Up For Debate - Photorealism Versus Artistic Direction in Games

Written by Jon Sutton on Sun, Apr 8, 2018 2:00 PM

A couple of weeks back, you couldn’t move for all the chatter about real-time ray tracing (RTX), with both AMD and, in particular, Nvidia, pushing the photorealistic lighting system hard. The tech demos we saw ranged in quality, but the Star Wars one, in particular, was incredible. Photorealistic textures can be a breeze these days, but it’s the lighting and highly detailed models which can let the overall image quality down. Right then, Nvidia gave us a glimpse of our photorealistic future. But is it the be all and end all of these mighty graphics cards we’ve got lurking in our PCs?

I don’t think there’s any argument that achieving photorealism isn’t important. It’s the holy grail of graphics processing. But, photorealism isn’t the be all and end all. We don’t want to end up in a scenario where every game looks photorealistic. After all, where’s the fun in that? Variety is the spice of life, and while games will inevitably achieve photorealism one day, there’ll be others seeking to do the opposite. To create the unreal.

At its most simple level, we see plenty of developers shy away from photorealism today, whether that’s because of limited budgets, artistic direction, or for the detrimental effect on gameplay that photorealism can have. The more you have on-screen, and the better and more detailed it looks, the harder it becomes to pick out the objects the designers actually want you to see, whether that’s the key on the table or the ledge that’s just within jumping reach.

The other chief downsides to photorealism are the immense resource and time costs that will have to go into achieving it. Middleware tools like SpeedTree will help immensely, but budgets are going to soar and it’s just not going to be achievable to create these meticulous, gigantic worlds with any sense of craft or purpose. Some of the most memorable video game worlds are inherently gamified; great for playing through for the very reason that they aren’t logically or realistically based on real-world environments, geography, and architecture.

Couple with this with what we think of when we attempt to identify the best looking games we’ve ever played. I’d take Dishonored over Crysis any day. Ori and the Blind Forest looks, to me, heaps better than Call of Duty: WWII. The Witcher 3, for all its sumptuousness, bathes in the illusory of its environments rather than adhering slavishly to its European influences.

The quest for the real is very much on though, which is why we’ve seen thousands of mods attempting to make Skyrim, a game which is rooted in pure fantasy, look as realistic as possible. Now, these two things aren't distinct. You can have a photorealistic, fantastical looking game, but it becomes an increasingly tricky prospect. Admittedly though, these mods can look fantastic, as shown to me by NeoGamer in the example below. Skyrim isn’t a great looking game for the most part, neither artistically nor realistically, and graphics mods can do a heck of a lot to change this.

So what do you think, should we be on an endless quest for photorealism? Or would you prefer developers let the race for realism take a back seat? Get voting and let us know why below!

Do you prefer photorealism or artistic visuals?

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02:22 Apr-15-2018

Either is fine, but it still depends on how the art looks....

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19:58 Apr-09-2018

I love the unique art styles devs can pull off but I do have a soft spot for realistic graphics. I just like dem pretty graphics with fancy textures and effect (not with this PC though, F to pay respects).

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16:48 Apr-09-2018

minecraft becomes photorealistic ?

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14:53 Apr-09-2018

Both should exist but i have knack for photorealism

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08:02 Apr-09-2018

Doesn't matter. Look at Prince of Persia 2008, Borderlands, Fortnite, Life is Strange still looks fun even though it's not realistic. At same time, photorealism is not bad either considering single player genre which immerses you so deeply.

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14:51 Apr-09-2018

yeah definitely take that teenage soap opera out of the list

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15:12 Apr-09-2018

It's the best game in that list lol

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16:49 Apr-09-2018

its pretty fun

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05:45 Apr-09-2018

Speaking of artistic style... Bioshock Infinite anyone ? :)

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09:37 Apr-09-2018

when it came out, it blew my mind on how it looked !

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09:45 Apr-09-2018

It literally blew my mind when i finally understood the story correctly lol

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16:45 Apr-09-2018

i want new bioshock game 1 and 2 masterpiece 3rd one was pretty fun and the story lol
i want raptures graphics feel

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16:46 Apr-09-2018

I get the feeling a new Bioshock is probably going to be announced fairly soon.

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16:53 Apr-09-2018

its 2k game hopefully they make it good so far gta is hurt due to them but damm a new bioshock would amazing hopefully it has that horror and weak feeling in 1 and 2

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05:08 Apr-09-2018

It makes me so happy seeing a Hodi video :D

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01:40 Apr-09-2018

Photorealism is okay, but requires a lot of time and money to get right and not hit the uncanny valley. Stylized graphics are not only cheaper to produce, but they help a game to stand out a lot if done correctly (See Cuphead for an example of the artstyle garnering attention.)

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02:04 Apr-09-2018

Until that point is reached, photorealism will always be the prime target of some game developers for certain games. Someone from AMD once suggested that for photorealism to be fully realized we would need 40Tflops of GPU power.


I don't know how or where they got that calculation from but from the way things are looking already (and to think the PS5 and Xbox One successor isn't even out yet) I agree with that. Note that it does not necessarily mean gaming in 8K though when you put your mind to it, anything is possible.

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23:29 Apr-08-2018

depends; games like The Long Dark, Abzu and Life is Strange (among others) do make the most out of a mix of artistic direction and photorealism with it being skewed to the later and these are the most beautiful games I have ever seen. On the flipside, full photo realism can be good and immersive, I guess that is the answer here, do you like something true to life immersive or something eye wateringly beautiful

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23:09 Apr-08-2018

Depends on the game, Games like RE7, Alison Road, PT(Silent Hill) feel better with photo realistic graphics and games like Uncharted, Witcher 3, gears of war work better with artistic visuals. It also comes down to preference.

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23:05 Apr-08-2018

I like both equally.


Artistic direction in games can look beautiful and can emphasis the feel of the game of which the company wants to convey.


Realism is beautiful because real life sucks. And it's very immersive.

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02:10 Apr-09-2018

Or you can mix the two to make a really unique and interesting style.


The only game with such a style that comes to mind at the moment is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

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05:15 Apr-09-2018

Ooo yeah i forgot about that!

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21:53 Apr-08-2018

it really depends on the game, some work better with photo realism, some with artistic graphics, don't forget cartoon graphics can be really well done as well.


sometimes mixed works best,
This game called What Remains of Edit Finch, does it really good, it has both realistic and cartoon graphics in it, perfectly balanced.


Why graphics are important to me,
it will always be Gameplay > Graphics!

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21:51 Apr-08-2018

It depends on the game itself. I don't think there's more than that really. :P
Games like Rainbow Six are about realism, while games like Mario and Legend of Zelda, for example, have their focus set on their art style.

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21:53 Apr-08-2018

Rainbow Six hasn't been about realism since Rainbow Six Vegas...

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22:30 Apr-08-2018

True, I just couldn't remember a better example. :P
Maybe Battlefield would be a better one, for visual design I mean.

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22:33 Apr-08-2018

Battlefield was never realistic XD
Unless you count the project reality for BF2 XD
And they never went for realistic graphics either, high quality yes, but NOT really realistic, if anything BF1 is slightly more cartoony than BF4.

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01:57 Apr-09-2018

I don't know about that, I have seen BF1 gameplay and it looks damn near if not totally realistic to me.

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09:56 Apr-09-2018

Mmm, I think BF1 looks pretty damn realistic. The rocks are all a bit shiny but other than that I think it's a pretty great example

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13:40 Apr-09-2018

The color pallet is cartoony, whereas in older BF games people complained about the monotone choice of colors, mainly dark colors such as black, gray, brown, beige and so on, in BF1 they are pastel like and the 3d models of characters are NOT the best either.

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14:27 Apr-09-2018

Character models are probably the worst bit but I think the buildings and the ground look pretty great and fairly realistic.

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16:59 Apr-09-2018

Well most walls in BF are just plain, flat, smooth-ish walls, you can NOT have an unrealistic wall, because in real life flat, smooth-ish walls are always well flat and smooth-ish with some random micro details, so as long as you texture them with a texture with a random color generator within a range, it's realistic.


The ground looks as if it is made out of plasmin/clay or play-doh(or whatever it's called, never got around to play with some).

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21:31 Apr-08-2018

i prefer photorealism...

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21:15 Apr-08-2018

I've said it many times. To me the graphical design and art style matter, NOT photorealistic quality graphics...


I'd much rather them just stick to 2007-2010 graphics with low budget for their games of $20 million or less and focus on gameplay, which has been stagnating since the PS2 era...

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21:15 Apr-08-2018

Nowadays gameplay is barely improved compared to 2005. Yes there is more content. and yes animations look better, so it fools most people that the gameplay is better, but in reality it's just it was in 2005 and I've seen even games from 1999-2001 with more complex gameplay and mechanics than current AAA titles, if anything, games are getting simpler and simpler...

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02:08 Apr-09-2018

I would say that simpler is not necessarily a bad thing but it depends. Though I will say this, simplicity does not make a game boring.

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07:53 Apr-09-2018

boring is subjective. To me a sequel being simpler and less deep than it's predecessor makes it worse, even if the sequel has graphics that are 10x times better, a story(if any) that is 10x times better, content that is 10x times more, with a sound that is 10x times better and so on... I'm all for the gameplay and mechanics and I want them to get more complex and deeper with each sequel or just new game in general compared to previous ones.

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07:53 Apr-09-2018

Sadly it is always the opposite... :/

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19:28 Apr-08-2018

That really depends on the game, for some games, stylized graphics work really great. But for some photorealistic is better. So it really depends and I don't have overall preference, both have their own place.

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18:56 Apr-08-2018

I'd like photorealistic artistic visuals.
Like, for example the ray tracing demo that EA made. It clearly has a strong art style, but it was still photorealistic. You could make those models in real life.

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17:38 Apr-08-2018

Both are needed. The gaming genre needs to be diverse

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15:46 Apr-08-2018

Higher graphics are always welcomed but we need more titles like Zelda and Witcher 3 which are combination of both sides beautiful in art and gameplay too

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14:59 Apr-08-2018

For me games are an experience and the more a game makes me feel like I'm part of it's world the better the game is. I play a lot of GTA V and the thing that brings me into that game the most isn't the photorealism (although it can be argued that GTA V is somewhat photorealistic) but rather the sense of being there which was done well because of the story, characters and the little details that..

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15:03 Apr-08-2018

...R* put in. Details matter and it's not texture quality I'm talking about here but the little gameplay details and the little sound details. Sound IMO is more important than graphics in the same vein that audio is half the video. Take a GTA game or something like a Batman Arkham game, wear good earphone and close your eyes and listen. After a minute you will forget all about your room, your...

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15:07 Apr-08-2018

...mind will be tricked into thinking you are standing inside the game. Skyrim achieves immersion mainly through the lore, world design and just...something. I've only recently decided to try an elder scrolls game and I started with Skyrim. It's amazing, it's clunky at time but somehow I could forget how long I've played even. So in summary a game isn't made or broken by it's graphics. graphics...

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15:09 Apr-08-2018

...are similar to the icing on a cake. It'll look pretty and draw you in but the real reason you enjoy the cake after the icing has been licked off (Sorry) is the actual cake (The details in a game).

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15:12 Apr-08-2018

I have no idea what compelled me to rant about this but I did. BTW played Skyrim today, started at around 10 a.m. and finally got a backache and decided to get up and stretch my legs and that's when I saw the clock 3:00 p.m.


O.o

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