Reality Bytes

Let me ask you something, nothing personal, just a hypothetical question.

Let’s say that there are two video games, the first one has fun and varied game play, relatable and well-designed characters, a smartly written and emotionally moving story, and intuitive controls. But the Graphics are stylized for animation instead of being photo-realistic.

The second game has boring game play, the characters have no design other than name and appearance, no plot what so ever, and the controls are so horrible you can barely play it. But it has the most realistic graphics ever.

Which of the two sounds best? You’d be surprised how many people would pick the second.

Why do I bring this up? You see, like a few other Elder Scrolls fans I’m excited about Elder Scrolls online, notice I said ‘a few’, not ‘all’. Go onto YouTube or any game website that has the trailer for it and you’ll see comments like this:

“Why bad graphics?”

“It look very cartoon-ish ugh :\”- <a href=””></a

“This game looks bad and they should feel bad”

“Cheers!! Hope it comes out fast…! But the graphics will suck”

“I am so disappointed with these shots. I was hoping for the whole of Tamriel in a Skyrim-like engine, but this is just WoW with an Elder Scrolls story.” –

There’s even an entire topic board on game FAQs about it

Now don’t get me wrong, there are also complaints about the combat system, about not being in first-person, not getting mounts, not being lore friendly and so on. But the first and most common complaint people have is about the graphics not being realistic and treating the whole game like it doesn’t even deserve to exist as a result.

You see, because graphics can be realistic, there is a collective assumption among gamers as well as developers that graphics HAVE to be realistic to be good. I suppose it’s natural, we’ve seen games evolve from 2D to 3D after all, so it only makes sense that a good number of gamers think realism is the next step, but that’s the problem: realism is a style, not a goal. And gaming is full of styles, just look at Minecraft, Catherine, No more heroes, Okami, Psychonauts, Limbo, Yume Nikki, or Brutal Legend, all of them artistic and creative. Why? Because they aren’t grounded in realism and therefore fictional it gives designers room for artistic freedom. Are all artworks realistic? Are all movies documentaries? Is every book non-fiction? Of course they aren’t, and for the same reason:  being creative works best in fiction, becuase it gives their developers essentially unlimited possibility for creativity and imagination, allowing infinite types of stories to be told, art to be viewed, and films to watch. If video games all shoot for realism, creativity will stagnate and imagination will be dead, just look at the sprites from Atari, NES, SNES and genesis games; with nothing but a hand full of pixels and a limited color palate we were able to render all of those sprites.

I’m not bashing the entire style; I’d just like to see games use it for more artistic purposes instead of just realism for realism’s sake, just look at Bioshock, the level of detail helps with the games ambiance and the earthly tones and textures of Twilight Princess really fit in with the Zelda series, and the facial technology for L.A. Noire was absolutely needed for the interrogation sequences.

And that’s how I think graphics should be judged, on how they are used, rather than their realism. The 64-bit graphics in Minecraft are perfect for the building block based game play, the manga style character artwork in the Touhou Project series help establish that it’s a fantasy world beyond our own, the anime art style  of Catherine was just right for blurring the lines between the real world and the nightmare world that the game alternated between, the monochrome environments of Portal added to the experience of being an unwilling test subject of an rouge A.I. the simple yet detailed use of realism in the environments of Red Dead Redemption and Way of the Samurai 3 make you feel like you’re really living in early 1900s America and Sengoku era Japan, and look at just about every JRPG.

Bottom line, the variety and creativity of video games can only last as long as developers and we as gamers are willing to fuel with our imaginations.