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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14:38 Apr-08-2018

Nobody actually wants photorealism. They want the perfectly timed picture, the oozing of sludge behind a cartoon factory that grabs them, a tumbleweed that they can follow to God knows where, a vision of an underwater utopia swarming with schools of pretty to scary looking fish, to search a dark and dank abyss, to an outlandish dream of horrors beyond imagining. No game actually emulates real life to a T. To do so would be boring. Instead, it shows the best of life.

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14:44 Apr-08-2018

I would say that is entirely subjective, however these are graphics we are talking about, not gameplay. No matter what game you are making, at the end of the day everything about the game has to fit one's vision of how the game should be.

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14:37 Apr-08-2018

I can love both kind of visual principal. I love both Persona and The Witcher , Arma and Borderland , Starcraft and Total War. As long as they bring their message along


However, I think artistic side can take more advantage from new tech

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14:45 Apr-08-2018

I like a mix of realism and artistic vision personally but I can appreciate pure artistic vision as well.

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14:35 Apr-08-2018

I don't really care for photorealism as long as the game is good.
If the game is good and has photorealism = perfect
if the game is bad and has photorealism = I couldn't care less about the game

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14:37 Apr-08-2018

Same.

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14:27 Apr-08-2018

Honestly screw that, I just want better animations and more fluid fighting mechanics.

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14:26 Apr-08-2018

For me I have no preferences. Because it's up for my gaming rig whether to visualize all my games on photorealism or artistic visuals.

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14:22 Apr-08-2018

I am what you could call a color accuracy nut, I like my colors looking natural rather it be lighting or environment.


Now does it ruin my enjoyment of a game if it doesn't have such? Maybe a little, but I am not at all saying it does or doesn't. It's subjective.


As for my answer to the poll? I like a good mix of both as far as graphics are concerned but it also depends. Again, it's subjective.

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14:32 Apr-08-2018

I will say this as a game developer myself. Art direction is important and for the most part as long as you (the game developer/artist) are pleased with the way it looks. That is all that really matters.


Just know that even artistic vision can be criticized. It is up to you, the game developer, to decide to heed or ignore any criticism.

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14:20 Apr-08-2018

The difference is, I think, in aging. Games that tried to look realistic around 2005 like COD 2 or Fahrenheit have now pretty visibly aged, while games like Psychonauts and Okami really haven't.

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14:19 Apr-08-2018

don't wanna shoot real looking people. real backgrounds are cool.

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