Nick Farmer is a junior studying Interactive Entertainment and Theatrical Scenic Design at the University of Southern California. He is an aspiring professional insomniac and production designer who spends his free time preoccupied with his two greatest loves: cooking and Disney theme park expansion rumors.
Outside of living in a holodeck, where a player acts out an adventure in a completely realistic virtual simulation, all video games involve some level of abstraction. Each designer’s decisions, from the user interface, the chosen camera angles, down to the artificially-produced lighting effects, separate the player from true reality. Video games, like other forms of entertainment such as cinema and novels, call on players to submit to the illusion and suspend their disbelief in order to fully participate in the experience. But video games are neither photography-based like films, nor internally-experienced like fiction. As an illustrated medium, they more closely resemble the art-heavy world of animation and comic books/graphic novels. Their artist-created visual elements can either enhance the player’s enjoyment of their game-world experience, or wrench the game player out of it. In 2014, as technology continues to deliver stunning innovative graphics capabilities into game artists’ hands, there are important choices to be made that early game designers did not initially have. Game designers must now ask themselves how realism/abstraction in game animation affect the player.
“As an illustrated media, more closely resemble the art-heavy world of animation and comic books/graphic novels.”
As more sophisticated art is introduced to games, the power of abstraction is also coming to be appreciated in its own right. Cinematic quality game visuals, while stunning in technological advances, have also opened the door for alternative modes of expression. As in many other art-driven realms—from fine art to cartoons—the modern art movement has revealed the metaphorical beauty to be found in carefully considered abstraction. To many video game players, artistically crafted non-photo-real visual styles can also be stimulating, adding to their enjoyment of the game. While some players clamor for the most realistic ride out there, the much-hyped new level of cinematic realism in video games has brought unexpected dissonance. As in other art genres, hyperrealism is not a necessarily a finite standard of merit, but only one form. While game technology grows more capable and gamers include more diverse interests, video games can use both realism and abstraction to create more compelling narratives.
As technology has afforded thousands of pixels of graphic details to be used in games, some odd player aversions have emerged. One type of unexpected reaction to near-realistically drawn characters is the disturbingly odd sensation players feel when looking at not-quite-perfect human representations. Through research, it has been discovered that certain high levels of faux reality is actually harmful, touching off unconscious reactions that inhibit player engagement and enjoyment. People are repelled by near-realistic replications of human beings, whether in robots or characters in video game, when such depictions hover in a narrow band too close to reality yet not real enough. This disgust has caused theorists and researchers to delve into the brain activity behind this severely-negative response. The phenomenon, termed the “uncanny valley” by robotics professor Masahiro Mori and inspired by Freud’s 1919 view of The Uncanny, describes the slope in the graph that tracks a positive human response to images that get closer and closer to realistic, but drastically drops when the image is too near-human. Theorists suggests this “uncanny” resemblance to real humans triggers a psychological revulsion stemming from our primitive mate-tracking preceptors that unconsciously signal us to avoid damaged, diseased, and unhealthy humans by their off-appearance. This new danger—triggering a reaction of loathing—is one that now plagues designers of robots, animatronics, feature films with CG animation, and, of course, state-of-the-art video games that pursue the most realistic visuals possible.
“The phenomenon, termed the “uncanny valley” by robotics professor Masahiro Mori and inspired by Freud’s 1919 view of The Uncanny, describes the slope in the graph that tracks a positive human response to images that get closer and closer to realistic, but drastically drops when the image is too near-human.”
Another consideration in game graphics is how the visuals may enhance or complicate the gameplay, as the player’s ability to strategize within the game is altered by the emotions one attributes to the simulated characters on screen. Game theorist Jesper Juul suggests the strategy for playing a simulation game like The Sims 2 might be improved by looking at the avatars as a series of “entities with parameters that had to be optimized… [however] it is hard to imagine playing the game without thinking about people with emotions.” For its time, the game’s detailed world and character art offered state-of-the-art realism, and the player’s engagement with the Sims increased enjoyment beyond mere moves and calculations. In fact, while the recently updated The Sims 3 (2009, PC) has a more realistic look than past versions, its abstracted realism appears quaint today as other videogames supersede its graphic style. Yet the game’s elements of stylized-animated reality, charming in their slight abstractions, are for that very reason appealing to players, giving the Sims and their environment a dollhouse fantasy appeal.
However, video game players are diverse, and realism in graphics is not always a desired quality for compelling game play. For players who thrill to solve puzzles, for instance, many strategy-based games, such as chess,do not need lush visual imagery or realistically-animated icons to engage players. When considering games that challenge pure brainpower, serious players might look upon a host of realistically rendered graphic details as a distraction. Juul suggests that in such games, abstraction is vital. For example, in the game The Marriage, experimental game designer Rod Humble creates the game’s on-screen pieces as simple squares (representing the amount of ego one person takes up in a marriage) and circles (representing the external influences upon the relationship). The definitions of these simple symbols provide sly cultural subtext to the game, but, at its core, The Marriage relies on the player to make calculated, less emotional, moves to “win.” To render such a game with full graphics would contradict its subtext, by shifting the focus onto the humans at the center of their drama and away from the tactical (and ironic) tone of the game’s battles.
“For players who thrill to solve puzzles, for instance, many strategy-based games, such as chess, do not need lush visual imagery or realistically-animated icons to engage players.”
The choice between animation that features artistic metaphorical abstraction or cutting-edge hyperrealism is a fairly recent one, as current technology now allows game designers to choose which technique best enriches a particular game experience. In contrast, when video games were first broadly introduced (1970s), the graphics technology was primitive. Limitations of hardware and software restricted those early game developers’ artistic choices and dictated what they could show the player on the screen. In 1972, the first generation video game Pong gave players the chance to play an animated Ping-Pong game by moving a short horizontal line (representing their paddle) from side to side, trying to make contact the a bit-square (ball) coming at them. The graphics were basic, and yet the game play was hypnotic as the mechanic involved calculating the ball’s trajectory, timing, and coordination. If anything, Pong both proved that abstraction was not a barrier in player engagement and, yet, depicted a chasm between video game graphics and the era’s higher visual standard of entertainment, seen on television and movie screens, to which people were accustomed.
This obvious gulf in visuals began the developmental push in the industry to provide players with more realistically rendered games. By 1981, the 3rd generation 8-bit hit Donkey Kong (Atari 2600) offered a huge improvement in graphics, adding color and directional control, and depicting several animated objects and characters. While Donkey Kong would never be mistaken for a living-breathing gorilla, the low-quality graphics of the game rendered in blues, yellows, oranges, greens, and brown brought cheery 2-D cartoon images to the simple movements required. In its day, such advancements made Donkey Kong along with its successor 1983’s Donkey Kong Jr., two of the most realistic and detailed games in wide release at the time. But technology quickly evolved. The 4th generation (16-bit) brought games like Starfox (1993, SNES). Its accelerated game graphics attempt to depict 3-D space, and the aesthetics were similar to the previous generation’s, but added the verisimilitude of first person piloting. Like another 4th gen. video game, Doom (SNES 1995), a first person shooter published in 1995, the shift in POV added drama, but also put additional demands on artists to provide more realistic environments.
“While Donkey Kong would never be mistaken for a living-breathing gorilla, the low-quality graphics of the game rendered in blues, yellows, oranges, greens, and brown brought cheery 2-D cartoon images to the simple movements required.”
By the 5th generation, 3-D graphics took off. Storage on cartridges improved, providing the capacity to deliver much more visual detail. Utilizing these advances, popular games such as GoldenEye 007 (1997, Nintendo64) brought big animation improvements in the first-person shooter. By 2001, the 6th generation of video game development brought games such as Gran Turismo 3 A-spec (2001, PS2),  with heightened graphic fidelity that finally allowed the cinematic immersion of the player within a game environment. Thanks to the capabilities of the PlayStation 2, a new bar had been set for reality-based graphics. Building on this power, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004, PS2) thrilled players by using that graphic power to present a game set in a free world, with multiple camera angles. The cinematic quality was so eye-pleasing, in fact, that some players actually avoided the game challenges and, instead, simply tooled around L.A. in their vehicles gawking at the incredible depth of realistic details.
Advances in graphics capabilities keep coming, and currently, in the 7th generation of video games, one title that pushes lifelike visuals to their furthest extreme yet is 2010’s Heavy Rain (2010, PS3). This game represents hyperrealism to the nth degree, using motion capture and eye-tracking to perfect even the smallest of human movements. But to suit our modern audiences who have become used to shocking animation advances, no game can succeed as entertainment from its stunning graphical attributes alone. The designers of Heavy Rain have tried to use their breathtaking visuals to reflect the game’s deep storyline and heighten its authentic character motivations. Still, some players find themselves wowed by such super-graphics at first, but then may gradually become less impressed with the limitations of many of the animated details. After hours of play, flaws and rough edges in character clothing become apparent, for one example. Such near-but-not-quite real images can come to distract from the plot, breaking the fourth wall, and the players can become too conscious of the fact that they’re playing a game. In fact, particularly observant players may be more distracted by such visual flaws than by the deliberate abstracted interface devices like the floating white action selectors that hover around the characters. The trap of hyperrealism is in the smallest details. It is upon such small flaws as these that the enormous achievement in Heavy Rain’s realistic game animation may still disappoint the player, who inevitably craves more and more perfection. With all the magnificence and exhaustive detail of real life to be held as examples, a game has a substantial burden when art tries to imitate life.
“Such near-but-not-quite real images can come to distract from the plot, breaking the fourth wall, and the players can become too conscious of the fact that they’re playing a game.”
One alternative, however, is the concurrent movement towards developing games whose artistic styling deliberately deemphasizes photo-realism, instead utilizing moody, abstract, or impressionistic game art. One recent successful example of this is 7th generation independent video game Journey (2012, PS3). Utilizing stylized, interpretive graphics, the main character in thatgamecompany’s Journey is essentially a faceless nomad, neither identifiably male nor female, and cloaked in a gold embroidered rust colored robe. The environment is rendered in a beautifully spare style, and, as more worlds open up beyond the sands, the fantasy element of the game is reinforced by the mild abstraction in its art style. By representing the player’s character without identifiable features, the game designers present this nomad as an everyman/woman upon whom players may project their own values. Unlike the protagonist in Heavy Rain—a very specific character with a deep and troubled history that propels the storyline of the game—Journey’s themes are nonlinear and a less representational art style suits the underlying more collective goal. The developers shy away from formulaic illustrations of sensations and, instead, open up the experience of the game for the player to discover. The sense of wonder that the player gets from exploring the artistic environments is, in itself, a goal. The player is not so much motivated to “win” challenges in this interactive experience, but to discover their own emotional response from within the game play. The success of the abstracted art style in Journey shows how important it is for each video game to utilize a level of realism that best suits the intentions/goals of its particular style of play and game mechanics.
So how does the push for increased graphics realism like the world of Heavy Rain vs. the deliberate thoughtful abstraction like the world of Journey impact the way players enjoy games? A study conducted by the Manchester Institute of Innovative Research concluded that the influence of super-real graphics may, after all the hype, be of transitory importance in “pleasurable playability.” Such visuals catch the player’s eye and imagination at first, but these researchers found realism in game graphics alone “is far from being enough” to keep players engrossed over the course of playing an entire game. They found other gameplay staples, such as challenging puzzles, surprises, etc., quickly overtake the player’s attention and bring sustained fun. With such data, game designers are armed with better information on how to engage players. Certainly, artistic and technical achievements in realism can get the buzz going for a new breakthrough title. But, like any shiny new toy, the player’s enchantment at the wonder of shockingly realistic animation will fade as the game mechanics, engaging story, and/or challenges grab more of the player’s attention. The same exact dynamic can be found in games with artistically abstracted visuals, as well. Their powers to enhance the underlying meaning of the game, or offer emotional connections to the game, are important portals into the game world. But, in time, the player’s joy at experiencing the art gives way as the player’s pressing needs become focused on making their way through the world.
“But, like any shiny new toy, the player’s enchantment at the wonder of shockingly realistic animation will fade as the game mechanics, engaging story, and/or challenges grab more of the player’s attention.”
As the latest CG breakthroughs offer designers and artists more precisely perfect ways to dazzle the player’s eye and attract excitement, there are certainly some pitfalls to avoid. Yet, with these technological improvements to animation capabilities, more thoughtful, game-enhancing decisions are suddenly possible. Designers’ imaginations are now free to show on the screen each spectacular image they dream up, whether a hyper-real garage, a moody tent filled with goblins, or a cube that spins to reveal word puzzles. As the genre evolves to the 8th generation and game mechanics, story, character, and action become more refined and engrossing, animation decisions should also progress to better capture each particular style of player and give them the best experience.
For a complete bibliography, please email Scribe at email@example.com
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