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I Want to See Less Realistic Videogame Graphics!

This is not to say that I don’t want any games that are more realistic than current games. But I think the game industry—and the consumers whom that industry is trying to please—need a greater awareness that increased visual realism...

We’re more than half a year into the next generation of console gaming, less than a month out from the release of Watch Dogs, and PC gaming, unhindered by the technological shackles of static consoles, continues to progress technologically from game to game and computer to computer. So what should we do with all this gaming horsepower? Demand less realistic games, I say.

            Not that I particularly want to get my hands on one of those recently dug up E.T. Atari games from the New Mexico desert so I can enjoy the breathtaking graphical styling’s of 1982. What I’m saying is that game designers and players need to more fully embrace the idea that realism is not all that graphics can or should do. So much of the talk about next-gen systems or new games centers on photorealism that it’s all too easy to forget that graphical realism is not the only game in town. We have plenty of precedents for brilliant non-realistic art design in games. There’s the cel shading of Okami and Borderlands. The 3D cartoonishness of Super Mario Galaxy. The noir comic book formatting of cutscenes in the Max Payne series. The Art Deco environment design of Bioshock. The differently noir grayscale silhouetting of Limbo. The minimalism of Thomas Was Alone. The Edward Gorey-inspired Victorianism and early silent cinema aesthetic of The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom.

            These last three (indie) examples in particular point the way to a realm of enormous potential, of which the art design of existing games (including those using non-photorealistic rendering) has barely begun to scratch the surface. Put simply, why haven’t games made more use of the many, many visual styles that populate the history of visual art? Can you think of an impressionist game? A surrealist game? Medieval and gothic? Mughal or Mysore painting? There are a lot of styles that could be really cool in videogames.

This is not to say that I don’t want any games that are more realistic than current games. But I think the game industry—and the consumers whom that industry is trying to please—need a greater awareness that increased visual realism is not the only or the best goal for today’s games.

More visual styles would be great, and certainly it’s starting to happen, though more around the edges than in the mainstream of gaming (which tends to be more risk-averse in graphics as in everything else so as to protect massive financial investments in AAA titles). And it should go without saying that a great visual style won’t bring players flocking to a game that doesn’t also have solid gameplay—when we just want good visuals, we watch a movie or look at a painting. But to be great, non-realistic graphics need to work together with the rest of the game. Take, for example, Bioshock, a game whose Art Deco environments and Ayn Rand-based Objectivist dystopian world work together to create an atmospheric and thought-provoking experience that more often than not works with rather than against the gameplay (which in any case is fun in its own right). Slapping an impressionist skin on Bioshock wouldn’t make any more sense than a Super Mario Galaxy look for the next Call of Duty. But a game incorporating the values and concepts of various aesthetic movements into the gameplay and (where applicable) game narrative could be really, really cool, as Bioshock and the minimalist Thomas Was Alone demonstrate. What kind of game would benefit from an impressionist, surrealist, or Romantic vibe? What kind of game might be inspired by them or get us to think about them in new ways?

Again, this shouldn’t be all games—but it should be more than it currently is. The good news is that I think we’ll see it start to happen more as the indie game market continues to grow. I’d love to see the mainstream start to take more risks on visually creative titles. However, Bioshock creator Ken Levine’s decision to retire from AAA game development to work on smaller-scale, more indie-like projects (though still under the umbrella of publishing giant Take-Two, in a sign that Take-Two aren’t total idiots who’d kick out a great game dev like Levine for wanting to try something different) suggests that the business and scale demands of the AAA environment will probably keep mainstream creative innovation rare. What kind of non-realistic game visuals would you be interested in seeing? Would you love to see a game inspired by a certain style or even a certain painting?

Written By: Brandon Perton

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