Why the notion that games need photoreal graphics to tell better stories is backward nonsense, whatever 2K's boss says

A lot of nonsense gets talked in this industry. And a lot of it is best ignored. But sometimes you come across a statement so wrong on so many levels that it's like a delicately-balanced Jenga stack of wrongness, with so many multi-layered wrongs intricately holding each other in place that it's almost artistic in construction.

I don't really know where to start unravelling this one. But I'm going to try.

The statement, as it goes, comes from 2K boss Christoph Hartman. Discussing mainstream developers' penchant for falling back on action games and shooters as frequently as they do, Hartman explained his thinking to GamesIndustry International as thus...

Above: I suspect that Mr. Hartman might not have played all of his own company's games

"Recreating a Mission Impossible experience in gaming is easy; recreating emotions in Brokeback Mountain is going to be tough, or at least very sensitive in this country... it will be very hard to create very deep emotions like sadness or love, things that drive the movies. Until games are photorealistic, it'll be very hard to open up to new genres. We can really only focus on action and shooter titles; those are suitable for consoles now.

"To dramatically change the industry to where we can insert a whole range of emotions, I feel it will only happen when we reach the point that games are photorealistic; then we will have reached an endpoint and that might be the final console."

Above: "Christ, how wrong can you be?"

I say again, wow. Now don't get me wrong. I love 2K. Like, really, seriously, embarrassingly, it-would-be-awkward-if-we-met-at-a-party-and-I-was-a-bit-drunk love 2K. I don't think any other single publisher has so gracefully balanced commercial success, polish and AAA sparkle with a consistent string of intelligent, artful, genuinely interesting games this generation. Bioshock, Bioshock Infinite, Borderlands, Mafia II, Spec Ops: The Line, The Darkness, The Darkness II, a brand new (proper, strategy-driven, non-FPS) XCOM... 2K as a publisher has put a special kind of smile on my face all through this gen. I've always been able to rely on them for the particular kind of good I want.

It is then ironic, that Hartman is so wide of the mark regarding that particular kind of good. Let me break his wrongness down.

1. His whole thesis hinges on the idea that action games and emotional storytelling are mutually exclusive occurrences. This is nonsense. Look at just a few of 2K's own games over the last few years. Look at Batman: Arkham City. Look at Red Dead Redemption. Look at Portal 2. And if you extend the concept to cinema you'll see how silly it really is. Look at Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. Look at Inception. Look at District 9. Look at the 2006 version of Casino Royale. The idea that subject or genre matter dictates narrative treatment is a simplistic misconception. The emotional depth you can instil within any work comes from the quality of your writers, actors and narrative direction. No other factor is relevant.

2. The idea that human beings can only engage emotionally with a story if it is presented with realistic visuals is insulting both to the history of visual media and to human beings themselves. In fact so ludicrous is the notion that I can counter it with just one word:

That obvious example out of the way, let's look specifically at games. Ignoring the fact that gamers have been emoting our hearts and retinas out all over the place for years, in reaction to the likes of Shadow of the Colossus, Final Fantasy, Half-Life 2, and even GTA, some of the most affecting games of recent years have deliberately gone absolutely nowhere near photorealism.

Limbo. Braid. Bloody Journey. The visual style, presentation of game-world, and approach to game mechanics are irrelevant (unless you use the game mechanics as a storytelling device, but more on that in a second). Again it all just comes down to the artistry and narrative direction talent at your disposal. To say that photorealism is a deciding factor is just an excuse.

Above: A poignant rollercoaster of the full spectrum of human emotion. Not photorealistic

3. The whole argument comes dangerously close to championing the desperately regressive idea that games need to ape cinema in order to be affecting. As I've said many times in many different ways, and will many times again (starting right... about... NOW) that idea is not only wrong, it's lazy, out-of-touch, and utterly dangerous to the future health of games as a creative medium.

Long story short. Film didn't realise its full storytelling potential by copying theatre. Radio didn't realise its potential by copying novels. Novels didn't become such a powerful and eclectic artistic medium by simply putting cave paintings on paper (though somehow they did manage to achieve it without photorealistic visuals). Every medium has its own unique mechanics and language with which to affect its audience, both intellectually and emotionally, and to think that games are lacking enough in this area to require photorealistic graphics is either disrespectful to the medium or naive in the extreme in regards to its properties. Possibly both.

There. Done. And I got through all that without mentioning David Cage being wrong about things once.



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  • Thedigitalg - August 6, 2012 4:05 a.m.

    Limbo = trial and error, which makes for a poor game. I don't understand the love for it, there is no story beyond 'man looks for sister'. It doesn't even look good, it's just black and fucking white! Limbo is the Nirvana of the gaming world, and the sooner it puts a shotgun in its overrated mouth the better.
  • Shinard - August 8, 2012 12:59 p.m.

    Trolling? Anyway, it is not trial and error, or at least not the way you think of it. Instead, you have to figure out whats going on and actually think to find a solution. It requires intelligence, not just the ability to try something over and over again. And trial and error makes a poor game? Have you played Super Meat Boy? Black and white was a stylistic choice, similar to Schindler's List, emphasizing the depression and utter decay of Limbo. I know I come across as an arty prick right now, but its a good game, fun to play and emotional. (Also, are you saying its a good thing Kurt Cobain committed suicide?)
  • AuthorityFigure - August 6, 2012 1:03 a.m.

    The purely text-adventure games (Zork etc.) of yesteryear show that there is no correlation between narrative and visuals.
  • gilgamesh310 - August 5, 2012 9:26 a.m.

    That was utter nonsense. I don't see how Hartman could be so ignorant. I don't think Arkham City has a good story though, nor Red Dead Redemption, Portal 2 or Half Life 2.
  • Bloodstorm - August 5, 2012 1:15 p.m.

    I'll give you Portal 2, and Arkham City to an extent (it was not better than Arkham Asylum).
  • gilgamesh310 - August 6, 2012 4:18 a.m.

    I thought Arakham Asylum was better than City. The story was definitely better. It was much tighter and more tense. Portal 2 has good writing but good writing does not equate a good story. Most people don't seem to realise this.
  • nikeiden - August 5, 2012 9:38 p.m.

  • montage - August 5, 2012 4:44 a.m.

    I think, as good as a piece as that was, your journalistic skills missed the point of Misuer Cristoph Hartmann's statement....the guy is clearly in a lonely place right now and in desperate need of a hug.
  • Technodude - August 4, 2012 12:02 p.m.

    I agree with what you're saying, Dave, but I don't quite know whether this argument is actually based on the real definition of photorealism. Allow me to clarify: Photorealism (noun) A style of art characterised by high amounts of detail, giving the impression that the subject matter is photographic. What this doesn't mean is that shapes have to be realistic (take the two characters' facial features, for example), or that the setting looks like something you would see in modern day life - it means that textures look like what they should do - skin looks like skin (with the detail to show pores), and light is dispersed and reflected off materials in such a manner that they look real. The materials in Journey look photorealistic, for sure. You can see the light reflecting off individual grains of sand, you can see the individual seams of string in the robes. The light shining through the mountain is realistic. The cloth looks like cloth. The leaves in the background of the UP shot look real, reflecting the light. It seems, Dave, to me, that you've used the wrong evidence for the right argument. I don't intend to sound arrogant with this definition, that it's the be all and end all of it, but the article just seems a little confused to me. I do agree that you don't need amazing graphics to produce powerful emotions, though. Anybody who's played Pokémon Mystery Dungeon will know for sure - Christ, I was crying for days after that (and do still feel a little sad, when I think about it). But it's when games try to look real but don't, games like Deus Ex, where the facial animations are all screwed up, which really distracts the player from the experience. The difference here is that facial animations don't have anything to do with photorealism because they don't depict the detail - the light does. It's a very technical argument, this...
  • Gamer_Geek - August 4, 2012 9:15 a.m.

    I agree with the point, most of the people are saying, games emotional connection to the gamer are based upon the creativity of the writers and their ability to write and direct a strong story. Were all humans just emotionless robots before any visual effect was created?
  • OohWiiUILookJustLikeBuddyHolly - August 3, 2012 4:26 p.m.

    If you are going to have some kind of strong love story with realistic looking humans you don't want them to look like wax puppets. Photorealism isn't needed, but I reckon top quality animation is. Take Deus Ex HR for example. Game was wonderful but when you started talking to people.. It looked like they had rusted facial augmentations or something. It kind of took you out of the world.
  • bedelicious - August 3, 2012 2:25 a.m.

    Great article, I fully agree with it. Christoph Hartman's statement suggests either inability or lack of desire to create something other than shooters. Not to mention it's insulting to the artists. I'm tired of people like him making excuses and holding the industry back. There are plenty of games, recent and old, to exemplify that games are more than capable of recreating a top notch emotional experience, regardless of graphics. In my opinion they often do it even better than movies, because of their interactivity. And just to name a few - Fallout, Planescape: Torment, Final Fantasy - those games not only didn't need photo realistic graphics - they didn't even need good graphics to create some of the most memorable, complex and emotional experiences in any media.
  • ObliqueZombie - August 3, 2012 12:56 a.m.

    Good counterpoints, Mr. Houghton. As always, well-said. And personally, I think the most unique and emotionally affecting quirk games have is the immersion of DOING something. Not in a crap, "look, my movements are somewhat reflected in-game" Kinect way, but in a simple, "Oh my God, am I really going to press this button to swing a golf club at Andrew Ryan's head?" way. Yes, the dialogue (good voice acting goes a long, long way), motion and facial capture, and set pieces--or lack there of--bring the story along in a powerful way, but the simple act of putting us, almost literally, in our protagonist's shoes is what makes games so goddamn amazing. And I, too, love 2K a little too much for my own good, but this statement was both ignorant and embarrassing.
  • ironrafael - August 2, 2012 10:08 p.m.

    There are some actual books that can make you cry and they don't even have graphics - at ALL. So it's not about the game looking real or not: it's about how well you tell the story.
  • angelusdlion - August 3, 2012 9:33 a.m. Thank you.
  • MCBadong - August 2, 2012 6:36 p.m.

    To the Moon. Made people cry without even using voices or 3D. Nuff said.
  • NullG7 - August 2, 2012 11:51 a.m.

    Agreed, there is a very short list of photo realistic games I find emotionally moving/inspiring, and a very long list of games that aren't photo realistic that are beautiful tragic sad euphoric. Hell I find that allot of flash games can be more emotionally convective than some of the highest rez games on the market.
  • bboyd - August 2, 2012 10:20 a.m.

    Final Fantasy VI, VII, VIII, IX, and X. . . Enslaved, the Mass Effect Trilogy, The Darkness. . . even the Uncharted series manages to create tension on par with any action movie. This guy has absolutely no idea what he's talking about, and what's scary is the idea that graphic whores get the last word in game development.
  • DaMaJaDiZ - August 2, 2012 10:15 a.m.

    Has anyone stopped to consider that the people that make statements like this only ever do so to position themselves as the frontrunners for the coming cycle of game development? They don't even have to come through with anything to back these notions. They only have to plant them. And for the foreseeable future, all eyes are on 2K, and the exposure for their titles are through the roof. Everyone will now pay attention to everything that they produce with the slim chance that they can call him out on this one statement (not company philosophy) in the most ineffectual manner possible. Ultimately pointing even more eyeballs to their products with not a penny spent in advertising. Writing a reactionary disagreement piece doesn't prove them wrong. There's no argument to be had. What it does however do is provide a cycles worth of exposure that money can't buy.
  • Divine Paladin - August 2, 2012 9:55 a.m.

    You goofed on one aspect. 2K didn't publish RDR. 2K's parent Take-Two did.