Reality Vs Design: The Peculiar Road to Hyperrealism in Video Games

person using VR (1)

There has been a trend in many games and game companies to make games more realistic – even to the point of perfect photo-realism. Realistic movement, lighting, even things like behavioural reactions to injury have become a major guiding force in video games. But where did this push for realism come from? And why has it stuck around?

Realism and Simulations

In a sense, the desire for realism in our video games goes back as far as we have had video games. One of the very first video games was The Sumerian Game (1964), a text-based early mainframe game designed by Mabel Addis, which was the first economic simulation game. Sega’s first game to use a motion simulator cabinet was Space Tactics (1981), a space combat simulator that had a cockpit cabinet where the screen moved in sync with the on-screen action. This later evolved into Hang-On (1985), a racing video game where the player sits on and moves a motorbike replica to control the in-game actions. Realism in these types of games – or at least the feel of it – was paramount to their success. As time went on, realism became a core property of simulation games – in particular sporting and driving games – which often tied into the interests of major companies and manufacturers who sponsored many of these titles.

But does that explain why so many games today – even those that are non-realistic in concept – strive for realism? To answer that we need to look into a little about psychology and the history of game marketing.

Assumptions about Graphics

Game visuals are one of the first ways that video games get advertised to new audiences. They appear on the internet as trailers, at conventions as gameplay footage, and often even the “behind the scenes” content focuses on these visuals, showing the work that goes into creating video games. Even for games that are complete, visuals such as new skins for existing character are often a driver for more sales and downloadable content to keep the video game financially afloat. Simply put, the more visually detailed a game is, the easier it is to sell, and the more realistic it is the more assumptions get made about its value and quality.

Of course, these assumptions are often not indicative of anything. Visuals are often used to sell a game simply because it’s easier to showcase a bunch of visuals than to convey the joy of play by watching from afar. It is, of course, far easier to make an impressive visual than to put together compelling gameplay, but equally giving people something visually impressive – or at least interesting – to look at can be more engaging than people talking about a game, or focusing on the minutiae of gameplay.

However, this perception of visuals as an indicator of quality has been an important part of marketing strategies for many companies. Xbox and Playstation, for instance, boast powerful hardware perfect for displaying high graphic games, and visuals have been a core part of their advertising. Meanwhile nintendo, often depicted as the “underdog” in console wars, focuses on the gameplay, happily engaging in low-polygon games with a “childish” veneer in order to explore great gaming content. We say “childish” in quotation marks however as that leads to…

The Issue of Realism and Gameplay

Once a game starts “looking” realistic, it may have to start “feeling” realistic as well. It’s perfectly fine for a 600 polygon cartoonish character to jump ten times their normal height, or even double jump and land without injury, but for a perfectly rendered 6000 polygon character designed to look and feel like a real person? Suddenly that unreal element of gameplay becomes less believable and by extension less desirable. This creates a trap for many game companies that want to push the boundaries – because the boundary is no longer in technological capability, the boundary is in what players will allow when they see a realistic or non-realistic character on the screen.

But of course the demand for “realism” doesn’t stop there. It’s one thing to look realistic, but it’s quite another to – feel – realistic, especially when you need to increase the sense of realism to distinguish yourself from the competition! Suddenly the demand for realism goes beyond the number of polygons, but becomes an issue for terrain, backgrounds, even equipment like guns or the feel of a moving vehicle. For some games this goes hand in hand with an emphasis on environmental storytelling – because of course, that is more realistic – or a requirement to remove the “unreal” from the game – of course every firearm in the game needs a real firearm, and it needs to have properties similar to the corresponding firearm in real life, otherwise it just wouldn’t be realistic.

This naturally poses a challenge for game developers – not only must they conform to what the player views as realistic, but they now need to justify breaking from that realism. Of course it’s perfectly fine for players to unrealistically modify their weapons with silencers, scopes and grips – customisation and personalisation are cornerstones of gameplay after all –  but the firearm’s base model needs to feel as though it fits in the hyper-realistic setting. In other words, your hyper-realistc, photo-finish world war two shooter probably shouldn’t allow the main character to double jump thirty feet into the air unless the game has already justified breaking that sense of realism.

The result is a completely different perception on the nature of games and gameplay. Games that have non-realistic elements – such as cartoonish features, crazy looking items or unrealistic physical abilities – are perceived as childish. Games that put realism front and centre and only diverge in specific, permissible areas are more adult

But before we seal this as case closed, there’s one more angle we need to look at…

The pursuit for better AI

When Halo came out it was a great success for many reasons, but one of those reasons were its advances in terms of enemy AI. The enemies didn’t behave like enemies in video games past. They ran, they ducked for cover, they chose to open fire at intervals that couldn’t be predicted on timing alone. Certainly the AI was more advanced, but more importantly it felt more realistic. Of course some aliens run when injured or overpowered, of course enemies hunt for the nearest available cover when under fire. This sort of behaviour, however, was more than just a tool for better gameplay, it also felt more realistic. It’s one thing for an enemy to have higher numbers than the player character, it’s another for them to interact with the player and their environment in a way that players find believable. Which leads us to…

Hyper-Realism in Story and Art

As games progress, the drive for them to be more than just entertainment increases. There is a divide in players who want games that provoke thought, or reflect the real world, and those who want their games free from “moral interference” and devoid of modern politics. But the push for realism goes both ways – if you demand realism then realism is the demand, and the desire many people have to see themselves represented in video games naturally increases alongside that desire. But of course realism comes with many downfalls as well. While a demand for more realistic blood and gore, weapons and movement, personality and AI behaviour represents one end of the hyper-realism spectrum, the other side includes stories that tackle highly sensitive issues, or that shine a light on parts of society that some people – including gamers – would rather not deal with.

However, many countries have started to make a stand on such issues, both positive and negative. The Australian video game industry for instance, has begun to weigh in on the matter through the lens of a censorship and public policy, and many other countries do the same, according to the demands of either national or cultural interest. But can at what point does a game cease to be just a game and become an important piece of cultural art, with all the protections and licences that should entail?

Final Words

The push for realism has impacted almost every area of video games in one form or another. It has shaped how we define games, what we consider childish or mature, politics, the discourse on a game as art, how we market our games and even on the development of Artificial Intelligence. The pursuit for realism is central to our games and while it has its pros, for many players, designers and regulators it also has its cons. Realism can be a powerful tool, as engaging as it is limiting, but it is up to us to discover best how to wield that tool.

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