For many years as technology has advanced, many developers sought after realism in gaming. Graphics, mechanics, anything they could touch. We're rather close to that at this point, if not already there. For all that the industry strives for in ultra-realism, is it really better?
I find the best way to come to a conclusion is to dive head first into the question. Do you know what makes me sad about the next-gen push for realism? I love unique art and creative direction. One of my favorite games of all time took on a style completely different than any game I had ever seen and that's Okami. Its creative direction gave it soul. At least half of the newer games coming out today look like clones of each other!
While I did not learn of its existence until it came out for the Nintendo Wii in April 2008, once I laid my eyes upon the box art and related media I knew it was love. The Japanese brushed style drew me into the game's world immediately - blowing my mind in the process. The best part about the game is how intrinsically tied to this style its elements are - from the mechanics of painting your actions on screen to creating things out of thin air. I thought to myself: "I wish more games had such an artsy feel".
Perusing your favorite online shop as of this writing will result in at least some of the following showing up: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Just Cause 3, Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, Call of Duty 57. Do I think the graphics in these games are amazing? Most definitely--they're gorgeous! Let's be realistic for a moment though - given any scenic screenshot you'll quickly notice just how visually alike these are to one another. From an artistic perspective, they lack soul.
I fear we are approaching a time where every big-name game will look near-identical. While there is certainly much more to a game than graphics, are we really okay with this direction?
Thankfully, small startup and indie game companies have been keeping this dream of mine alive more than most over the last few years. One such company is Supergiant Games. Released back in 2011, Bastion blew me into the sky. Seeing the world form with each movement forward in front of its painted backdrops just gives the game such depth that I don't feel would be possible in any other art style, let alone a hyper-realistic one. Their other title, Transistor, leaves a similar impression.
You may argue, however, that those aren't really 3D games, so hyper-realistic wouldn't work very well anyway! Well, there's one more example I would like to bring to attention: the Borderlands series.
Through most of the first game's development, the Borderlands art style was more realistic, more serious. In a discussion on the origin of the series here, game designer Jonathan Hemingway mentions that they realized the game itself wanted to be more "over the top" and "a little crazier." This epiphany pushed the game into a much more stylized, and in my opinion more unique, direction. They went so far as to explain in detail their art process:
The new technique uses hand-drawn textures, scanned in and colored in Photoshop, combined with software that draws graphic novel-style outlines around characters and objects, sharpens shadows to look more like something an artist might create, and even draws lines on hills and inclines. Finally the character models were all revamped with more exaggerated proportions, creating the appearance of a detailed comic book in motion (source).
The art style change itself was enough to really make Borderlands stand out even more from other games of its kind.
What I would like to see in the future are more video games that push the boundaries of reality artistically. I often like to play video games to escape into a new world. With Virtual Reality soon becoming a reality, I don't want to step out of this one just to step into another that looks just like it. I want to experience something entirely different like the world of Okami or Borderlands. An artistic reality that I cannot possibly perceive in true reality.
So are you happy with the hyper-realistic direction? Or are you hoping for more artistic variation in the coming years? Let me know in the comments!