The pursuit of realistic graphics kills AAA games – extra punctuation

In this week’s extra punctuation, Yahtzee takes a look at why chasing photorealistic graphics all the time is hurting AAA games.

As display technology continues to advance, graphics in video games can be more realistic than ever before. We have lighting systems that can, in real time, create perfect reproductions of any physical environment at any time of the day. A CG sequence of a celebrity’s performance can, at ordinary glance, be almost indistinguishable from one filmed in real life, though it might give you the creeps. Triple A video games display unprecedented levels of visual fidelity. He fucking killed them.

Because it’s not just possible for 3D video games to have ultra-realistic graphics – it’s to be expected. Reviewers and gamers alike dismiss any archaic-sounding Triple-A release as what decades of flashy marketing and trailers have trained them to expect. And realism is closely related to the advancement of technology. The first thing that always pops up to prove the power of a new graphics card is a tech demo that shows off all the new realistic facial expressions it can make.

This is all very well for high-profile visual design professionals and those horrible ghouls at Lucasfilm when they want to cast another dead Star Wars actor, but the continued commitment that mainstream video games use the most powerful rendering technology currently commercially available is something that badly needs re-evaluation.

Do Ultra HD graphics make video games better? Damn no. Whatever is gained from improving the immersion and scenery must certainly be offset by the astronomical expenses it adds to the production of the game. To say nothing of the extra hours of work required for ultra-accurate compositing, capturing facial and body animations, and modeling every last detail in every medicine cabinet right down to the edges on the side of a Nyquil bottle. The extra work that means fewer and fewer AAA games coming out every year and a development time of two to three years is now the norm and not a reason for derision as it would have been twenty years ago. Additional expense makes it inaccessible to all but those associated with a small handful of monolithic mega-publishers with the cash to scrape geological volumes.

But even if there are fewer triple A games or people in a position to make them, that at least improves the quality of the games we get, right? Abso-titano-fuck no. Jedi Survivor is just the latest example of new games that were completely catastrophically buggy when they launched. Part of the blame for this lies at the feet of PC gamers and the difficulty of creating a universal experience for a wide range of hardware disparity, but I point to the graphical commitments and unwieldy legions of bells and whistles that can go wrong when you’re forced to use the latest and least-tested technology.

Even if the game works, the lion’s share of the resources going into graphics leaves less room for shit that really matters, like gameplay design. In terms of game design innovation, triple-A space has been going in circles for decades. When we’re not being led through glorified movies of ghost train rides, skinner’s lazy box mechanics have been shown to hypnotize players into endless grinding loops because it’s the only way to recoup the inflated cost of staying on the cutting edge of graphics.

Regardless, the commitment that every triple-A game must look very realistic basically restricts the kinds of experiences that can be done. There are certain emotional tones a creator might want to evoke that don’t align with realism. Imagine if Pizza Tower had very realistic graphics. This will scare the kids.

But I’m not making any amazing discoveries here. Raise these points in the company and you will only see nods of the head. Go ahead and cite the obvious fact that hyper-realism costs a lot and doesn’t make the game fun. Point to the legions of indie games that have retro-style graphics and run perfectly fine without incurring the GDP of a mid-sized island nation, double your focus when Minecraft comes out. Express blatant indifference giving a character who spends 99% of the time with their butt to the camera the ability to grin so damn realistic. While you’re at it, tick the other catch that nothing ages faster than photorealistic graphics. It takes no more than a few years to descend from the slopes of the Uncanny Valley. Go check out the screenshots for The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. It boggled everyone’s minds when it came out. Now all the characters look like fluorescent lights wrapped in Proscutto Ham. Meanwhile, the super-stylish Zelda Wind Waker came out over twenty years ago and has never looked quite so good.

Say it all and see literally everyone agrees. Then watch some of those same people go and talk nonsense about Forspoken because the main character seems a bit witty and marginally less than totally realistic at times. Triple-A developers are trapped in the best graphics contest that no one wants or agrees to be useful, crafted by fanciful expectations, over the top ignorance, and the media’s absolute thirst for terrifying screenshots. It’s like the damn cold war. Neither side wants a global thermonuclear conflict, but it has to keep creeping toward it in case the other guy starts creeping marginally faster.

As I say, realistic graphics are associated with the advancement of technology. Tech companies invest heavily in making sure we always want the latest and most powerful processors, and so games have to take advantage of that power, even if they don’t need it desperately. Something similar happened when CDs became a thing in the ’90s. You didn’t need a 600MB disk to release low-resolution 2D adventure games at around 30MB, so it suddenly became very important to fill that space with high-quality audio and FMV scenes.

So this hyper-realistic gaming trio is killing itself to make every speck of dust on every jumbled eyelash because it has to somehow justify these new consoles and graphics cards. But come to think of it, surely this is a failure of the imagination. Let’s think about what else you can do to take advantage of all the processing power that gamers will find *cool* and won’t be pretty pointless.

Idea 1: Make a lot of enemies. There’s a joke Doom mod called Nuts with nearly 100,000 enemies in one massive room, which was routinely hacking computers at the time it came out. Most new computers work more or less happily. Let’s play with that. One of the actual benefits of technological advancement was that games like Dead Rising were finally able to realize the real-time zombie apocalypse scenario, let’s keep pushing that ceiling. Create a high-octane boomerang shooter in a full-on, fully-displayed city that’s totally creepy with the idiots. Then give us a weapon that is somewhere between a minigun and a lawnmower. Why limit ourselves to a planet, even? Put a game on Dyson’s damn ball or the plain of infinite existence. No one’s going to complain about individual monsters being completely less than realistic when the damned tidal wave of them rolls down like a greyscale scenario.

This brings me to my second thought: use physics engines. Everyone was enamored with physics when Half-Life 2 came out, and now it seems to have drifted into the background along with lighting and reflection mapping. There must be more to explore there. Metal Gear Rising Revengeance has been doing fun things by letting us organically chop things into pieces, so why hasn’t anyone followed up? Make arms and legs organically rip apart with explosions and hurl through the air. Then he slapped another person in the head, giving him a concussion.

You know one aspect of game physics that hasn’t really been improved in decades? water. Sure, you can make water look good, like in Sea of ‚Äč‚ÄčThieves, but it still doesn’t act like water. How about some kind of complete particle system? So if the player encounters, say, a flooded room, they have the option of trying to swim through it or they may spend eight hours gradually rescuing it with a cup of coffee they found.

Idea 3: Make a post-dad game like Powerwash Simulator or Hardspace Shipbreaker, something with a nice daily work loop that pairs well with a podcast or audiobook for a lazy Sunday afternoon, and then make an actual audiobook of it. Hire a talented podcasting crew to make a stupid amount of content. Like fifty hours of entertaining conversation. Then add it to the game as a radio station in a universe that most players believe will never run out of fresh material.

This will impress people. It may sound pointlessly expensive but at least it’s easy to do, and it’s no more a waste of money than modeling a horse’s testicles or needing PTSD treatment after working on bloody effects in Mortal Kombat or any of the other things triple-A graphics dealers do. Realism is already dealing with. Or indeed they fill all the money into their slots and then hurl themselves down the stairs of the lighthouse until they spawn clouds of banknotes with each bone-crushing impact. This idea 4.

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