Bucket Bros: The Carpenters of Comedy
Synopsis: Each new generation of consoles means insidious claims of "photorealism." But what is photorealism, an artistic style or a wild technological claim? Zeus investigates.
Photorealism: In the Beginning
Claims of photorealism date back to Project Reality, Nintendo's codename for the Nintendo (Ultra) 64, when Nintendo Power magazine lead readers to believe the N64 was capable of Jurassic Park quality graphics.
Unfortunately, Sony didn't learn from Nintendo's mistake. Before they released PlayStation 2, they bragged their their new Graphic Synthesizer could deliver movie-quality 3D graphics in real time. Big. Mistake. Nobody played FantaVision and thought they had slipped into a fantasy neverland. They knew they were playing a game--one moderately better looking than your average Crash Bandicoot title.
Xbox 360... flawless
Naturally, now that the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 have hit,
companies are scrambling to make someone--anyone!-believe that
screenshots of THQ's MotorGP '06 or Sega's Chromehounds are
indistinguishable from real photographs. (Which is actually a pretty
shrewd move on Sega's part. Just try finding a photo of a
giant walking mechanized assault vehicle to compare with Sega's
|I wouldn't put it past them.|
Here's the thing about videogame photorealism: As a style, it's fine. Taken literally, it's a joke.
Take WWE Champion John Cena here. Sure, he's realistic enough; Smackdown 2007 Cena is not abstract or idealized in any way. But drop it next to an actual photo of John Cena and you start to notice there's more to human life than sweat, shine and grotesque, wormlike veins.
Smackdown Cena is looking pretty pale by comparison, almost as if he were carved from lard. And good God, what's with the sweat? If you take a PlayStation 2 character model and drench it with sweat, it's not suddenly a real person. It's gross.
People have come to accept "photorealistic" as meaning simply "new" or "better". It's gotten so bad that some reviewers are willing to call Smackdown Vs. Raw 2007 photorealistic, despite some points to the contrary. Like eyes. Eyes that see things.
Much has been said about the "Uncanny Valley" -- that hypothetical point at which an artificial person becomes too realistic; their every subtle imperfection magnified until the effect is, well, Joan Rivers.
I could go on about how screenshots of today's games can fool you into thinking they're actual photos--at least until the camera zooms in on someone's dull zombie face--but I'd rather illustrate Uncanny Valley effect the easiest way I know: With the 1997 Guillermo del Toro horror classic Mimic.
Giant genetically modified cockroaches are breeding below the city of New York, but nobody seems to notice! Why? These are mimics, man! From a distance, they're good people. But get too close and you start reaching for a can of RAID™.
Sound like anyone we know?
So is videogame photorealism an artistic style or a literal technological claim?
Well, it's a style in the sense of the late 1960s American photorealism art movement. The paintings of Richard Estes weren't any more convincing than Smackdown 2007, but the goal was the same.
Photorealism is also another in a long line of empty promises from unscrupulous marketing types. To them, "photorealism" is simply another word for "fancy new graphics."
Here's the difference: Critics. The American art movement was 40 years ago, and art critics still refer to the paintings as photorealistic. Can you imagine videogame critics giving Smackdown 2007 the same treatment in 40 years?
Rendered as a cartoon, he's a beloved figure, almost Christlike in his worldwide acceptance.
Rendered realistically... he's Bob Hoskins.
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