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Is Pursuing Photorealism Worth It?

Is Pursuing Photorealism Worth It?

When Sonic Frontiers was fully revealed, something about its looks just seemed off to me. The contrast of the realistically rendered grasslands and the oddly proportioned, overly-smooth blue hedgehog just did not mesh for me. Many people on the internet seemed to have a similar reaction, saying the game looked like a premade Unreal Engine demo that someone haphazardly ported Sonic into. To this day, I still haven’t had the desire to give the game a try primarily because I find its art direction so unappealing. It just looks incomplete to me because the world and its characters are not cohesive. If the characters are stylized, shouldn’t the world be as well?

I theorize that this change in direction is because Sonic Frontiers was positioned as a reinvention that was trying to reinvigorate a very inconsistent franchise. It seems like the choice of art style was a concession made to try to make the franchise to be perceived as a more serious contender. To me, it had exactly the opposite effect. But I think this is emblematic of a larger problem in gaming, where less “realistic” looking games tend to be dismissed or written off by large segments of the gaming audience in favor of more “serious” ones.

This blog has talked about realism vs. art style before, but that article only barely touched on the harm that an uneven bias towards realism inflicts on the wider creativity of games and to the developers that make them. This article will delve a bit deeper into those topics.

Western Animation Bias

While animated media is generally accepted by all ages in some areas - Japan specifically has a huge market for animation - western countries in particular tend to have a strong bias against animation as a serious art form. Most movie viewers and the old coots handing out film awards to every gritty WW2 film tend to write off animation as something only for children. To be fair, a lot of animation is made specifically to appeal to children. But discounting the artistic value of animation deprives people of some of the best experiences that visual media can offer. Films like Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse and Puss in Boots: The Last Wish are some of the most vibrant, lively pieces of art that I’ve experienced in my life. Shows like Netflix’s Arcane consistently floored me with the buttery smooth animations and painterly designs. Animated media has the potential not just to represent our reality, but to invent a whole new reality that we have never seen before. Despite the love and effort poured into their creation and the critical acclaim they garner, many mainstream viewers tend to write these projects off as childish or less meaningful than live-action media.

I feel like this bias has bled over into the video game space as well. Some of the best selling games are sports titles and military shooters. Both of these are typically trying to push realism, so players who primarily focus on such games tend to have little exposure to titles with more experimental or abstract styles. There just seems to be a general dismissal of media that embraces the abstract or experimental on the part of a large chunk of the western audience. While video games with 8 or 16-bit pixel art styles seem to be grandfathered into gaming culture due to their historical relevance and nostalgic appeal, games that go for other forms of lower-detail art tend to be dismissed more often in favor of bigger budget, more realistic games.

The Cost of Photorealism

Details are not free. Each asset in a game has to be created by someone. Expectations for the level of realism that modern games are required to reach in order to be seen as realistic have skyrocketed. Every single asset and animation that appears in the game must reach the same level of fidelity in order to not break the illusion. And that directly translates to man hours that developers have to spend creating them. The cost of AAA game development has skyrocketed, and many games still routinely face significant delays, release in broken states, overwork and burn out their developers, or some combination thereof. I would never, ever argue that it does not require talent and skill to faithfully recreate real-world objects in a convincing manner. Seeing digital recreations of real-world locations that appear almost perfect is undeniably impressive. There’s always room for all styles. But is it really worth the human and monetary cost to single mindedly pursue realism so aggressively?

A vocal subset of gamers seem to think that games just aren’t worth their time if they aren’t pushing graphical boundaries and providing the most high-fidelity worlds possible. I find this attitude extremely harmful to creativity. The idea that the only “serious” games are ones that pursue extreme realism creates an unwarranted prejudice against smaller titles with different graphical ambitions. This closed-mindedness can prevent players from trying games they would otherwise enjoy, which in turn can hamper the game’s reach and success. Additionally many games that were hailed as extremely realistic at their time of release have aged rather poorly. As technology improves, the contrast between modern games and older games that each shot for photorealism is glaring. On the other hand, games that prioritized unique art over realism tend to be timeless. Games like Okami and Jet Set Radio are examples of old games with perennial art styles. The novelty of recreating the “real world” in games can quickly wear off. But something unique that you’ve never seen before can become immortalized.

Unique Art Styles Are on the Rise

Here are some examples of popular titles that went for something different and were all the better for it.

Minecraft, obviously. I don’t even need to go into detail about this. You know what this is and how it looks. And it’s the best selling game of all time.

Overwatch, for all of its controversy as of late, is probably one of the biggest mainstream successes to embrace a cartoony art style. The characters and world take on a soft, Pixar-esque feel with exaggerated proportions and animations.

Sunset Overdrive was Insomniac’s first and only Xbox console exclusive. Its character designs play on a type of hyper realism, with realistic textures but exaggerated facial features. All of this was then pushed through a punk comic book filter. The movement style is similarly exaggerated, with stretchy animations that send characters bounding through the map. While Insomniac’s Spider-Man games are undeniably impressive and beautiful, part of me wishes they had pursued a more stylized look.

Deep Rock Galactic is one of my favorite games overall. Its art style features a lot of low-poly models with relatively simple textures and jagged angles. It’s definitely not realistic, but it's got its own flavor of gritty beauty and a cohesive aesthetic. The smaller team at Ghost Ship Games is able to create a bevy of different biomes and gameplay mechanics within this style. The lower polygon count also means the assets are easier to create and makes the game easier to run on systems with different specs despite the huge amount of environmental destruction and interactivity.

Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time took Crash’s origins as an homage to saturday morning cartoons and ran with it. The wonky, exaggerated, toy-like design philosophy touched every character and environment, and the game was all the more appealing for it. This is all in stark contrast to the previously released N. Sane Trilogy, which went for a more literal look that could often appear flat and lifeless. Crash 4’s colorful designs appear to have influenced other recent titles as well, such as En Garde!, by Fireplace Games.

Valheim is another example of balancing budget and appeal. The viking survival game, which is currently in Early Access, is famously made by a tiny development team. The art style leverages a vintage PC/N64 aesthetic that allows the team to convey their designs without requiring cutting edge tech or spending excessive time creating assets.

The art style in Super Mario Bros Wonder looks, fittingly, wonderful. The colors are well-balanced and vibrant. The animations are bouncy and expressive. The abstracted, almost clay-like aesthetic feels like an evolution of the hand-made feel that Yoshi’s Island started back on the SNES. It’s not necessarily low budget, but it shoots for something unique. And it’s shaping up to be one the Switch’s prettiest titles.
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