Graphics: Style vs. Realism

Graphics: Style vs. Realism

Humans are drawn to beauty. Even if we aren’t always able to fully articulate why we find something appealing, we are drawn to things that “look nice”. Since video games first became popular, people have always been drawn to the latest and “best looking” games.

Modern consoles and PCs are more powerful than ever, and each new generation brings new innovations, improvements, and techniques that only make them more capable. With the release of the current generation of PS5 and Xbox Series consoles, one could argue that near-photorealistic graphics are now widely accessible at a price that the average consumer can afford (at least, they would be, if supply chain issues were not keeping them out of the hands of many who want them).

Look at a modern graphical showcase like Horizon: Forbidden West on PS5 as an example. Looks great, right? Character models have extremely minute details, like peach fuzz visible on their faces and pores that realistically stretch when their motion-captured performances express emotion. Using the game’s photo mode, you can capture landscape images that wouldn’t look out of place in a travel brochure for Yosemite National Park. A large team of very talented and skilled people worked very hard to make the wood planks that Aloy walks on top of look and sound like a genuine slab of dead tree would look and sound.

Creating and maintaining such a realistic quality is extremely time-consuming and expensive. Games like this were made with massive budgets and require powerful hardware, high-resolution screens, and high-fidelity audio to fully appreciate. And when everything comes together, they are truly an experience to behold. So why does something like, say, Luigi’s Mansion 3 on Nintendo Switch look so much more appealing to me?

Luigi’s Mansion 3 is by no means some low-budget indie project. A lot of Nintendo dollars and high-grade technical know-how went into its creation. But it does run on what is essentially a $300 tablet (a fairly budget price, as far as tablets go) with a 720p built-in screen. And yet, it looks absolutely fantastic. It’s probably the best looking game Nintendo has ever published. And therein lies that advantage of targeting a great art style over realism driven by pure performance.

We see the real world every day. It’s undeniably impressive to see real-world objects and materials seamlessly translated into a digital form in a realistic way, or to see motion-captured characters moving around with the weight and physics of a flesh and blood person. But the novelty of it all isn’t necessarily going to age all that well. Until true real-time photorealism is achievable in consumer products, there is always going to be a new game that comes along that pushes the realism a little bit further. And to some, like this writer, that kind of incremental iteration is kind of boring. For example, Horizon: Zero Dawn looked great at the time it released, but it’s kind of hard to go back to when Forbidden West did pretty much everything it did except slightly better.

Luigi doesn’t move like a realistic person. With his proportions, that would probably look very weird and uncanny. When he runs away in fear, his limbs flail with an exaggerated stretch and bounce. Every little animation is loaded with appeal and expresses the personality of the character. Aloy from Horizon moves around like a real person who knows how to walk. Luigi moves, unmistakably, like Luigi.

As for the environments, I don’t really care that a door in a shiny new game has more door-like divots and details than one from the last generation. It still just looks like an attempt to make a facsimile of a regular door that I would see every time I get up to go to the bathroom. But look at this wonky, skewed elevator door that Luigi must use.

It still fulfills the function of being a door, but it’s a door with personality. I haven’t seen that exact door in anything else but Luigi’s Mansion 3. It doesn’t look like photo-real metal, but I can so easily accept the reality of this world. That’s just what a metal surface looks like in this world, and it looks great. Games don’t need to emulate our reality to feel real, we just need to be able to accept the reality the game presents.

As another commonly-used example, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker was blasted by many as “kiddie” when it was first revealed, but many would now agree that even on its original hardware, its art style has held up far better than its immediate successor, Twilight Princess, which went in a more gritty and realistic direction.

Maybe it’s a symptom of the Western bias of animation and cartoony visuals being “for children”, but many people seem to write off games with stylized appearances as not worth their time, or not “real” games. While there is always room for all styles and everything can have its own form of appeal, I would argue that it’s more valuable to strive to explore new and novel art directions than it is to try to achieve pure realism. Many indie developers grasp and embrace that notion, but they don’t always have the funding or manpower to go as far as they would like to. Games like Luigi’s Mansion 3, Crash Bandicoot 4, and Ori and the Will of the Wisps are perfect examples of the novel and one-of-a-kind experiences that can be achieved when a talented team has the proper resources and focuses on creating something new with its own style and identity rather than just aping what we can see in the real world with our own eyes. Realism in games will always have a place, but maybe it shouldn’t be the main goal or benchmark that everyone is striving for. Games have the power to create their own little mini realities with their own looks and their own rules, and that’s a very powerful asset that can be taken advantage of when talent and imagination are truly let loose.

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