Questioning aesthetics

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Is the game industry’s obsession with photorealism really the best way to go?

The gaming industry is crazy about graphics. When a game is reviewed, its appearance is one of the top factors deciding whether it’s any good or not. If a game doesn’t look appealing, it’s really got to be exceptional in some other way for the casual gamer to pick it up. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you’ve invested hundreds on your rig or console, then you want to get the best out of them. Lighting, reflections, texturing – our obsession with getting the very best graphics and detail is a result of the industry’s own love for realism as an aesthetic style. But is it limiting our creativity?

Realistic aesthetics are popular in game design because of their supposed immersive value. Games are all about letting us live out new worlds and fantasies, and the closer the world on screen looks to the world outside it, the more real the experience is supposed to feel. So far, so simple. Realistic aesthetics want you to look at the world and connect with it, even in the middle of a crazy fire-fight. “Take a moment”, the game says as you’re crouching behind a rock wondering where the hell the bullets are coming from. “Take a moment, please, to admire this high-resolution rock texture. If this were real life, you’d be looking at this right now, but you’d also probably be about to die. Isn’t this game awesome?”

Last of Us

The growing popularity of performance-capture also serves this drive for realism. Both The Last of Us and GTAV have been praised for the quality of their storytelling, enhanced by using performance-capture. Human beings can provide more realistic expression and movement straight off the bat, which means the emotional range games can provide on screen can edge just that little bit closer to film. There’s a reason why these games tend to feature mature issues or cause a greater emotional reaction than, say, Lego Star Wars. You kill people in each, but the stronger focus on drama that comes from having actual actors present supports that realism and makes us uncomfortable. In fact, realistic graphics tend to make us uncomfortable for a number of reasons, because they are either too real, or not quite real enough, and the uncanny valley is becoming a serious problem.

Even games that aren’t set in the real world like to focus on that realistic style. Skyrim still has a thriving modding community around improving the game’s graphics through realistic snow textures, plants, and lighting. These mods are even more popular than the ones that make women’s boobs bigger. Why some gamers want everything realistic except for their ladies is another (more sticky) conversation, but the point is that gamers still want the fictional world of Skyrim to look as real as possible, even with dragons flying around.


Games are becoming less likely to take risks with aesthetic design. Non-realistic graphics are quickly becoming the property of indie games, or those designed for children. A bit like most CGI animated movies, there is an underlying assumption that using a non-realistic game design is somehow ‘childish’ or a result of a low budget, rather than an active choice. For some indie developers this is undoubtedly true, as they simply don’t have the man-power to have someone tied up in rendering leaves. But being forced to stray away from the realistic has its benefits. It challenges developers to be more creative.  Rather than striving for pure ‘realism’, taking more risks with graphical design has its pay-offs. This is not to say that creating realistic graphics is the easy option. But it is the most popular one, and so its effect – the wow factor – has really worn off. You need to pull out something new to make your title stand out. A picture says a thousand words, and games have a lot of pictures.

Take Contrast, for example. Here, aesthetics play a big part in changing the way we view the world and its message. Contrast is a big mash-up of film noir, vaudevillian circus, and urban fantasy. Bits of pavement hang in the air and everything has an extravagant, dream-like quality. The game has been praised because the aesthetic design never lets you forget that you’re seeing events through a child’s eyes. The unnatural, almost uncanny aesthetic design makes you question what is real or exaggerated and compliments the themes of the game nicely. You could debate for hours about just what version of Paris you’re supposed to be playing in, as there’s so much room for interpretation.

Contrast 2

Contrast opens up new narrative possibilities by allowing you to play as an imaginary friend, as well as new styles of game-play that let you shift in and out of 3D space, without being ridiculously jarring. There’s a practical benefit to using a strong aesthetic style as well – it stands out. If you saw a screenshot from Contrast, you’d recognise it instantly. It would be difficult to say the same of Call of Duty, Battlefield, or any of the dozens of other modern military shooters.

The focus on realism is troubling because it’s stopping developers playing with aesthetics in a more interesting way. Aesthetics play a large part in defining the mood of a game, but rather than focus on genre traditions like the dark room for horror, the urban jungle for shooters, games should instead be considering how we can make use of aesthetics outside of Hollywood tropes. Originality in environments is always a good thing, and it doesn’t have to be even close to the real. The interactivity of games means they can have a real and profound effect on how we perceive the narrative. If more mainstream developers took a leaf out of the indie book, then maybe games will become more like playing a piece of art, rather than just clumsy attempts at real life.


Image Credits:
Contrast Images – Compulsion Games. contrast-thegame.com
The Last of Us – Naughty Dog
Apotheon – AlienTrap

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