Just because a game looks pretty, doesn’t mean it is.
I’ve been thinking about the issue of photo-realism in game visuals versus budget and innovation, for a while but I hadn’t really been able to think of a way to present the argument until now. I mean, it’s going to seem foolish to suggest that advances in graphical technology could be bad for the video game industry. It’s not the fantastic visuals of a game like L.A Noire that I’m railing against, it’s the idea that we should be relying on them as the norm that worries me.
Of course, this all came together in my head as I read some, much reported upon, comments from 2K Games Global President, Christoph Hartmann, about photo-realism in the console games market. These comments were made in a an interview with gamesindustry.biz where he talks about why consoles will always matter. In that, I agree but that’s a topic for another day.
“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,” Hartmann 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.”
What he’s suggesting is that games are unable to convey emotion because we can’t view the characters properly, in the way we could in a movie. I suppose he’s never read a book, attended a theatrical production or even listened to a speech. In fact, in light of that comment and how much thought he seems to have put into it, he may never have played a video game before.
The first video game I can remember that prompted an actual emotional reaction from me was Final Fantasy VI, a game originally released on the SNES. I’m talking 16 bit graphics, sprites, reading text, the whole bit. Spoilers (and if you get mad at me for spoiling a game that’s over a decade old, you have messed up priorities), but Final Fantasy VI had not one, but many events that were quite moving. Cid and Celes, Cyan remembering his family, even the fake opera in the middle of the game was captivating.
In fact, the Final Fantasy series was once quite good at this sort of thing. Again, Spoilers, but the scene from Final Fantasy IX where Garnet runs through the crowd and jumps into Zidane’s arms still gives me goosebumps, twelve years later (I just watched it again on youtube). But take a look at Final Fantasy XIII, many people had issues with the way this game turned out but my biggest issue was that every character was a vapid husk. Everyone looked great, and the settings were stunningly beautiful but the story and gameplay absolutely suffered because of this. Square-Enix even admitted that they didn’t have the time or the budget to implement any feedback from play-testers due to spending so much time/money/effort on visuals. If that’s not visuals holding back a game, I don’t know what is.
Hartmann continued, saying “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.”
Well, we already are at that point. Previous examples aside, let’s go with something more modern and talk about Journey. Journey was visually stunning without being photo-realistic and managed to convey a range of emotions using characters who didn’t even have faces. Also interesting to note is that the makers of Journey, thatgamecompany, didn’t close their studio or lay off a large percentage of their staff after the game was released. In fact the game did quite well and everyone who plays it talks about the emotions it evoked.
I could go on all day with examples but let me drop one on you that I’ll bet you weren’t expecting. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, a game from one of the genres Hartmann laments above, has one of my favorite scenes from any game, ever. Spoilers: (stop playing multiplayer for a couple of hours, seriously, and play the campaign) in the middle of the game, Soap and the crew are tasked with rescuing a prisoner whose identity is unknown to them, after a long battle they finally breach the last wall and a haggard looking man disarms the first guy through the door then looks up and says “Soap?”, in a hollow voice. My heart soared, Captain Price was alive. The Call of Duty series is far from being photo-realistic and all it took was one word to evoke an emotional response.
This isn’t to say that no game should ever go for photo-realistic graphics. L.A Noire really focused heavily on visuals, even down to tracking the facial expressions of its actors, but this was all in the name of gameplay. Watching your suspects react to questioning was how they wanted you to play the game. Could this have been accomplished in another manner? It could have, but that was the game.
With development costs bloating to extreme levels, and lots of studios closing or downsizing lately it’s time to take a look at what is driving the costs of some of these games. I’m willing to bet a good chunk goes into not only art assets, but optimizing engines to get them to run these visuals.
If you have the budget, go ahead and hire a famous actor and map her face, and entire performance, into your photo-realistic game just don’t be too surprised when you can’t cover the development costs without putting up Call of Duty level sales numbers. If you can balance that budget that’s fine with me I just think that, in many cases, this money would be better spent on a few good game designers, a solid advertising campaign (no acoustic songs over videos of explosions) and investing in your studio’s future.
One day, the video game industry may be able to strike a balance and support photo-realistic graphics, and great gameplay, on reasonable budgets but right now it feels like you can only do one or the other. I know which one I’ll choose every time.