Gaming's best underdog
Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 8

Does pretty always mean dumb?

Masseffect2 Chris over at The Artful Gamer posted an essay the other day that got me thinking. It turns out, a piece I wrote a few weeks ago got him thinking, which provoked his post, which has me thinking again, and...well, you get the picture. Back in the old days we used to call this a conversation.

In an essay on Planescape: Torment I lamented the fact that its graphics engine hadn't aged well and tried to imagine a game with the narrative and thematic richness of Planescape inside a Mass Effect or Oblivion engine. Chris tried to imagine it too, and he didn't like what he saw:

Photorealism in games ultimately detracts from immersion and gives players the feeling that the story and characters are contrived and un-real. I suggest that immersion and dramatic investment aren’t a product of good technologies, they are a product of good artisanship.

When I play Mass Effect and Oblivion, I often find myself paying more attention to the technical feats of the 3D engines than the story itself. The first time I experienced this kind of technical distraction was when I watched one of the new Star Wars films. Gone were the Jim Henson puppets and scaled miniatures, and in their place were high-poly renderings of space ships and Jabba the Hutt. The 3D “photorealism” that George Lucas attempted failed miserably for me, and I spent most of my time distracted by imperfections in the animation and the rather stilted ways in which living and non-living characters interacted.

On the evidence of games like Mass Effect and Oblivion--and the woeful "Lucas has lost it" Star Wars episodes--I think Chris is certainly right. All these experiences take us on an awkward trip to Uncanny Valley, and it's easy to see how our imaginative evocations of 2-D sprite characters are more satisfying and less jarring than the wrinkled masses of polygonal tissue representing human faces in Oblivion.

I also agree with Chris' contention that real engagement is the product of solid dramaturgy. Tell a good story with compelling characters, and you're at least halfway there. As games like Planescape, Baldur's Gate, and Fallout have shown, we are more than willing to accept graphical limitations if they are in service of a role-playing narrative experience that hooks us. And as Steve Meretzky's brilliant interactive fiction games demonstrate, we actually don't need graphics at all.

But when I say "we," whom am I really talking about? My guess is that I'm talking about gamers like me and Chris - gamers who go back a ways to an earlier era of games, or avid young gamers who have taken the time to acquaint themselves with these classic foundational titles. Such gamers are essential--and they make blogs like mine viable--but they are a tiny fraction of the people around the world who play games.

This matters because we are not going to stop the photorealism train from barreling down the tracks. In fact, that train has already run guys like Chris and me over. Though we may agree it's a shame, game designers will continue to strive for ever increasing degrees of realism--particularly in narrative games--because that's what the vast majority of gamers want. But that's not the only reason.

Every form of visual art has seen a general trajectory towards realism. As long as it's possible to increase verisimilitude, artists will increase it. As long as consumers continue to translate "more realistic" as "more better," developers will continue to serve up the realism. Despite what reviewers say about next-gen graphics and games, we are still so far away from what people generally accept as realistic that I think it will be many years before video games reach the threshold that cinema crossed decades ago. But clearly, the video game industry's chronic case of film-envy only makes that realism train go faster.

History, however, is on our side. As we have seen in painting, sculpture, theater, and film, realism is not a final destination. Ultimately, it's just stop on the road. In the theater, when we proved we could tear down a real butcher shop and reconstruct it on stage complete with chunks of real meat (as Antoine did at the turn of the 20th century), there really wasn't anywhere left to go with realism. It's no wonder that this style of presentation was soon seen as passé, and experiments in expressionism and other forms of abstract theater emerged.

History has also shown that realism is hard to fake--it does require a lot of expertise, both technical and artistic, to film those spectacular car chases--but eventually we get very good at it. Today's films are extraordinarily effective at creating special effects driven sci-fi realism (an oxymoron if there ever was one), and video games will get there eventually, for better or worse. I would say games like Mass Effect lie somewhere on the realism scale near treasures like the 1950s drive-in B-movie classic Creature from the Black Lagoon. I don't mean that as an insult to Mass Effect. In fact, quite the opposite.

So I see your point, Chris, and I share your deep admiration for the richly immersive and imaginative worlds of text-driven games like Planescape: Torment. I also happen to think Chaplin's City Lights is the most perfectly sublime 87 minutes in the history of the cinema. But silent movies are gone forever...and so are games like Planescape: Torment.