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Photorealism And The Confusing Myths Of Innovation

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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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