It will do nothing to open up new genres, nor to give gaming sudden access to a greater breadth of emotions. The inexorable march of tech does not expand creative frontiers, even as it enables them. Only design can do that.

A couple of years ago I sat on a panel with Viktor “City 17″ Antonov and asked him whether he thought increasing fidelity in gaming was important. For someone interested in fantastical architecture and complex visions of fantasy cities, you might have thought he’d say yes. But he said no. The challenge – I paraphrase here – was to work out how to use less detail. The challenge, he said, is to use style and abstraction to convey meaning and emotional gravity. Art, not technical photography or documentary, is the thing to look for when exploring new frontiers. To use the most trivial example, just look at the humour we derive from the cartoonish antics of Team Fortress 2. Would that be possible with photorealistic men? Possibly, but I suspect our laughter would take on quite a different tone. Comedy, certainly, is something that does not require improved graphics for us to have access to. The same is true of fear, wonder, loss, catharsis… Games already have quite a repertoire.


No, Mr Hartmann. No. The challenge, the way to open up new genres, does not depend on photorealism. It is not hard because the technology hasn’t been created, it’s hard because creativity is hard. It’s hard because accessing people’s emotions is hard. It’s hard because games are not a passive form of storytelling that has been honed over centuries, but instead a new, complex interactive form with near infinite variables, which no one person has truly mastered.

It’s hard because making something new is always hard.

But even with the tools we have right now, it’s nonetheless possible.

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201 Comments »

  1. Zanchito says:

    It’s not the size of it, it’s how you use it!

    • yhancik says:

      Yet some people keep being obsessed with enlarging their graphics.

      • max pain says:

        Everybody knows pixel count matters.

      • jrpatton says:

        Readers, I want to touch on a serious problem. Overclocking. Thousands of gamers each year overclock to enlarge their graphics. Studies link overclocking to increased heat, smack talking, and, in some cases, premature GPU death.

        Do you really want this to happen to your honest, hard working, graphics card?

        • tlarn says:

          I want this post written as an illuminated manuscript and framed on my wall.

        • Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

          graphics disapoint?

          Good herbal graphics enhancement pills good!!!Fast shipping into you!!!Discreet packaging!!Yes!!!You buy

        • Eukatheude says:

          Actually, slight overclocking is nothing but a good thing, especially on cpus. Granted, you need to have something better than the stock Intel fan, but chances are you got rid of that piece of crap anyway. Overclocking a cpu (WITHOUT overvolting) can save you some bucks, since a lot of cpus are sold at different factory clockings, while the hardware is still the same. So purchase the cheapest one, OC it and you have the *same* product for less money. Hardcore l33t OC is completely useless, but anything under 3.6 ghz is fine.

    • apa says:

      Says the one with the small graphics…

  2. maweki says:

    I wonder how the controls for the Brokeback Mountain Game would look like. I feel that emotional interaction with games are bound by their input method.
    The game can convey emotions via the screen. But can you input your thoughts, emotions, reactions? No. You can maybe choose from four or five emotions. But we will get really new games with input methods that let us truly interact with a game. The other way (Game to Person) seems, as Jim states, good enough.

    • Oh Tyrone says:

      Well, we do have this thing called (written) language, which is an excellent tool for conveying the player’s emotions. I think the problem with emotional *interaction* between the game and the player (as opposed to the game simply evoking feelings) is more due to developers’ unwillingness to utilize the tools at hand rather than the lack of such tools.

      • maweki says:

        We all know about the state of the spelling prowess of our younger gamers. Also, I would find it rather difficult, English not being my first language and such…
        And I think that typing is not really a natural way of input. It’s the best one we currently have, I guess. But keyboards are far from good, imo.

      • medwards says:

        I think you severely underrate how difficult natural language processing is. Emotional conveyance is a little bit more nuanced than: “[verb] [object] [preposition] [container]” (for you aka “put hand in pants”)

      • The Random One says:

        Your lover lies dead at your feet!
        > CRY
        What do you want to cry about?
        > DEATH
        I don’t see that here!

      • Baines says:

        Work in IF has been struggling with computers interpreting the written language since the early days of the genre. It is still a struggle. People have enough trouble setting up a machine to understand which rock you mean when you say “Listen to rock”, when standing in a room with a CD player while you have a rock in your pocket.

        Plus, people are just really lousy at writing these days.

    • Xercies says:

      The problem is is that maybe thats the wrong way to go you always think of what can i put into this game but maybe we should think of what i should get out of the game and using gameplay and symbols and our own mise en scene to get something emotional out of it…

    • Urthman says:

      I think he’s trying to say that Duke Nukem Forever would have been a heart-wrenching bromance if only the graphics had been more realistic.

  3. DarrenGrey says:

    Bravo, well said! And I think the great counter-point to the idea of photorealism being important is Proteus, which you includes screenshots of. A stunning example of how realistic graphics are in no way needed to give a unique and compelling experience.

  4. mikmanner says:

    Yeah, that’s an incredibly uneducated statement from Hartmann, I think this is the most abstract example I can think of right now http://www.necessarygames.com/my-games/loneliness/flash – this game is just black squares on a white background but it is still able to give me an emotional reaction that doesn’t have anything to do with violence or comedy.

  5. oWn4g3 says:

    Why would an expert of this industry say such things? Is it just another way of demanding better technology for the next generation of consoles or is he really convinced of what he talks?

    It’s really not necessary to list all the “low-fi” games that evoked more emotions than DX11 AAA titles.

    • TechnicalBen says:

      I wish I could post anonymously here… because I know of only two reasons someone would write such comments, and neither reflect well on their professionalism. :(

    • Pony Canyon says:

      It’s baffling to me how someone becomes an ‘expert of the industry’ and still thinks like this.

    • Hmm-Hmm. says:

      Either he’s really ignorant (probably not) or he is saying it on purpose to forward some goal (and ignorance). Ulterior motives, basically. And probably nothing that bodes well for us/the rest of the industry which doesn’t need that type of remark.

  6. abandonhope says:

    Uh, yeah, no. The most emotionally charged game I’ve played in recent memory was The Walking Dead, with its highly stylized comic book visual aesthetic and all. Hell, some of the most emotionally mature and insightful works I’ve ever seen were anime. I’d bet my (mother’s) life that My-HiME objectively had more interesting things to say about love than every romantic comedy combined.

    Edit: Also, Passage: http://hcsoftware.sourceforge.net/passage/

    • Chaku01 says:

      I remember “passage”, still have the chills when I think about it, truely brilliant and done in the lowest fidelity possible. I immediately felt connected to those few pixels on the screen, more so than most of the hi res human models in most games. I would add that minecraft is quite good at it as well, but there I can clearly say that the music plays a big part in creating all the emotions, like loneliness and fear

  7. TechnicalBen says:

    “Until games are photorealistic, it’ll be very hard to open up to new genres. We can really only focus on action and shooter titles; those are suitable for consoles now.” He continued, “To dramatically change the industry to where we can insert a whole range of emotions, I feel it will only happen when we reach the point that games are photorealistic; then we will have reached an endpoint and that might be the final console.”

    What!?!?! Has this person never read a book? I’ll give you 1 guess at what the graphics fidelity is of one of those “book” thingies and how much the “graphics” contributes to emotions.

    • Llewyn says:

      The graphical fidelity of books is absolutely limitless, although of course the interface for realization of book graphics is a rather complex one. Games, on the other hand, as with film are clearly limited in how they can represent realities by the simple reality that they have to represent them.

      I don’t agree with Hartmann’s viewpoint at all, but yours is clearly just as nonsensical.

      • TechnicalBen says:

        Nope. Games and films just turn the words from a page to a screen. If you require the game or film to spell out all the fidelity you’ve stopped using your imagination. As proof of this, what about “theater”? That has the realism but also requires you to “imagine” the bits that are outside or not shown on stage. Say they use a painted backdrop to pretend they are on a busy street.

        Dwarf fortress and Oblivion have the same graphics fidelity in my mind, even if on screen they are different. I’d also argue cartoons vs live action films does the same.

        It’s generally called “the suspension of disbelief” as regards to story, but it can apply to the “image” you are creating in a persons mind too.

        • NathanH says:

          You are very lucky. I think for the majority of people that level of imagination is very difficult. Especially when what you have on the screen is *almost* lifelike but different enough to be noticeable. At that point things become quite hard.

          • TimEatsApples says:

            Maybe that’s the point. The graphics in Dwarf Fortress allow the player to use their unshackled imagination to populate the world with real, living dwarfs with real lives. The graphics in Oblivion, which come closer to something like “photorealism” are a hindrance to that, because they provide enough context to let you know what this or that person looks like, but aren’t good enough to convey real life, so you just see an ugly dude with a blocky head. (I’m not hating on Oblivion there – it’s obviously trying to do something quite different to DF, and as a world-exploration game it succeeded quite well before Skyrim made it redundant.)
            The best example I can think of recently is the love scenes in Dragon Age, where it was hard to see past the blocky textured polygons almost – but not quite – touching and interacting with each other. The end effect was nothing but comical, and took you out of the game. It’s approach to lifelike graphics was a hindrance, in a way that it’s not with countless pixel-art games, whose stripped-back visuals let you fill in the blanks.

          • NathanH says:

            Couldn’t agree more.

          • Llewyn says:

            @TimEatsApples: Thank you. I should perhaps have been clearer that I was referring to “graphical” games, but assumed it was clear from the context of the article.

            DF is a very different case, and one which highlights the point I was getting at quite well; it doesn’t visually represent the world, it conveys a foundation for you to imagine the world, exactly as a book does and in a way that a game like Oblivion doesn’t.

          • TimEatsApples says:

            @Llewyn You know, I actually commented to make the point “And therefore DF is like a book”, but I guess I forgot. Ho hum. But yeah, I think there might actually be an inverse relationship between graphical fidelity and range of emotion. Hence the fact that most of the really interesting emotionally-laden games tend to be simple sidescrollers and Flash games, where the sprites are almost pegs we can hang our own interpretations upon. I’m not sure you could get the same effect from full 3D and pixel shaders, or at least you’d have to work harder at it.
            And Pac-Man makes me cry every time.

          • Faxmachinen says:

            I don’t think 3D and pixel shaders are hinderances in themselves. Dreamfall (2006) and Mass Effect 2 (2010) are 3D and sprinkled with pixel dust, yet both have kept me up at night (literally as well as figuratively). And I only just played them recently too.

            AAA developers are chasing the emotional rabbit down the polygon road to the Castle of Realism. Charging into unknown territory may yield more polygons, but any advantage over the rabbit quickly sinks into the mire.

        • syndrome says:

          I must agree with this.

          Dwarf Fortress is esentially a procedurally generated story book with some moveable parts on the screen, for the more mundane stuff that would otherwise require an unusable shitload of text. It is a fully interactive world, which can be stopped at any time (just like you can stop reading), but full of mind vistas, characters, and situations, extremely rich in details, because imagination works like that: it fills the gaps, constantly interpolating and iterating over the game facts in a fractal manner. This allows the player to zoom in and out seamlessly, using only their mind, to flesh out the world, without having to be reminded constantly that the world is in fact artificial. That’s one of the qualities that make something believable, and thus “immersive”.

          Even it’s ASCII “graphics” serves the game much better than photorealism, because you don’t see the same uncanny animations over and over, for example. A dwarf is represented by an abstract symbol to denote his current position in space, but you’re free to assume his posture, facial expression, and all the other details that make him unique, believable and alive. That’s much more than any photorealistic game can provide, because you draw content from an indefinite source: your personal experience and preference.

          If you lack the capability to do this, I can understand your suffering (if you’re aware of it), but I don’t understand why you live in the first place. Inability to imagine things is the inability to create anything. I interpret that as waste of some perfectly fine air. Please stop contributing to noise, space, and all other pollutions, recognize your own human race inadequacy and remove yourself. Thank you.

          • Toberoth says:

            I was with you up until you suggested that unimaginative people should kill themselves.

          • Unaco says:

            @Syndrome…

            That last paragraph of yours is horrible. Personally, I think the world would be better off without people like you… people who see differences as deficiencies, and think that such ‘deficiency’ is sufficient to invalidate an individual’s right to life. But I wouldn’t ask you to kill yourself, because I’m not a horrible person. Unlike yourself.

          • rohsiph says:

            Yeah . . . as someone with a vast imagination, I’ve learned not to pity people with other skills. Because most of the time people do have -other skills- –and often very important ones, necessary for a functioning society. I’m not sure I’d want a brain surgeon to be distracted by daydreams in the operating room, for instance.

            There’s plenty people can accomplish without creativity. It’s a bloody shame so much money is wasted on uncreative, unimaginitive, cliche, passe, bullshit media, while so much truly creative and innovative material suffers in obscurity, but such is our imperfect world. We have to hope we can find the stuff that will be really important to us–because a lot of the time the “best” stuff is horribly unapproachable to non-creatives, hence its lack of “success.”

            Artists and scientists have great potential. Many of them squander it just as poorly as those lacking in creativity and imagination. What have you accomplished to help people or advance the world with your stunning imagination?

          • NathanH says:

            I think it is important to consider what the game would be like if it wasn’t ascii graphics but was awkward not-quite-real-but-close-enough-to-bother-you graphics. I think that the imagine you require would be harder to summon up.

            I’m not sure Dwarf Fortress is a good example for this discussion anyway because I get the feeling the guy’s main focus was on games where the designers create the story rather than create a place for the player to create stories.

          • Smoky_the_Bear says:

            @syndrome
            And there we have it people, to all you artistic types, this little thread here is a prime example of why most other people consider you utterly uninteresting tossers. The mere thought that because you have an overactive imagination (most of us did when we were 5 years old btw) makes you vastly superior to all others is laughable, the fact you then go on to suggest that the “inferior” specimens kill themselves is downright insulting. You are most likely a drain on society and have little to nothing to contribute, and spend your days daydreaming about pointless, banal rubbish. Basically you are the one that should be saving us all the waste of air.

          • Brise Bonbons says:

            But, I’m an artist as well as a programmer and researcher! What ever shall I do? Should I kill just the part of my brain that daydreams and imagines things? Or just the part that deals with logic and functionality?? TELL ME WHAT TO DO.

            Or, said another way, loose collections of millions of people who share one trait are not “you” or “they” or “them”. Can we stop talking about shit so broadly that what we say loses all meaning, please?

          • The Colonel says:

            What’s that you say Marx? Species-Being? How very interesting…

    • Baines says:

      Photorealism won’t matter until people do the underlying work to take advantage of that photorealism. It isn’t going to matter if you make a 3D model that is indistinguishable from a person, if the model is only indistinguishable in still frames because the underlying mechanics aren’t there. Even if you get it “breathing”, “crying”, and everything else lifelike, you still need something to drive those actions, else you just have a mannequin that at best only mechanically apes a parody.

      And that underlying mechanic doesn’t actually need photorealism to be realized.

  8. MadTinkerer says:

    ” It was one of the reasons the old “graphics vs gameplay” dichotomy never really made sense. It’s hard to extract one from the other.”

    It’s simple really: you, personally, can’t put effort into both at the same time. You can put effort into either Microsoft Visual Studio or Photoshop, but not both simultaneously. This is a fact of human life, and the reason why Elite can be a whole universe big and made by one guy, but SWTOR is relatively small (compared to Elite) because there are a ton of fully voice-acted characters and it takes a small army to make the graphics for all those characters.

    Trying for photorealism means you can’t afford to put in effort into everything that isn’t the photorealism part. We already know what these games look like. We already know what these games play like.

    Bear in mind Conan O’Brien’s thoughts on Minecraft’s graphics. He’s right: it’s not up to the visual standard of games made by AAA developers. And because Notch wasn’t trying to compete visually with AAA developers, Minecraft can be Minecraft.

    • Brise Bonbons says:

      I was going to say something along these lines. I frequently muse about what games would look like if they had armies of programmers and writers working to create the internals of characters – Emotions, needs, and desires – instead of modeling their 3D shape, their skin, their animations.

      The game industry has spent the last 20 years almost exclusively on exploring different methods to model physical realities, from physical shape to reflections on water to gravity to bullet dynamics and fantastical physics (as in The Force Unleashed games). And they wonder why their ability to model emotions and personalities is limited… Imagine what the game industry would look like if it spent the last 20 years evolving ways to model, simulate, and abstract emotions and human interactions. It’s not just gonna happen overnight when graphical fidelity reaches a certain point.

      Hell, look at the NPCs in STALKER, who have produced some of the most compelling gaming moments I’ve experienced. Wandering back through an area to see a dead NPC, and realizing he was that one guy, the guy laying on the ground crying for help, the guy I gave a medkit and a gun and a pat on the back. Simply giving this NPC the ability to die when I wasn’t there does more to evoke emotion than any number of animated facial expressions or clever one liners the army of graphics and sound people give him.

      NOTE: Not to denigrate the astoundingly high quality work that these graphics and sound professionals do on games. It’s just a sign of how warped the industry’s perspective is that they can have hundreds of graphics artists on a project, and maybe a half dozen writers and one or two AI programmers.

      • xaphoo says:

        Dwarf Fortress is a game from this alternate history.

      • dgz says:

        “Hell, look at the NPCs in STALKER, who have produced some of the most compelling gaming moments I’ve experienced. Wandering back through an area to see a dead NPC, and realizing he was that one guy, the guy laying on the ground crying for help, the guy I gave a medkit and a gun and a pat on the back. Simply giving this NPC the ability to die when I wasn’t there does more to evoke emotion than any number of animated facial expressions or clever one liners the army of graphics and sound people give him.”

        While I agree STALKER has some amazing real life… well. lets say human atmosphere, it sucks as a game. It does so badly I almost get angry for all the wasted potential there. A smart person would naturally measure believability by how fluid things look, move and generally interact with the surrounding world and themselves. Actual human characters are not essential for a world of any kind to deliver enjoyment.

        I am fully capable of feeling emotions when I play Quake or StarCraft, even though I do not think of my “character”, “avatar” or whatever, nor do I care about the other guy or his silly representation. Hell, he or she could be a in-game cube shooting at me. Why should I give a fuck? People like you make emotions sound gay.

        • Baines says:

          The things required for “actual human characters” are things that could/would improve gameplay in general, as well as offer other kinds of games.

          Imagine an AI opponent in a strategy game that had some measure of personality, beyond general concepts like “Aggressive”, “Passive”, and the like? If a fighting game modeled how a real player would play beyond pre-set combos and move use percentages. If a poker game had AI characters with recognizable traits (and not just pre-made tells that would be at home in a game of Punch-Out!), and the ability to bluff in a non-entirely predictable but also not random manner? If a Bethesda game ever had NPC AI/personalities that actually delivered what they promise when they first started working on it? If the next Batman game had Batman actually able to terrorize low level thugs, affecting their behavior as well as things like information he can get from them, and not just in the basic one-size-fits all pre-defined manner or one-time special story cut-scenes?

  9. mouton says:

    I do not fully understand the phrase about “graphics vs gameplay” and why isn’t it supposed to make sense. For me, the point of the “graphics vs gameplay” issue was always the same as the point of this article – that games’ attractiveness is not measured by a linear score of graphic fidelity and the number of visual effects, but by other factors.

  10. The Sombrero Kid says:

    RE: the final console, as a developer my thirst for processing power outstrips even the rapid technological development, I know my appetite for it wont be sated in my lifetime, i doubt it ever will.

    EDIT: I think he’s actually saying these things because he’s exhausted by constantly trying to stay on the forefront of the technological wave and he’s looking ahead hoping for an end to it.

    • mouton says:

      He has no reason to be tired of trying to “stand on the forefront of technological wave”, as the game technology is tied to the last console generation which has been with us for more than half a decade now.

  11. Ginger Yellow says:

    Until games are photorealistic, it’ll be very hard to open up to new genres. We can really only focus on action and shooter titles; those are suitable for consoles now

    Passage says hi.

  12. cluddles says:

    What a lot of old cobblers. Aside from anything else, books don’t have photorealistic graphics either, but I’m pretty sure they’re perfectly capable of inspiring plenty of different emotions.

  13. brkl says:

    Tell that to Picasso.

    • Mad Hamish says:

      Hah that was pretty much my exact response when i read this earlier. Go have a look at Guernica or watch a decent Pixar film.

      • Brise Bonbons says:

        I can see a modern game professional not really understanding how to apply lessons from Picasso to her/his game. Sure. But someone needs to ask this guy at 2K if he’s ever seen a bloody Pixar movie. I just saw Brave recently, and that movie is already half game as it is! (Zelda horseback archery: Check; following glowing lines of dots in the woods: Check; being given menial quests such as retrieving a key: Check)

        More to the point, I spent much of the time going “why don’t more games try to realize graphics like this? Why don’t more fantasy games have characters this interesting and human, or enemies that only appear for a minute or two in each act? How long will it take for there to be a game with this many women in the credits, telling a story about women, with every male character placed solidly in a supporting role?”

        Unfortunately with comments like those which spawned this article, it seems we’re still a long way off.

        • Aatch says:

          To be fair, many games are moving in that direction (more stylized and “arty” rather than photorealistic).

          Dishonored is a good example, as it takes place in a pseudo-realistic setting (plague-ridden city similar to London), but the characters are cartoony as are the environments. It looks like playing a gritty comic book, rather than playing a movie. If you look at the gameplay trailer from E3, they made the characters look like the mugshots you get identifying them. This, I think, helps to cement the world together.

          Similarly, Darksiders + Darksiders II have very comic book graphics. It’s not surprising given that their source is a comic book, and the artist of said book it on the team, but still. It makes the blood and guts and fantastical environments seem perfectly normal. Darksiders II looks especially amazing as much of it takes place in environments where a bottomless pit can be truly bottomless. One of the areas in DS2 is a castle pulled through the air by two giant undead serpents!

          The Darsiders actually said that one of the problems with designing a game set on Earth, even post-apocalyptic Earth, was that they were restricted in what they were able to do. They said that the requirement to make buildings feel realistic and “normal”, even if they had demonic spikes erupting from them, limited their freedom on what environments they could create. Conversely, in DS2, they basically unchained the art team, letting them create incredible fantastic environments.

          I would say that games need to take more pages from the likes of Pixar and Disney, rather than Hollywood. WALL-E has to be one of the best modern examples of this. There is almost no dialogue for the first third of the movie, then there is very minimal not-really-dialogue for the next third and the final third only has dialogue for some characters, and every single line is meaningful and purposeful. Whether its the sudden communication of two people that would have never otherwise, or the captain discovering a love of knowledge while interrogating the computer, the tiny amounts of dialogue are all incredible. With the robots, WALL-E, EVE and others, you get a feel for their personalities. Through noises and small facial suggestions Pixar manage to convey a massive amount of humanity and emotion.

          All up, I feel that for games to progress as an art form, we need to hold back on the fidelity and focus on the gameplay and story. Interactive storytelling is a very new medium, and allows for stories and ideas that have been difficult, or impossible, to convey previously. I don’t think that we need to be attempting to recreate movie-like experiences. That is what we have movies for. I honestly think that games like Skyrim are the best direction, a world that you can affect and influence, a world where you are simultaneously important and a mere cog. Of course other experiences exists, short stories in the form of games that tell a quick story that leaves you thinking, or more abstract games that make you ask questions. Games that pretend to do one thing, then do another, making you question your perception of reality.

          There will always been games for fun, the same way there will always be trashy novels and generic action movies. I don’t want any of those things to go away because they are important in their own way. We have a lack of big arty games though, small arty games exist, but big ones don’t. I think this is because people have polarised on “CoD-Shooter/Action game” or “Super-abstract ‘WTF’ games”, when there is a range in between. We need games that are more like ‘The Dark Knight’, not really out-there artistically but allow you talk about them more abstractly. Games that provoke thought and conversation without that conversation being their only purpose.

          I’ve rambled longer than I intended to, but games-as-art is a topic close to my heart, so I tend to go on for a while…

  14. Bhazor says:

    I expect the genre he’s talking about that requires photorealism is hardcore videogame pornography. That is seriously the only genre I can think of that hinges on photorealism.

    Of course the need for photorealism depends on which porns you mean. You could replicate MLP with 256 colours running on a Super Nintendo for example.

    Just saying.

  15. faelnor says:

    But even with the tools we have right now, it’s nonetheless possible.

    Even with the tools they have over at 2K?

    Logical deconstruction of such a ridiculous and uneducated claim made by a higher-up in a gaming company wasn’t really necessary. Ridicule and insults (OMM-style) would have been more entertaining.

  16. Reapy says:

    I have a feeling the difficulty is how to fit interaction in with generating emotion. Right now at most a game will either force you in a sandbox corridor or tightly script and take control away from the player. It is super hard to get the player to behave properly and stop acting like a gamer shooting things every 10 seconds.

    I guess I never played that ps3 game, uh wtf was it, the after indigo prophecy, uhh heavy rain? How did that one turn out for people?

    Last emotional game I enjoyed was that little short one ‘the passage’ which is pretty much a direct proof against his statements.

    • Smoky_the_Bear says:

      But that is in my opinion a problem with a lot of story based games that try and tell a well written and emotionally engaging story, at the end of the day there has to be gameplay there which can sometimes come across as filler, but without that it would be an interactive movie lasting a couple of hours as we saw with Farenheit/Indigo Prophecy, it was an interesting idea but at the end of the day devs arent lining up to make it because it was kinda a clunky mess devoid of any gameplay outside of repetetive QTE events.

      I really dont understand what the guy is trying to say when he says videogames cant create emotions though, look at some of the older final fantasy games, they look like crap now but were responsible for some really emotionally charged moments ive experienced in any medium, be it film, books etc.

      The main thing with making a game emotionally powerful is to engage the player into the world, into the characters, make them care about what is going on and what is going to happen next.
      It has little or nothing to do with photorealism at all, it ofc takes a bit more effort to make, needs high quality writing etc, but to me it seems like a copout from him so he can keep making cheesy action shooters with no emotive depth, or maybe he just doesnt know how to and thats why he wants to brand it as being impossible when it clearly isnt.

      *edit* Case in point to rubbish his statement, when films were being made in black and white was Hollywood saying “well once we can make films in colour we can truly do something emotive”? Not at all, there are some timeless classics that are still watched now and reguarded as being some of the most emotional peices of cinema ever made some 70+ years later, they just did the best with what they had the same as games can now.

      • Brise Bonbons says:

        I think you’re running up against the accepted truth in the industry that gameplay is about physical actions, and story (or character) is about recreating a linear movie or comic book in the game engine (or in a cutscene).

        Now, you can look at the old Final Fantasy games for examples of this working even with low fidelity graphics, if you simply want to rebut the comments that spawned this article. But I think we also need to think about what it means to write a video game, and what it means to construct a story in an interactive medium.

        Maybe that’s what you were getting at and I misunderstood you. But I think you still raise a good point, which is that the industry can’t seem to see any way to construct a narrative beyond recreating a linear, static Hollywood blockbuster story with some sort of unconnected physical actions layered on top to serve as gameplay.

        Crusader Kings 2 is a great example of a game where the narrative and gameplay are completely integrated, with game choices shaping the story (“My brother really has some nice land which I stand to inherit…”), and I think that is the most interesting direction for games to move forward from.

  17. Metonymy says:

    By the way, the real division and argument is not graphics vs gameplay, it’s story vs gameplay. Story is the broader word that includes all aspects of the presentation, while gameplay also has to mean exploration, or the inclusion of narrative elements that are not part of the single cohesive story. So it is finally reduced down to:

    Single long narrative vs Micro-narratives

    Some people assume that story actually matters, even though any type of media can tell a story. Other people assume that only the gameplay and world exploration matters, and generally find stories to be invasive, even when told very well, such as in a Valve game.

    And the most tedious people assume that their particular preference has some value outside of their own mind, and seek to enforce their preferences on the world at large.

    Games both with and without real stories have a place, a purpose, and proponents. Please try to enjoy your own life without ruining others.

    • Brise Bonbons says:

      A single long narrative can be static and unresponsive, as in a CoD game, or it can be interactive and reactive to player actions, as in a game of Dwarf Fortress (or a hybrid like Skyrim, maybe).

      Or do you consider DF to be solely a game of micronarratives? I don’t think I’d agree immediately, but it would be a thought provoking stance to take.

      Personally, what causes me to rail against single static narrative games is that they fundamentally feel like two different things glued awkwardly together, with the gameplay never changing the story, and the story only impacting the gameplay insomuch as there might be scripted events where you gain or lose an NPC ally or access to some game mechanic.

      I feel that at some level a game should integrate the two, in the same way an individual should find a way to integrate the emotional and logical aspects of their personality, or a painting should integrate the fact it is a representation of a thing as well as being an object comprised of a canvas or board with paint on it applied with a brush.

      Not trying to say that a game with an immutable linear story is necessarily crippled, but it seems to hamstring itself by not taking advantage of the full toolset it has at its disposal.

  18. aDFP says:

    The ‘final console’ idea is a blind alley, too. Hollywood movies now routinely feature photorealistic CG, and yet there’s always room for improvement.

    With games, it’ll only be the beginning. A perfect CG performance is, as Beyond is going to prove, only a cutscene. It will take many more years before that level of performance is a part of the gameplay, instead of a distraction from it. If Hartmann was working on the underlying interaction and AI systems that will eventually make that goal possible, I might believe he knew what he was talking about.

  19. Yosharian says:

    It begs the question, of course, why such an idiot is in charge of a huge publisher.

  20. jhng says:

    What a totally bizzare comment — has he never seen a van Gogh or Picasso?

  21. NucluesDawn says:

    I don’t think he is completely wrong here.
    Sure, it is very possible to invoke such fillings with today’s technology. The best game designers do it all the time. Gabe Newel, Ken Levigne and several others manage to create those feelings in players.

    What he is right about, and where this article is wrong, is that our ability to create this emotional reactions from the players can surely improve with better tools and become more ubiquitous.
    The better tools you have, and the more common they are, a bigger number of creative people can use them.
    Today, we have tools that are free, easy to use and commonplace, that weren’t even available to the top game creators 20 years ago.
    Better, cheaper and more advanced technology will allow more people the ability to create and that means the chance that we’ll “miss” our Spielberg/Douglas Adams/Whomever you consider to be a genius at his art will be smaller.

    The advancement of technology IS the reason we’ll come closer to creating those great, emotionally complex and deep games, because more people will be able to use this medium to channel their creativity.

    Also, advancement in technology is not only limited to making more photo-realistic games. It allows us to make those games more connected and much more simple to connect with (on an emotional level).
    For example, Notch would have never been able to create Minecraft without one of the most important technological advancement of our time – the internet.

    • faelnor says:

      It is obvious that you know very well what you are talking about.

    • mouton says:

      Analogically, the advancement of high-tech cinematographic tools has vastly improved the quality of Hollywood films.

      • NucluesDawn says:

        The movie-video games analogy never fits. These mediums are just too different. That’s part of the reason I don’t like the constant race to make games more movie-like. Saying a game is a like a Hollywood action film, will always seem insulting to me.

        Even if we ignore this – Yes. Many things in Hollywood movies are better today. Today’s Bond movies have better action scenes than the old ones. Movie makers now have much more tools to work with.

        I completely disagree with the notion that photo-realism is “the way to go” (and I feel I wasn’t clear enough about that), to make video games better by definition, but technological advancement is crucial to making the medium more easily accessible, on the emotional level, to both players and developers.
        Also, better machines to run our games on only allows us to make new things. It doesn’t take away anything away (as evidence, we see many wonderful games being made with “retro” style and played on new, state of the art computers), so even if you disagree with the positive affect better technology has, you can never say it diminishes your experience in any way.

        • mouton says:

          I agree that technological advancement _can_ help greatly. But as we have seen in countless examples, both the developers and the public are very much capable of producing and consuming poor quality content regardless of the progress. Heh, I remember it being actually detrimental in many situations, with developers focusing most of their efforts on pushing through some cool new shiny tech improvement, at the cost of virtually everything else.

          In the end, the proliferation of sophisticated tools is only part of the puzzle – the rest is inspiration, skill, will, resources etc. The inadequacy of those other components will murder every project.

        • Brise Bonbons says:

          I can’t agree entirely (with NucluesDawn), though you do have a lot of good points and I think I see where you’re coming from.

          To me, technology by itself will not help make games more emotionally engaging. This will require decades of people trying, failing, and innovating new ways of modeling and representing characters with emotions and desires, and finding new ways to allow players to interact with these characters. Technology will not suddenly make this possible, because it’s not just a matter of having enough clock cycles to perfectly simulate a human in the game; as a medium we still have to discover an abstraction of human interaction that works and is artistically compelling. And that is going to take a ton of engineering and artistic knowledge that no one has, because no one has been working at it.

          They’ve all (well, mostly) been busy trying to make guns that feel more realistic, or find ways to create ever-more-gory blood fountains when you stab someone in the neck, with character interactions relying on the same scripted dialog trees we had 20 years ago.

          As to Hollywood, I think the Star Wars prequels are a great illustration of how advancing technology is (IMO) a neutral thing. Technological limitations necessitate creative solutions, whereas easy access to SFX has more often than not led to bland looking films with little personality.

          • Arglebargle says:

            Good points there. Read an interview with a horror films director (Sam Raimi, I think) who talked about how when they were working with hardly any budget, they had to be real creative to do things. When he moved to bigger budget Hollywood films, he sent his stuff off to Hollywood effects shops to do, and they came back looking just like every other Hollywood horror films.

            You could hear and see the same thing, in the past, when a local interesting musician would go to L.A. to record, and would end up sounding like whatever the L.A. scene was embracing at that moment.

            The Star Wars prequels’ example is telling. Lucas has some major weaknesses, and now that he’s surrounded by sycophants, there’s no one to tell him that his work sucks. Yet he’s got the best special effects in the world available to him. Thus, banal, vapid movies, showing just how much he’s lost his creative spark.

            Better tools are better, but you still have to deal with Sturgeon’s Law.

    • Hmm-Hmm. says:

      Will new tools make it easier in the future? Quite possibly. But he says “To dramatically change the industry to where we can insert a whole range of emotions, I feel it will only happen when we reach the point that games are photorealistic

      It is not clear what he means by ‘we’, here. But he is quite clearly stating that at this time ‘we’ can’t do that yet. And because this is obviously already possible it might refer to his company (who obviously want to release on both PC and consoles) and big budget gaming.

      And EVEN so, graphics don’t need to be realistic for people to emphasise or to feel things when playing a game. So the type of game he’s talking about is vastly more confined to certain ‘standards’ and expectations. Like, say, COD? As I said, big budget AAA-type titles.

      So, no. Given that particular sentence I don’t think that he’s right. Better graphics don’t equate to more emotional attachement. No, I am of the opinion that he seems more reliant on realistic graphics as a foundation for gaming whereas many of us know you can easily play great emotionally gripping games with only a few people around a table and a good imagination.

      Does new tech help? Sure. And the piece contains some bits which are true. But consider for a moment that being of the opinion that your game needs to look ultra-realistic can be a barrier to gameplay, story and emotional attachement as well.

  22. FhnuZoag says:

    Obligatory mention of To The Moon. I mean, there, we have a game which technologically has been possible for two decades. What’s missing, perhaps, is the marketing that would allow such games to be visible to a wide audience.

    • Westmark says:

      I didn’t cry, or laugh, or felt all alone when I went to bed after playing To the Moon at all. I might have if it was rendered in “Cry”engine 9000.

  23. Derppy says:

    Photorealism is such a bullshit term in games industry, we are nowhere near that and won’t be in the next 10 years, unless there’s some sort of massive breakthrough in processing power.

    Rendering a frame that gets even close to photorealistic graphics can take hours, if not days depending on the complexity of the scene. That time needs to be squeezed into 0,016 seconds for it to be usable in games.

    If we were anywhere close, there wouldn’t be million dollar rendering farms rendering short CGI clips for days.

  24. Unaco says:

    I’m willing to wait until, you know, the whole interview is out, rather than 3 sentences from it, in a 4 paragraph preview, no doubt intended to report something ‘controversial’ in order to drum up anticipation for the full interview.

    On this small quote of his… As I said in the forum discussion, I’m kinda half with him, but not the other half. I can see where he’s coming from… that developers do fall back on shooter/action, because they are tried and tested and do-able genres with current tech. Whereas, (AAA) romance or drama games, say, aren’t as common, because they’re more of a risk, more uncharted territory, and tech hasn’t evolved to go down that route. Note, that he’s likely talking about AAA, fully 3D first/third person type games… hence the ‘need’ as he sees it for photorealistic depictions of people, with well depicted emotions.

    What I don’t agree with is the idea that photorealism is what’s needed. I think it is possible currently, with what tech we have, to produce characters with ‘strong’ and ‘deep’ emotions… that we could make the equivalent of a Brokeback Mountain video game with what we have just now.

    I think his heart is in the right place, wanting to open games up to these other genres, away from the action/shooter model. But I don’t think photorealism is the way to go about it… firstly because, even with a fully 3D AAA 1st/3rd person game, it’s not needed, and secondly because that fully 3D AAA model is not needed.

    • RagingLion says:

      I pretty much agree.

    • kibble-n-bullets says:

      “What I don’t agree with is the idea that photorealism is what’s needed. I think it is possible currently, with what tech we have, to produce characters with ‘strong’ and ‘deep’ emotions… that we could make the equivalent of a Brokeback Mountain video game with what we have just now. ”

      Agreed.

      Uncompelling stories and characters are the norm in photorealistic experiences.

    • Kadayi says:

      Kind of in agreement. I think people are largely jumping the gun a bit here. Albeit everyone’s very quick to roll eyes and label this guy as an ‘idiot’, I think a lot of what’s missing is people understanding and appreciating that he’s talking very much about the AAA game space, the arena in which his company operates and not the entire medium of games as a whole, let alone all media (Books, TV, Film, painting, sculpture etc, etc). Yes certainly lots of games can get away with abstraction, but generally if you’re going to attempt gritty storytelling it’s not something that’s going to work in the abstract. Albeit it isn’t ultra realistic Spec Ops: The line is a good example of a game that leverages grittiness in terms of the graphic nature of the imagery and the gut punch nature of it simply wouldn’t work if it looked like TF2. It’s only because of the ‘holy shit sticks!! What the hell just happened?’ moments of graphic carnage that the enormity of events comes across.

      I think his point is more that technologically we are still very much limited in what is presently achievable, and that defines the range of opportunities for the high end AAA space in terms of what can be done effectively. Cinema very early on established its universal format (35mm) and the creators moved on to concentrating on the production of film and storytelling, whether making chart topping blockbusters of one man band indie movies. Sound and Colour added greater depth, but the narrative nature of the medium in terms of expression was already underway. Conversely with Games, there is no unified camera at present. Everyone is using their own technology (or borrowing someone else’s) and making their own film stock. It is kind of a madness in a way. Hartmann refers to a final console, but I think what he really means is a unified format.

  25. NathanH says:

    In the restricted space of “games that are trying to look realistic” then I think he has a point. If you’re making a AAA realistic-looking FPS game, then you’ve got real problems trying to portray a lot of stuff because it just looks awkward.

    In more graphics-limited spaces, there isn’t so much of a problem, because you don’t have to portray everything in a realistic way. At the extreme, I don’t have to worry about what the expression and animations of my Baldur’s Gate NPCs are, because they don’t have any.

    As another example, you can make cartoons that don’t look awkward when displaying emotions, but if you try to make a lifelike high-tech CGI film I think it will look awkward.

  26. Runs With Foxes says:

    It’s no wonder the games industry is such a joke with clowns like that running the show.

  27. Safewood says:

    Right now I’m standing IN OVATION! Great article

  28. RagingLion says:

    It’s what was said for LA Noire though. That that game was enabled by the technology to show enough fidelity in the expressions of characters so that the player would have a chance to judge their true feelings under their expressions. That is partly about animation though also the amount of polygons to create a convincing face.

    Undoubtedly, cartoons and stylisations of a world can still stimulate emotions by conveying subtle changes in emotion on faces but there is something special still about trying to make an our-world-realistic-looking game which is what the guy was talking about – that does still speak to us on a level that stylised appearances can’t even though those can undeniably achieve so much.

    It’s absoutely true that there is so much that games could do right now that is purely limited by developer’s imaginations rather than the technology but there are some strands of things that can’t be achieved without more tech – and some of those strands are the type of games some people are fixated on most.

    • Brise Bonbons says:

      You’ve found a really good balance in this post, certainly better than I usually manage. That said, I’m still not sure I agree L.A. Noire couldn’t have been achieved just as effectively with stylized graphics.

      Imagine if it had TF2-style models. Make it monochromatic for authenticity. Now animate these stylized faces with the emotional complexity of a Pixar movie. I think that could be just as effective at representing the characters’ complex, layered emotions.

      But it wouldn’t be the same, certainly. On one hand, you have the unique experience of very realistic characters showing very human emotions; on the other, you avoid the dangers that lurk in the uncanny valley. At some point it simply becomes a choice the director needs to make; “what tone do I want, and how do I achieve it?”

  29. JackShandy says:

    “To use the most trivial example, just look at the humour we derive from the cartoonish antics of Team Fortress 2…Comedy, certainly, is something that does not require improved graphics for us to have access to.”

    Team Fortress 2 might be a bad example, because there is a loooot of fancy shader stuff going on under the hood to make those cartoony men look as good as possible. Certainly it’s proof that not everything should be photorealistic, if that really needed proving.

    • DXN says:

      It’s an interesting point; it is noticeable how the increased detail, resolution, shaders and animation-fidelity in the better Source Film Maker clips do get more emotion — light or dark — from the same models and style as in-game footage. I’d argue it’s still not the same as saying that we need full photorealism to achieve more than shooter/action-level representations, though.

    • Apples says:

      But the intention of the shaders was to emulate, say, a Rockwell painting, not ‘photorealism’. Hartmann is specifically arguing for photorealism, i.e. as close to literal reality as possible, and missing the idea that non-realism can get closer to subjective reality than photorealism. That is, a Rockwell painting looks ‘more like’ America than America does. The Heavy looks ‘more like’ a big Russian dude than a real big Russian dude does, some kind of Platonic ideal of a big Russian dude. He’s not talking about a technological ideal, but an aesthetic ideal (whether he realises it or not!).

      I do look forward to seeing some kind of graphical hyperrealism though, once people like Hartmann realise that photorealism hasn’t changed anything. Let’s render more skin pores than a human being really has! I’m sure that will make people feel emotions!

  30. jstar says:

    Hi Mr. Hartmann,

    Studio Ghibli.

    Cheers

    Gamers

  31. ZHsquad says:

    Actually, what Mr. Hartmann says does make a lot of sense, and is even correct: to the correct crowd of people.

    For a good portion of players, good graphics is everything. If the graphics are good than the story, sound, emotions and general action of the game will be good as well. I know many a people who only care about a game as long as it has great graphics. But, somewhat like was mentioned in this article, everyone likes good graphics to a high degree. Making a game photorealistic will only send huge joy to this crowd of players.

    A smaller base does not put graphics first. Some prefer a game with a brilliant story, others prefer games with insane difficulty, and others have many more criteria that comes above graphics.

    I feel Mr. Hartmann is realistically playing to the largest player base and source of income, which is in all honesty to be expected.

    • ramonkahn says:

      No, Hartmann errs in that technological development automatically leads to more emotional (and in his eyes, better) games. Which is incorrect because the technology used to make a game is in no way connected to the (emotive) quality of the game, as Jim argues.
      This false belief in technology to solve problems just by existing however, is a pretty common positivist position, no matter the context, be it computer games or in the real live. One example could be the idea of many policy-makers that Internet access automatically spreads democracy, where it can be easily shown (see for example the presentation by Morozov: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=Uk8x3V-sUgU ).

    • Baines says:

      Thinking about it, there is another way to read the paragraph beyond “Photorealism is necessary to show more emotion and open new genres.”

      The other way is to read the paragraph as an acknowledgement of the graphics-focused nature of the industry, or that “Given more power and resources, companies will continue to funnel the majority of those resources into graphics instead of other areas. Until we reach ‘photorealism’, there will always be a place to sink those resources to get that extra sweat drop, that extra speck of dirt on a wall, that extra animation bone to accurately model the little toe that is inside a boot, to get that 5000th NPC on Super Epic Battlefield’s D-Day recreation. Only once photorealism has been achieved and graphical advance has ‘ended’ will companies throw such resources into developing other areas.”

      Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure that isn’t what he meant. (For one thing, you wouldn’t make a comment about reaching a last system, as you’d still need stronger systems to handle all those other things on top of your ultimate graphics.)

  32. tgoat says:

    Photorealism is a crutch. I remember having a fairly strong emotional response when I first played Planetfall… (for those not in the know, it’s a classic Infocom text game)

    It’s not a question of look, but a question of story. Making a game that looks great, but has a story that makes B movies look smart, isn’t going to get you a strong emotional response from the player.

    Unfortunately it seems that these days the big devs have forgotten how to tell a good story. Game after game after game with terrible terrible plot lines. Even devs who have a very rich in-game history to back them up aren’t trying very hard to create a good story (Blizzard comes to mind). It now takes years to make a triple A game, but how much of that time is spent on actual plot development?

    Studio heads should be made to play true classic games just so they understand that a story can drive the game even when the graphics are basic, or non-existent.

  33. CobraLad says:

    Realistic liquid simulation, realtime object color reflections, full destructivity, non-hollow objects that behave depending on their material, non-scripted AI simulation…
    Yeah, we make cool model in ZBrush, place normal maps and call it a day.

  34. Advanced Assault Hippo says:

    To be fair though, the level of emotion I’ve ever received in a game is probably not even 1% of emotion I’ve received in a film. It just doesn’t fit. And whenever they do try extra hard, it just looks like they’re trying extra hard – as opposed to just connecting with you naturally, like a film can.

    I think there is some truth in what he’s saying. Perhaps he didn’t word it that well.

    • JackShandy says:

      “Provoking emotion” is a shallow goal, in games and films. I hope we can do better than that.

    • mouton says:

      You must have played some poor games, or you simply approach them in a particular way.

    • Apples says:

      A film doesn’t connect with you naturally. There’s a wealth of symbolic knowledge that you need to be able to ‘read’ a film even superficially, but because we are so used to them it’s not apparant that that knowledge IS necessary. There’s loads of visual short-hand that instigates or highlights emotion that you’d probably be baffled by if you’d never seen a film before. Games do the same but it looks like ‘trying hard’ because the short-hand isn’t as refined or ubiquitous (or performed as well, usually) as filmic short-hand.

      Anyway it probably depends on what games you play and how you think, and what kind of emotions you’re looking for. I think games are the best medium for exploring emotions of guilt, simply because YOU have to perform actions, but more nuanced or complex emotions do not currently come across well. But I’ve still cried at far more games than films or books!

    • NathanH says:

      It depends on what emotion you’re talking about. There are plenty of emotions that games are better at creating because they’re games.

      To be honest, though, there’s so much difference between video games and films, in terms of how they operate, what they’re trying to do, how I’m interacting with them, and the frame of mind I’m in going into them, that I rarely find much value in comparisons between them.

  35. The Hammer says:

    Great article!

    There’s a spin on this that runs slightly contrary to the article, but it’s worth mentioning anyway: facial expressions and body language in games still have a long way to go.

    Over on the consoles, two Ninja Theory games have really left their mark on me, when it comes to their portrayal of characters. Heavenly Sword and Enslaved both use motion capture technology to bring their heroes, villains and bit-parts to energetic, euphoric life. Whether it’s the sweaty fear in an old general’s eyes, or the aggrevated shrugs of a bulky mutant, these games have you take note of all the nuance, all the moods.

    Next to these naturalistic smirks, shrugs and smiles, the current crop of RPGs look depressingly low-tech. When a character gets angry in Dragon Age, you might get a line of inspired dialogue together with a passionate voiceover, but you almost certainly have to go without a convincingly irate face. Mass Effect’s better at getting movement in conversations right, since characters move from place to place while speaking, but even in The Witcher 2 I’ve seen NPCs repeat the exact same naff hand-raising animation several times in the space of one conversation.

    Eurogamer’s review of DA:O was pretty unflattering when it called the characters mannequins, but that’s pretty much what they all are. The facial expressions come in extremes, some of which look hideously manical, as if they’re not meant to be there at all.

    I know that a game such as Heavenly Sword will always have the advantage, in that all its cut-scenes are meticulously staged, and there are a much smaller number of them than there are for your typical CRPG. I know that the lack of branching paths means that the teams who make them can focus entirely on what the player is bound to see. But the gulf – chasm, maybe – of difference in quality really does paint RPGs as the poor man.

    Perhaps this is just one of those things we can be sad about, but not much more. I just know that the current RPG’s stand-and-talk-and-stare way of conversations is dissatsifying to me. These are characters as quest givers, not as people.

    Mind you, with a combination of the written word, and Avadon-like graphics, I don’t suppose this would be so glaring, so the moral here, I gather, is that if you do 3D worlds, they have to be very, very sophisticated.

    • Skabooga says:

      Just as a side note, I thought Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines had excellent facial animations (especially combined with the voice acting), easily surpassing much more graphically advanced games that came later. The expressions achieved with the simpler technology were simply more emotive, and I never got the impression that I was talking to a cardboard cutout.

    • Brise Bonbons says:

      “Mind you, with a combination of the written word, and Avadon-like graphics, I don’t suppose this would be so glaring, so the moral here, I gather, is that if you do 3D worlds, they have to be very, very sophisticated.”

      I think this is a the crux of the matter. The fact that there has been so little work done towards actually modeling and representing human interactions in games, means we sort of have to go back to basics and build the gameplay foundations for sophisticated, high fidelity 3D representations to exist on.

      I think the best way to build these foundations given the current business and technological realities is to explore ways to represent character, emotion, and human interaction in low-fi games, rather than trying to shoehorn these sophisticated characters into a game like Skyrim, where doing so would involve hundreds of millions of dollars of additional animations, modeling, texturing, and voice work.

  36. pakoito says:

    Because the “next-gen” proved that you can innovate gameplay with better graphics. I dare, i doubledare someone to name a single 360/PS3 game that could not be done in PS2/GC.

  37. FCA says:

    Interesting choice, to usee a movie based on a short story (you know, words, without any graphics at all..) to emphasize that photo-realistic graphics are needed to convey deep emotions.

    Has the guy never read a book? Text adventures say hi!

  38. ocelot113 says:

    Animation has more impact on emotion than graphics. I’ve seen many pixar’s that made me cry, hell an episode of Pokemon made me tear up. Graphics is not the only thing that can derive emotion. It’s a combination of everything. I’d say that animation and v/o are more important than graphics though.

  39. grundus says:

    I really can’t see the link between how stuff looks and how we feel about it, I honestly can’t! Grave of the Fireflies, go watch that and say you need stuff to look real to establish any kind of relationship with it. MGS4, if you didn’t feel even a twinge, a pang of sadness when Snake was all like… Well, I don’t want to spoil it so I won’t but people who have played it know what I mean, or they’re dead inside. Even MGS1 had emotional moments.

    It’s not just sadness, either, how many of you have felt claustrophobic and panicky when playing Minecraft? I used to get like that when I played it. You don’t need all the graphics to create immersion, and it’s immersion that leads to emotions when it comes to videogames. Same as a film; if you don’t feel any connection to what’s going on, you don’t feel emotion towards anything, right?

  40. Caiman says:

    I’d say creativity today is considerably lower than it was when graphics were simpler, because so many games today iterate on trying to improve the graphics but not the innovation. I was playing games on the ZX Spectrum that were primitive graphics-wise but which covered a massive breadth of subjects, games that weren’t afraid to experiment and be strange and wonderful. Where is your strange and wonderful today Take 2? In the “indie” scene where graphics take a backseat to experimentation and daring.

  41. flib says:

    I’m usually the first to groan about how current gen consoles are keeping us from having games that actually take advantage of modern hardware. It’s such a pain in the ass when I buy a new game, just to see unnecessarily low-resolution textures, framerate caps, and poor optimization; things that really detract from my immersion and are obviously symptoms of consoleportinitis.
    Even so, I still have to say that the lack of innovation isn’t because of the technology, it’s because of the people. Two peoples, specifically: the developers/publishers and the consumers.
    The developers don’t innovate because it’s hard and the people clearly don’t want innovation.

    In the end, I can still blame current gen consoles, though. The continued persistence of the current generation of consoles has made gaming accessible to everyone, which is great for the general population, but not so great for people like me who take games a little more seriously. By now, everyone already has an Xbox and/or PlayStation, whereas there are relatively fewer PC gamers, so there’s little reason to cater to the more serious gamer crowd.

    I suppose it’s been like this with film’s for a while, already, so it was bound to happen to games, too. Most big blockbuster mega-hit films are regurgitated shit, like games now, but it doesn’t stop the occasional good one from coming out every once in a rare while.

    Even so, we still have some good games to look forward to. None that come to mind right now, but I’m sure there’s something.
    At least Valve still cares about PC gamers.

  42. Hunchback says:

    Play “To The Moon” and then explain to me how photo-realism is key for transmitting emotions in a game.

  43. Ninja Dodo says:

    Hypothesis: Animation quality is more important to emotion than model + texture/shading detail. Whether you have a stylized character or a ‘realistic’ one, if it moves like a robot, you feel nothing. (unless the robot is called Wall-E)

    Facial expressions especially are a problem.

    I do think there are technical and creative challenges in the pursuit of realism that can help the emotional range of games if solved, but the notion that photo-real is the only way is clearly misguided.

    • somnolentsurfer says:

      I wept like a baby at Dreamfall, and the animation in that is absolutely shocking.

      • Ninja Dodo says:

        I enjoyed Dreamfall, and the writing and voice acting did make me care about the characters (enough that I’m still angry about the non-ending). I don’t remember the animation being *that* bad – it’s been a while – but maybe the overall art direction made up for it.

        Being able to relate to characters in the absence of good animation is not an argument against good animation. It just means other elements are having to work extra hard to compensate. Imagine if they were all at the same level.

        The point is, if you’re going to do realism, you can’t do half-realism. So if your tech or your artists cannot produce believable movement, there is no point in having realistic models. The overall level of detail should scale to a consistent style.

        I’d rather see some well-executed limited art styles than more uncanny realism.

        More Okami, Beyond Good & Evil, Team Fortress 2, Bastion, Psychonauts and others like this please.

  44. Gonefornow says:

    “it will be very hard to create very deep emotions like sadness or love, things that drive the movies”

    Not really, time consuming yes, hard no.

    With a little bit of psychology and effort one can make a film with interesting enough, relatable characters and a build up to a emotional climax of sorts, pulling the heart strings of many (least 90% of the audience, rest being: psychos,solicitors,those not-caring-about-story-but-technicalstuff types and me).

    Trying a linear story with similar elements in a game won’t work (“When is this cutscene gonna end!”,”Where is my reward!?” and other gameplay related things on the players mind).
    Linear character stories in otherwise non-linear games have the same problem.

    In a game the emotions must rise from the players own actions and involvement in the virtual space.

    The key is to build worlds that are dynamic enough to allow different kinds of things to happen to the player and the npcs. Thus maybe, gotta stress that maybe there, the player will choose sides, take responsibilities or interests in the events and the characters around.

    Just like that 10% of movie goers, there are similar types of player who just don’t care to roleplay, to project themselves into the experience, but rather try to use everything on their disposal for varying gains. The completionists for one, but you can’t win them all.

    In games emotions are a matter of randomness and probability, not strict calculations of the psychological kind.

    Examples:
    - Minecraft, not a very dynamic world but modifiable:
    When exploring a cave full of mobs->Excitement, dread, panic.
    When close to a house you build yourself->cosiness,feeling of safety.

    - Mount & Blade:
    Defending your fief from a large enemy force->Bravery, possible frustration.
    Being defeated later-> definite frustration, vengefulness,misery.
    Helping a claimant reclaim the throne->fulfilment, nobleness.
    Taking over said newborn kingdom later-> smugness, craftiness.

    If situations above were imposed upon me in a linear game, I wouldn’t feel much at all.

    I don’t think I’ve loved anything in a virtual world yet, except a game mechanic, but that’s a bit meta.
    And then again I haven’t loved a single story character either.
    Caring for the love of characters in a story is a different thing and that movies and books can certainly do.

  45. somnolentsurfer says:

    Christoph Hartmann should tell that to Bambi’s mother.

    Sure, Brokeback Mountain was a great movie. But I cried a heck of a lot more at Toy Story 3.

  46. Tei says:

    My friends are educated and smart people, and often I have to educate them about what “good graphics” means.

    Realism is “easy”, getting realism is just a matter of technique. This is true in any art form.
    Style and creating something more interesting than realism, thats what creativity is about. And is harder than pure tecnique. A person withouth creativity or special artistic skills, can be teached to draw photorealistic whatever. But will be boring even for himself.

    Something like Minecraft is good graphics, even with very low res textures and all.

  47. Drayk says:

    This is a great article, but i think Jim misses what Hartmann truly says…

    I think that what he really means is that, when developpers will reach a point where better graphics is no longer a marketing argument, then developpers who usually uses poorly written stories will have to find new ways to improve gamers’ experience. If I am getting this right, such a statement sucks as much as what Jim respond to, but it would make more sens if you look at the (horrible) games who sells the most copies.

    This statement doesn’t apply to the developpers who really have a story they want to tell, not a excuse to sell their latest ‘game’.

  48. povu says:

    So according to him I can’t truly get emotionally attached to characters in The Walking Dead unless these characters looked photorealistic?

  49. macks says:

    Am I the only one who had an emotional response to KoTOR when I first played it? I don’t remember caring about the graphics at all, but I remember swooning over some of the characters.

    I could give a shit about how bad the graphics were. Graphics don’t matter (when it comes to making a good game) and it’s been proven time and time again. Look at the response to Crysis 2; great graphics but the game is boring and trite. Now look at the response to Minecraftl a game with some of the “lowest-tech” graphics in ages, but a huge response of people who loved it.

    This is just his justification for making games more bland and homogenous for the masses. It’s like replacing the ability to choose actual dialogue choices with these obnoxious “dialogue wheels” that give some vague four-word summarization of emotion so you aren’t forced to read a few sentences or have anything being primal responses.

    If he wants to blame his inability to be creative on a lack of photo-realistic graphics, he’s welcome to, but he’s disconnected with a large portion of his audience and it means 2K probably won’t be make anything remotely risky or innovative any time soon.

  50. Somerled says:

    “It’s the combination of visuals, audio, and mechanics that make the experience of a game what it is, and none of these can be fully extracted from the other without changing the nature of the game.”

    And writing, certainly, for those games that use it (like Elder Scrolls games).

    I’d say visuals are the one thing you can skimp on and still produce a quality experience, including any emotional range. Although some games work well without sound entirely, I still like to think audio is the most important thing to get right.

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