Are photorealistic graphics killing creativity?
As triple-A titles accelerate towards a disturbing level of photorealism, we’ve seen a resurgence in retro-styled and cel-shaded games. Why are more and more developers so keen to move against the realistic grain?
It could just be because there’s a wider games market now – as more and more developers crowd to the digital market places to flog their wares, they’re going to have to offer more unique products to stand out. We like to think there’s something else pushing them, though, something more artistically driven and societally valid – we think people are getting bored of photorealism.
It makes sense, doesn’t it? We could probably spend the rest of this page listing off drab, uninspired first-person shooters, all of them lethargically brought to life with sludgy colour palettes and lazy textures. That was the downfall of the last generation – even the biggest and best titles from early on in the PS3/360 life cycles look dated now; Gears of War, Resistance and Call of Duty 2 all look horrendous compared to their more recent successors. They all went for photorealism – a gritty, dirt-under-the-fingernails approach to graphical communication that looks great at the time, but whose aging is painful to watch.
Look back to something like the original BioShock – while it did gun for the best graphics, it also stuck to a very defined art style. Boot it up today and it hasn’t aged badly at all. The same goes for old-school games, too – Crash Bandicoot, for all intents and purposes, was a cartoon of a game, designed for kids in vivid and exuberant flashes of fluorescent orange and green. Play it now, and it hasn’t lost anything because of its age. Even some of our favourite games of the last generation – Fallout 3, for example – have suffered from the rapidly evolving standards of graphical fidelity.
Perhaps that’s why we’re seeing such a hunger for games like Hotline Miami, Tearaway, Super Meat Boy, Fez, Limbo, Machinarium, Journey. These games prefer art direction and style over realism and powerful engines. Borderlands and The Walking Dead, too, manage a longevity that other games don’t, and this is down to their cel-shaded visual splendour. The benefit in applying a vivid and distinct art style to your game goes beyond aesthetics; it makes your game noticeable – each of the screens that surround this text are identifiable for their content, distinguishable from the other games because of their vibrancy and character. If there were just various shots of Call Of Duty or Battlefield, Forza or Gran Turismo, Far Cry or Ryse, it’d all look good, but oh so vanilla.
You can get away with more when things aren’t real, too – sure, survival horrors work when you’ve got a crunchy reality giving some weight to the scares, but if you really want to tread new ground or deliver a poignant metaphor, what better way of doing it than by travelling the stylistic route? Going back to the PS2, you had Shin Megami Tensei: Lucifer’s Call (which still resounds with a smooth creepiness due to its understated cel-shading) making hard-hitting holocaust analogies with animated manikins. We don’t think that’s something you could pull off so effectively in the photo-fantasies of Assassin’s Creed, for example.
As developers get to grips with the new generation’s processing capabilities, we’re holding out for a focus on pushing games down a more adventurous path; games offer players a chance of complete immersion and engagement, something other forms of entertainment can’t achieve so readily. Why waste that ability to get inside our heads on creating worlds we could just step outside and see in our day-to-day lives? Hotline Miami gave us a top-down voyeuristic look into a perverse world of Clockwork Orange-esque uber-violence. Borderlands took us to another planet and let us sniff out the lethal flora and fauna for ourselves, exhibiting alien ideas we’d never seen before. Even Spyro The Dragon took us on a tour of a continent where dragons were becoming the least dominant race of a planet once ruled by dragons.
Games can do unique things, show us unique places, have us interact with things we never thought we’d interact with. It’s all good booting up Far Cry 3 and going to crack a shark in the face with our bare fists, but isn’t it better booting up Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon and shooting a neon-blooded dragon through the face with an explosive sniper rifle? Leave the realism at home, and your game will last longer and offer an experience you can’t get anywhere else. That is what we want to see the most from the generations of gaming to come.