The Get Even Problem: Should developers be aiming for photorealism?
Polish developer The Farm 51 recently released a teaser trailer for their upcoming game Get Even. The video is predictably vague, and wouldn't be remarkable at all save for one thing -- the graphics. The shooter seamlessly mixes live-action and gameplay footage in an attempt to make viewers question what's real and what isn't.
This is what gamers have imagined the future would look like for years. With each generation, we've inched closer and closer to realism, going from sprites to blocky 3D to detailed faces. Now, at long last, we're on the verge of graphics so realistic they look like reality. So why does it feel so disappointing?
Part of the problem may be the trailer itself. There's no story hook, no gameplay footage, and no lovable looking characters. The video exists purely to show off how pretty the game looks, and that's fine -- it's only a teaser. Future trailers will show off more of the game, and will undoubtedly look more impressive.
That said, there are issues that lie not with Get Even, but the very idea of photorealistic graphics. During the last generation, games looked more realistic than they ever had before. This was a huge victory in some respects. When you played racing games, you could feel the speed of the car. Stories were elevated by the level of expression on character's faces. However, the leap forward also made it hard to ignore poor textures or limited animations. When a game looks lifelike, every unrealistic detail stands out like a sore thumb.
Many of the best games of the last generation didn't make any attempts at realism. The hand-painted world of Braid helped usher in a new era of indie games. Millions of gamers became addicted to the blocky Minecraft universe. Even AAA titles like BioShock Infinite and Borderlands had a slightly cartoony style. Obviously, their success doesn't take away from what more realistic games achieved, but it does highlight a few things.
Games with stylized graphics can often be made at a fraction of the cost of their more realistic counterparts and still look fantastic. Games like Limbo, Journey, and Dragon's Crown ooze atmosphere and all offer their own unique aesthetic. While more realistic games show their age quickly, stylized games hold up beautifully years down the line. Some titles, like Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, get even better with age.
Of course, lifelike graphics have their own unique advantages. When photorealism is applied to things like fantasy beasts or dinosaurs, we can be immersed in a world that's unlike anything we can see on this earth. The better racing games look, they better they seem to get. Titles like The Last of Us wouldn't have had the same level of emotional impact if the characters hadn't looked and felt so real.
Hyper-realistic graphics are a good goal, but they shouldn't be the only goal. It's not enough for backgrounds to look like something out of a live-action movie. Characters need to move in a believable way. Hair shouldn't be stiff, and water should splash the way real water does. When the little details aren't right, the illusion of realism is broken, and the flashy graphics don't feel so flashy anymore.
In addition, a game's visuals need to be impressive for reasons beyond realism. Developers need to create a world gamers will be eager to explore, and deliver graphics that perfectly suit a game's tone. Games need great design, a solid color palette, and most importantly, atmosphere.
It's too early to tell if there'll be more to Get Even than its admittedly impressive graphics. Still, I sincerely hope that developers focus on more than photorealism when it comes to making games look "next-gen" Realistic graphics are part of gaming's future, but they shouldn't be all of it.