In Praise Of Anti-Realism In Video Games

It’s easy to forget just how far we’ve come in terms of technology over the past 20 years. What was once so earth-shatteringly sophisticated now seems primitive, and the idea of photo-realistic VFX is so commonplace that we barely take a second glance at its majesty. Across pop culture, special effects have evolved to a degree of such detail that the fantastical now feels grounded in our real lives — think of the dragons in Game of Thrones or Rocket Raccoon in Guardians of the Galaxy, creatures that would have been considered impossible to recreate only two decades prior. Such sights are now so omnipresent in every blockbuster or prestige drama we binge watch that they no longer feel special. We have become spoiled.

The same applies to the world of video games. As we move into a new generation of the console wars, the promise of ever-more realistic gameplay and true-to-life graphics is louder and more conceivable than ever. Games like the Call of Duty franchise are praised for how accurately they capture the grimy freneticism of war, while The Last of Us series, which utilized motion and voice capture for its characters, felt so steeped in emotional and stylistic reality that players were left sobbing by the end. There are moments when you play some of these titles and the sights on offer are truly indistinguishable from what we see every day or the sights of the biggest tentpoles of Hollywood. As noted in a 2015 piece in The Guardian, this is the future of video game visuals, a world of photo-realistic details and subtleties, the full extent of which has yet to be fully tapped into.

It’s a bright future, to be sure, but it would be a limited one for the medium of video games. In fact, a decision to tilt entirely in favor of photo-realism would ignore the things that make gaming so unique.

Procedurally generated titles like No Man’s Sky promise infinite possibilities, a true chance for a player to stumble across something that nobody else will see, something that wasn’t even planned as such by the developers. You can’t do that with a movie. (Sorry, Scorsese.) Designer Keita Takahashi, the man behind titles like Katamari Damacy and Wattam, uses games to redefine logic in ways that film would never allow, all while drawing attention to the true beauty in life’s more mundane aspects — only in games could you be so excited to play as a smiley-faced poo who holds hands with a toilet to help create a new utopia. Even so-called walking simulators like Gone Home and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture offer deeply personal interactive narratives that film struggles to convey in such purely languid terms.

Anti-realism is a term that originated in philosophy. The basic idea is that realism cannot and will never provide all the answers to life, so adhering to it is a waste of time as well as a limiting way to look at the world. Applying this to art and video games opens up a lot of ideas: If we spend so much of our creative energy trying to recreate realism in this medium, what do we lose when we reject the alternative? And what if an unrealistic point-of-view is the best way to look at games?
Ash Darrow, a writer and academic behind the podcast Horror Vanguard, explained this stance.

“It’s easy to capitalize on a realistic-looking game,” Darrow remarked. “That is a metric that can be quickly measured and sold. This, and the demand that creates for better and better technology, is one of the main driving factors for how we talk about realism in games. On the other hand, games like Pokémon are still wildly successful and eschew crude realism for engaging experiences. If we broaden the conversation about what “realism” is, we can learn to discover our reality inside the games we play.”

Video games are one of the few mediums in modern art and pop culture that can offer truly limitless visuals, and it’s arguably the only one that can do so in a participatory manner. It offers a kind of escapism that is far more tangible than the abstract ideas offered by, say, reading a book. The player is put into a whole new perspective, one that they can guide freely (within the limitations of the game) and embody something completely oppositional to your regular life. You can play with people half the world away, a notion so commonplace nowadays that we forget how truly astounding it is to do so. Even the most surreal tales can be imbued with endless emotional resonance and the player will be fully invested in what the game has to offer, whether they’re playing as an enslaved alien, a gust of wind carrying a bunch of petals, or as a very naughty goose.

Even talking about “realism in gaming” feels like a double-edged sword. By design, the medium can’t fully be anything truly rooted in the realistic, as Darrow noted.

“Things like liquids, cloth, and facial features are still lightyears beyond what even cutting-edge gaming can handle realistically,” Darrow said. “If major Hollywood studios can barely handle this for infamous flops of photorealism like Henry Cavill’s mustache-removal in Justice League or the bizarre CGI Peter Cushing in Rogue One, gaming is that much further away. And this only covers so-called ‘photorealism.’ Realism extends beyond mere ‘photorealism.’ A ‘realism’ is more than just looking like a 4k video. It’s about creating an experience that is ‘real,’ but the reality is too multifaceted to remap.”

Realism and its opposition can exist alongside one another in perfect harmony. Hell, video games may be the perfect place for this. Gaming allows for the elasticity of truth that movies would never get away with. We notice when someone jumps in a film and it’s clearly aided by wirework, but we relish the chance to play characters who can leap across buildings or jump in a perfectly controlled manner and its verisimilitude is never questioned. We want to have our ailments be fully healed by a random burger or first aid kit left sitting in the corner of a random abandoned room. Frankly, gaming would be a lot less fun if it embraced realism in these ways. Where’s the excitement in jumping like a normal person?

Visual storytelling works well with this blend. Katie Hallahan, CCO and PR Director of Post Studios explained how cinematic framing can help to elevate an unreal stylistic approach in gaming.

“Our games are 2.5D or 3D, and we’ve made it our style to include different camera angles to add to conversations and close-ups, to give more of the feel of a movie when you’re playing,” Hallahan said. “Whether the game is set in a well-known city or a fantasy land made of fairy tales and puns, the narrative needs to feel real enough to draw the player in, to make them invested in what was going and in solving the mysteries at hand.”

The power of video games and its technology has yet to be fully explored, which makes its future incredibly exciting. For the perfect example of this, look no further than the glorious chaos of the McElroy brothers and their hit YouTube series Monster Factory. The show sees the brother use built-in character creation tools as well as take advantage of glitches and bugs to exploit a game’s engine for all its creative and comedic worth. Aside from being a laugh-out-loud riff-fest, Monster Factory is a striking and hugely entertaining reminder of what games can, should, and seldom do. As cinema seeks to use VFX to add more realism – dust on the “lens,” microscopic animal hairs, photorealistic lions that talk like Beyonce – Monster Factory takes the opposite route. The McElroys dive into the tools of a game and see what it’s capable of beyond its intentions, crafting hilariously spontaneous stories – or what video essayist Kyle Kallgren called “discovered narratives” – well beyond anything the developers could have hoped for (or hoped to avoid). Imagine if that could be deliberately applied to games for everyone to enjoy and discover.

In these ways, film is light years behind gaming in understanding what VFX can do. Our quest for evermore realistic images is one of great merit and technical mastery but it shouldn’t be the only one we take. Let’s ensure that the future of gaming is as limitless as the technology it utilizes.