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.



We Recommend By ZergNet


  • Shnubby - August 2, 2012 7:18 a.m.

    great article, your argument makes perfect sense and I 100% agree with you. I didn't expect such a stupid quote to come from the creator of such great games. Video games can trigger emotions from me just as much as a movie, if not more so! I've played many games where I've become emotionally upset when another character that I've grown to know dies. In fact I would say that video games are the most emotion triggering forms of media (as long as they are actually good games of course) but you get good games and bad games just like you get good movies and bad movies.
  • into the sound - August 2, 2012 7:42 a.m.

    i think so too. games can elicit a stronger emotional reaction than movies in many cases, but i also think games don't need to try and be like movies. i feel like we need to sit Games down--like troubled teenager, haunted by the shadow older, more successful Cinema--and just be like, "Hey, be yourself. You're awesome. ;)"
  • into the sound - August 2, 2012 7:37 a.m.

    what's the saying? it's a poor artist that blames his/her tools.
  • xx_CaPTiiN_SpAiiN_zz - August 2, 2012 8:36 a.m.

    carpenter that blames his tools.
  • Lurkero - August 2, 2012 7:55 a.m.

    That is a horrible argument by Mr. Hartman. By that reasoning Final Fantasy 13 should automatically be better than Final Fantasy 9 because of graphics, and don't even think about reading books because their graphics haven't improved for centuries.
  • clearlight20 - August 2, 2012 8:07 a.m.

    It has become a staple of game developers to say, 'this needs more photo-realism'. They believe that by making a game more realistic that it would make more of an impact in our hearts; make us remember that game. Yet, all it does is test their skills as animators. In this attempt to become better animators, they lack the necessary story line and originality. Let's face, guys... If I watch Rebecca Black's "Friday" in 240p it is still going to be awful in 1080p.
  • ChristopherDalley - August 2, 2012 8:18 a.m.

    The argument was won before it started. The 'Pixar' thing was just icing on the cake.
  • ncurry2 - August 2, 2012 8:33 a.m.

  • xx_CaPTiiN_SpAiiN_zz - August 2, 2012 8:35 a.m.

    that is a lot of rubbish. i definately agree with the pixar bit too as a bugs life had me crying when it came out as did the first pokemon movie. dont these stupid bosses get it?? i know ea and activison have crap bosses but companies like this one too?? god help us if they start effecting the work of their employees with this nonsense.
  • space_cakes - August 2, 2012 11:35 a.m.

    Oh wow, totally remember being the only teen in a theater full of little kids and bawling through the first Pokemon movie. It was real.
  • into the sound - August 2, 2012 8:56 a.m.

    David Cage's Kara demo was contrived melodrama with nice graphics. I don't want games to be movies (see Battleship. Or rather, don't.) I also don't want movies to games (I can't come up with any examples. I may very well have repressed the memories.)
  • Eliath - August 2, 2012 3:20 p.m.

    I assume you are referring to movie tie in games? Otherwise, Batman: Arkham City needs to talk to you. If you did mean movie tie in games, then I agree for the most part.
  • SentientSquidMachine - August 2, 2012 9:23 a.m.

    All of you are wrong, just look at the fact that FF:The Spirits Within and Beowulf won Oscars. .....what's that? oh.....really? But their graphics...I see.
  • 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.
  • KnowYourPokemon - August 3, 2012 7:13 a.m.

    Well considering 2K never published Arkham City, WB and Square Enix(in japan) did. And Portal 2 was obviously published by Valve I think he was just giving examples of games that create emotion without photorealism on top of the games 2K themselves have released.
  • Divine Paladin - August 3, 2012 9 a.m.

    It was an issue with wording, is all. He mentions 2K games and then mentions a game published by 2K's brother, Rockstar. Switching that title with Portal 2 would've fixed the problem.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • MCBadong - August 2, 2012 6:36 p.m.

    To the Moon. Made people cry without even using voices or 3D. Nuff said.

Showing 1-20 of 35 comments

Join the Discussion
Add a comment (HTML tags are not allowed.)
Characters remaining: 5000


Connect with Facebook

Log in using Facebook to share comments, games, status update and other activity easily with your Facebook feed.