Video Games and Human Values Initiative
A bit thick

Beyond the end of the line

Heavy rain 2

All roads lead to realism. In the arts, it's easy to track the predictable trajectory: artists reject stylization believing they will draw us ever closer to Truth with ever closer facsimiles of reality. Heroic verse gives way to Iambic Pentameter, which surrenders to Neoclassical couplets, which yields to Romantic prose, which succumbs to Realism, followed by Naturalism...just in time for the arrival of the medium that renders all theatrical realism self-defeating: Film. That's a woefully inadequate summary of theater history, but you get the idea.

One can find similar trajectories in the other arts. It's possible, for example, to condense the history of the cinema as an inexorable movement towards verisimilitude, with nearly every technical advancement designed to serve the prime objective: fidelity to real life. The closer we get to making movies indistinguishable from life, the more believable they are. Or so say the realists.

But history is never a straight road. Punctuating all of these movements are innumerable reactions against them. In the 20th century alone, the march toward realism has been met by counter-forces such as Expressionism, Surrealism, Absurdism, the New Wave, and the Third Cinema. While these movements rarely become mainstream, their impact on the dominant modes of theater and film can easily be seen. It's impossible to disconnect a single-camera show like The Wire, for example, from its influences in New Wave, Cinema Vérité, and Italian Neo-Realism.

Narrative video games are rambling down the same road to realism, and I wonder when the inevitable crossroad will appear. Cell-shaded games like Team Fortress 2 and The Wind Waker have notably demonstrated stylistic alternatives. Mirror's Edge has a cool alternative look, and the upcoming Prince of Persia adopts a painterly visual style. But the momentum toward realism among high-profile games is unmistakable, and most major developers continue to focus their efforts and resources at discovering new ways to immerse the player in highly detailed visuals that present realistic, if often improbable, environments.

I wrote recently about the stiff, lifeless character models in Fallout 3 and suggested that they detract from the overall experience of the game. Not surprisingly, several of my astute readers commented that the road to photorealism leads to places we may not want to go, and they reminded me that I expressed such a concern about Mass Effect nearly a year ago. True dat.

But when developers deliberately choose realism as their primary design aesthetic, then we must inevitably insist that they make good on that promise. We might imagine a Fallout 3 with stylized visuals, but the fact is that Bethesda has given us what they've given us, and for most reviewers the realistic visual style of Fallout 3 is one of its assets. It's a smooth ride, for the most part, as we take in the bleak, breathtakingly bombed-out environments. But the character models and canned animations are the potholes in that road. They detract from the otherwise exhilarating ride the game delivers.

As a designer (or a film director, or a painter, or a photographer, etc.), if it's photorealism you're going for, then you must deliver believably realistic subjects. We can object to the aesthetic (and I have many times), but in the end, we meet the game at the place it's delivered to us, and we hold it accountable for the places where it fails to deliver on its own chosen aesthetic.

So where does all of this lead? If I had to venture a guess, I'd say the end of the line for video games may turn out to be Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain, a game that ups the ante on realistic detail to an unprecedented degree. Facial motion capture, minute tracking of eye movements, purposely imperfect skin textures, and shaders that add never-before-seen nuance to the human face - all serve to render characters that look as lifelike as possible on a modern console (in this case, the PS3).

Will Quantic Dream deliver a trip to Uncanny Valley? Will Heavy Rain be a good game? I have no idea, but I'm personally less interested in those questions than I am in how the industry will respond to this new high water mark. Will developer X study the chinks in Heavy Rain's realistic armor in an effort to deliver an even-higher degree of realism? Will developer Y continue to tweak the PhysX engine used by Quantic Dream, squeezing even more natural movement out of it? When do we reach the end of the line?

At what point will a major developer chuck the whole photorealism schtick and build a big-budget ambitious narrative video game based on a completely different visual aesthetic? Not because it's cheaper; not so it will run on older systems; but purely because the designers believe they can do better than realism. This day is coming. History suggests it's inevitable. I say it can't come soon enough.