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Videogame Photorealism

By Zeus | 2007-07-07

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.

Jurassic Park Turok: Dinosaur Hunter

Of course, Turok looked more like a foggy, low-poly-count preview render of Jurassic Park, and from then on, the Big N' focused on perfecting cartoony graphics, leaving reality to the chumps.

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 victory graphics!

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 Chromehounds.)

But can this new generation of consoles really hope to attain true photorealism? PS3's Resistance: Fall of Man can... at least according to the Church of England.

"For a global manufacturer to re-create one of our great cathedrals with photo-realistic quality and then encourage people to have guns battles in the building is beyond belief and highly irresponsible."
- Bishop of Manchester, Rt. Rev. Nigel McCulloch.

Sure, the Church of England is threatening to sue Sony for digitally desecrating Manchester Cathedral, but take a look at that sound byte! Can you imagine how Sony is going to respond?

Resistance: Fall of Man
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.

WWE Smackdown 2007 John Cena Actual John Cena

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.

How the Uncanny Valley stops photorealism

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™.

Mimic Cockroach distance Mimic Cockroach closeup

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.

Painting by Richard Estes
Painting by Richard Estes

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?

WWF Royal Rumble The Rock WWE Smackdown HHH
To summarize, videogame photorealism is an artistic style that some would like you to believe is a technological achievement. But the truth is, no matter what anyone says, Smackdown 2007 isn't closer to a photograph than Royal Rumble for Dreamcast. They're both so far from true photorealism that it can't be taken literally--photorealism has to be a style.

Super Mario Jesus Mario Movie Bob Hoskins
Maybe Nintendo has the right idea. Mario is a fat Italian plumber with a 70s mustache.

Rendered as a cartoon, he's a beloved figure, almost Christlike in his worldwide acceptance.

Rendered realistically... he's Bob Hoskins.

- Zeus

zeus [at] bucketbros [dot] com

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