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GoatLord

How important is real world detail to you (in games)?

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Photorealism is obviously not the end goal of aesthetics in gaming; some games in the future will undoubtedly look like anime, children's storybooks, impressionist paintings, vintage film, etc. In either case, one can expect games to eventually contain a level of detail akin to real life. A few examples would include individual leaves that crunch into ever smaller segments under your feet; individual hairs, each with their own shadow; wall textures with sub-millimeter details; individual droplets of water, each with accurate reflective properties; unique snowflakes that are actual 3D models instead of sprites or flat textures; insects that can be magnified hundreds or thousands of times without losing detail; a complete inability to discern the chunkiness of up-close textures or the angularity of a model; and so on.

Am I thinking too big? I think not. 3D modeling and animation tools keep getting more and more intuitive, procedural rendering is convenient, hardware capabilities, disk space and RAM keep increasing. The developers and artists will not find it difficult to craft this level of detail in future games. But do we, as gamers, care? I don't see any purpose in shrugging at the current state of visuals and saying, "That's good enough." I say, keep improving until it's identical to reality, or in the case of fantastical/abstract/surreal/stylized games, as ideal as can be managed. Thoughts?

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I actually believe that we will never achieve the level of detail that you describe, at least not in the dynamic sense. Leaves will crunch beneath our game character's feet, but it will be as a gimmickey pre-scripted event, not the natural result of programmed physics.

We tend to underestimate, by many, many orders of magnitude, the complexity involved in the unfolding of the events that seem intuitively simple to us.

I think that by the time our ability as a species to design video games comes to an end, whether by natural disaster, war, or going extinct due to evolutionary inferiority, our video games will still be paper-thin mockeries of real life events. They'll just be somewhat smoother, sharper mockeries.

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I'd rather have a game that looks like a game and not like a photo. I prefer Doom and Vice City graphics to BF4 and GTA5.

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I'm also not keen on photorealism. I want my game to be "cartoonish", just like they are now. However, I want the quality of this "cartoon" to improve. I'm really impressed with idTech5. Rage looked awesome and I think the new Wolfenstein will leave me amazed as well.

Also, when I wrote "cartoon" I didn't mean blatant stylish tweaks to make the game an actual cartoon. Borderlands's style doesn't appeal to me at all, but id games certainly do, even if they lack photorealism.

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Well, give it enough time and at some point at least AAA titles will all be based upon some "Physics 2.0" engine, even if the adoption of first-gen PhysX accelerators, APIs etc. was less than spectacular.

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The maximum level of detail I can interpret while playing was reached in 2004-2005 (hl2, doom 3, far cry, fear), perhaps 2007 with Crysis if you want to push it, but at that point I already had to stop and look to notice most of the differences.

Animation lagged behind for a while, but as for right now I find it's in the same boat, good enough in many games I couldn't tell a difference if it improved.

I actually find it detrimental when visuals keep improving aesthetically with little consideration for art direction in the context of gameplay, as all too often there is too much noise as a result. In many graphic intensive shooters I find myself struggling to spot the target to shoot, sometimes staring at the minimap radar more than the game environment (this is not specific to photorealism; both Borderlands games are particularly bad offenders).

So the infinitely small doesn't appeal to me in the slightest. I'd rather see more in the other direction: detailed backdrops that help connect the levels within the game universe. Many games just slap on a skybox with a pretty sky and random mountains/buildings/whatever kind of makes sense for the level setting and call it a day.

Then you have games like Dark Souls where the background shows you places you will reach hours later and places you used to be at a few hours back. Not only it gives a great feeling of consistency and continuation, there's also this dimension of gradually conquering the game environment, mapping it out in your mind and making it as your own.

This, to me, beats any water reflection or dynamic lightning. You can make a box as detailed as possible, as long as I can clearly see the bounding walls I'm reminded I'm in a box, pretty as it might be. On the other hand, give me a taste of the world behind the scene, and my imagination will create a better image than what graphic technology could pull off in the foreseeable future (as in, see AndrewB's post).

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I think the greatest appeal from any game -but especially 3D ones- came from the interactivity and unrestricted freedom of movement, rather than extreme realism per-se. E.g. in Test Drive 3 (the first 3D game of the series, back in 1990 I think, and the last one for a long time), you could literally drive into a bard and see the cow, if so you wished. I would consider a game with invisible barriers, fixed scripting progression etc. to be much less realistic, even if detail-wise it could be superior.

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Convincing me that the world I'm exploring is alive is more important than visual quality, detail and being able to manipulate every single object.

The Paris hub from Deus Ex is a great example of that.

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The level of photorealism is simply part of a visual style, just like some artwork looks more realistic than others.

That said, I don't feel like games have really exploited varying styles enough. Some have tried, but games that look photorealistic lack the "why" behind their chosen style for me. So even if there was the technology to handle extreme detail such as each snowflake being a model or individual leaves being crushed under the feet of the player, I'd want to know why, artistically, those design choices were made. Putting them in just to sell a game is shallow and silly. "Drawing the player in" doesn't count, either. Wolf3D can still draw people into its world, as can Super Mario Brothers.

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The problem with photorealism is that it creates a dissonance when used with traditional game design which developers struggle with breaking apart from, because at some point you just realize that fun and balanced gameplay has to come first even if it creates a harsh contrast to the realistic presentation of the game. We've already seen this phenomenom manifest itself during the past generation.
More than ever people are starting to question things like written or audio logs being strategically scattered around an environment to provide exposition, or Nathan Drake murdering more people in a single Uncharted game than all Indiana Jones movies combined, or the fact that players get winded rather quickly when sprinting, etc... When graphics get even more realistic I imagine people are no longer going to be comfortable with things like items instantly vanishing when you pick them up (but do you honestly want to sit and watch some elaborate animation of the item being picked up and stashed in your inventory, in a realistic manner?).

I read a superb article with Adrian Chmielarz about this subject, but I can't find anything about it online. There's also an Errant Signal video about photorealism and the baggage that comes with it.


I actually find it detrimental when visuals keep improving aesthetically with little consideration for art direction in the context of gameplay, as all too often there is too much noise as a result. In many graphic intensive shooters I find myself struggling to spot the target to shoot, sometimes staring at the minimap radar more than the game environment (this is not specific to photorealism; both Borderlands games are particularly bad offenders).


I have also had lots of issues with this problem lately. Borderlands 2 was just way too cluttered and confusing for me. Where is the dude that's shooting me? Is that thing over there a container, just a prop, or an exploding barrel? I think it's something that isn't discussed nearly enough. Graphics need to be first and foremost functional. I think Valve understands this very well.
I think that's probably also one of the reasons Unreal Tournament 3 never took off as a competitive shooter. The maps just look too busy with too many bells & whistles compared to the older games. Wires everywhere along with sparks and tons of other particle effects... It's just a no go in an arena shooter where you really need to focus on your opponents.

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As long as the game has good (or at least bearable) gameplay, detail doesn't matter at all for me.

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Excellent points. I'd like to respond to a few.

Regarding the immersive factor of microscopic details:
Rendering individual leaves that can break apart or water molecules in clouds won't matter on a conscious level, but if everything on this scale is rendered in a real time environment, I believe it has the potential to really draw players in. Games in the future will use inputs that would make today's control pads, keyboards, mice and Kinect-style devices laughable obsolete. Games will be experienced via paper thin visors taking up your entire field of view at ultra high definition resolution. Players in this era will have grown up playing hyper detailed games and thus will expect the level of detail I'm referring to. Obviously, on a standard HD flat panel display, such details are less important.

Regarding barriers and ornamentation:
I completely agree that the environment should be appropriate to the intended gaming experience. In my vision, a future game would have either an open or linear world that, if the player is feeling exploratory, can extend far beyond the normal boundaries, perhaps encompassing entire worlds. Both tiny and macro scale details would beautifully compliment these extended environments, instead of looking oddly barren or simply lacking that extra something. It would, as was pointed out, need to be functional enough to not be a pointless visual gimmick.

Regarding gaming tropes being affected by photoreslism:
First thought that comes to mind is Doomguy putting on a radiation suit, which is silly and doesn't add to gameplay at all. But the games WILL keep getting more detailed, so the tendency of games to simplify certain actions or to place suspiciously relevant items in convenient places will need to be addressed. I imagine that, in addressing this, the way in which we play games will fundamentally change. At the same time, Sind games will journey into heavy abstraction in order to combat these issues.

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Increasing polygon count is all diminishing returns at this point. What devs need to start doing is using next-gen tech to increase the framerates, art style, and AI of games. Shit man, I still play Doom ffs...graphics only impress me so much.

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Mr. Freeze said:

Increasing polygon count is all diminishing returns at this point. What devs need to start doing is using next-gen tech to increase the framerates, art style, and AI of games.


This is what I think will soon start happening to games. Its becoming too expensive to always increase the graphic details of games, so in the future the extra power of new consoles and PC's will instead be used to do other things, like allowing higher FPS and making the games do more demanding things that older consoles would not have been able to handle (more enemies on screen at once for example).

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Soon games will be so realistic we will be able to stand in line in DMV in the game. Most modern games are already about as fun. The game will be so realistic and shitty, that we will have to start making fun 16 bit games inside that game to escape the dreariness of playing it, just like we did with real life.

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In Soviet Russia, console plays YOU!

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Phml said:

The maximum level of detail I can interpret while playing was reached in 2004-2005 (hl2, doom 3, far cry, fear), perhaps 2007 with Crysis if you want to push it, but at that point I already had to stop and look to notice most of the differences.

Animation lagged behind for a while, but as for right now I find it's in the same boat, good enough in many games I couldn't tell a difference if it improved.

I actually find it detrimental when visuals keep improving aesthetically with little consideration for art direction in the context of gameplay, as all too often there is too much noise as a result. In many graphic intensive shooters I find myself struggling to spot the target to shoot, sometimes staring at the minimap radar more than the game environment (this is not specific to photorealism; both Borderlands games are particularly bad offenders).

So the infinitely small doesn't appeal to me in the slightest. I'd rather see more in the other direction: detailed backdrops that help connect the levels within the game universe. Many games just slap on a skybox with a pretty sky and random mountains/buildings/whatever kind of makes sense for the level setting and call it a day.

Then you have games like Dark Souls where the background shows you places you will reach hours later and places you used to be at a few hours back. Not only it gives a great feeling of consistency and continuation, there's also this dimension of gradually conquering the game environment, mapping it out in your mind and making it as your own.

This, to me, beats any water reflection or dynamic lightning. You can make a box as detailed as possible, as long as I can clearly see the bounding walls I'm reminded I'm in a box, pretty as it might be. On the other hand, give me a taste of the world behind the scene, and my imagination will create a better image than what graphic technology could pull off in the foreseeable future (as in, see AndrewB's post).


I indented to start a thread about this exact topic but it seems GoatLord beat me to it. I agree with everthing you said Phml.

Here is a post from another forum which detail my thoughts on the issue. It's about the new Thief but the idea extends to most modern games.

Thief should have been an AA game. When you make an AAA game you have to cater to the console crowd in order to stay afloat which means sacrificing a lot of the values the original game stood for. An AA game can still look good, even if less detailed but since you don't have to keep so many tastes in mind you can make the game closer to the original.

The game is a mess...and I don't usually say this about games. You can't even jump in it for christ's sake and the plot and atmosphere remind me of bad fanfic.

That said, the game looks amazing, if a bit overdetailed AND had moments when if truly felt like a Thief game like that Jeweler's shop. That part really was brilliant. There was this part with a safe and a sleeping guard. You had to creep slowly and pick the lock. Now if you failed at any stage of the lockpicking, the guard woke up. There was also a room right next to this with a guard patrolling and with lamps that couldn't be extinguished. This was the part with the most loot in the level. To do it quietly, you had to move from shadow to shadow and steal as fast as possible, before the guard got to you. Why wasn't the game more like this?!!!! Judging just by this short part of the game, I could tell that the devs were conflicted when making the game. I don't think it was the lack of talent, rather the realities of AAA game development. Had the budget of the game been something closer to an AA game, it would have been superior in all ways except graphics but since even OK graphics are realistic enough for today's games, as compared to say ok graphics from 2000-2003, it would not have been such a big deal. Today, an interesting art design is more important for me, graphics have become good enough. If games stopped looking better than TW3, DA:I or Battlefield 4, I wouldn't care.

So why is overdetailing bad? Well it's something I noticed while playing Thief 4 and I think it is a cause for linearity in modern First Person games.

In old games like Doom and Thief, the rooms were just simple, geometrical shapes with limited detail. This is an advantage because it is very easy to discern the important bits of a room, like a switch or a quest item. In Thief 4, the levels are SO detailed that it's hard to figure what's usable an what's not. I even got lost a few times, not because the levels were complex (they're really not) but because of all the detail. This is why the climbable surfaces had that "gamey" white paint on them. The developers knew that it would be hard to discern what is climbable and what is not. This is also why many games have guidance systems like markers or big flashy arrows.

NOW, I am what some would call a graphics whore so visuals help a lot with immersion for me but in a game like Thief, where individual objects have to be in sight, the visuals HAVE to be balanced in a way that they are both beautiful AND functional. The visuals should never get in the way of a First Person game with emphasis on exploration and this is why a game with lower production values would actually benefit the franchise more.

Again, the best modern Thief experience you can hope for today is The Dark Mod. If you pay attention, you can tell that the visuals were crafted in such a way that they don't get in the way of your game. They are both beautiful and functional. No matter how detailed a map was, like Tears of St. Lucia, I never got lost because of I couldn't discern what could be picked up, what could be climbed or didn't know which part of the level was accessible or not, I got lost because of how sprawling the level was.

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Simulator type games should look as realistic as possible.

Other games can look like whatever the developers want them to look like.

But overall it's kind of pointless to make details that are only really seen when player stops the game to look at the details.

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Completely unimportant. I play games to have fun and explore, not stare around at the scenery for miniscule unique details like some sort of dumbstruck fuckwit.

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I have a confession to make: Modern gaming, for me, is often a spectator sport. I enjoy tracking the progress of real time CGI, or watching my friends play modern games. I rarely feel inclined to play them, as they often feel so close to reality that it loses that magical "otherness" appeal that made games so much fun (and so strikingly different from reality) as a kid. This, obviously, is quite ironic, since I've been emphasizing the importance of realistic graphics; I felt it was necessary to point out that this emphasis comes from my tendency to spectate rather than play (contemporarily speaking). I suppose I am, as BaronofStuff so elequently put it (not that he's targeting me), a "dumbstruck fuckwit."

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"Dumbstruck fuckwit" seems like a really unfair name for those that appreciate a highly detailed video game. Nobody would be called a dumbstruck fuckwit for appreciating the detail in the pictures yukib1t posted......and aren't video games art too?

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I agree with gggmork and Jimi.

I don't see the point in a game that is so realistic that you can't really tell the difference between the real world and the virtual world. I think one of the main reasons people play games is to escape reality, and jumping into a reality that is practically indistinguishable from the one you come from is not likely to make it fun. Of course, simulators are an exception, but I really don't consider them games.

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Maes said:

In Soviet Russia, console plays YOU!


States of America, console watches YOU!

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gggmork said:

Soon games will be so realistic we will be able to stand in line in DMV in the game. Most modern games are already about as fun. The game will be so realistic and shitty, that we will have to start making fun 16 bit games inside that game to escape the dreariness of playing it, just like we did with real life.


On Steam, use keyword 'Walking Simulator.' There was also 'Waiting in Line the Game.'

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geo said:

On Steam, use keyword 'Walking Simulator.' There was also 'Waiting in Line the Game.'

Not surprised, steam is full of weird indie games.

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I think realism in games isn't desirable, because it warps line between real world and fictional world too much. Game should have gamelike elements like surreal setting, etc etc. Story and gameplay are more important to me than graphics, it those two wont work, then its like putting sprinkles on a turd.

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Graphics and all are nice, but I feel like the most important element when talking real-life details is interaction. Being able to bump into a table and watch it wobble in a fairly true-to-life fashion does more for me than making said table look like it's made of real wood.

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It depends what game. For something like crysis or turok, it would be nice having some hyperrealistic aspects. But for Smash bros Melee, it's a tremendously successful game (still with a very live competitive community) and it's nowhere near realistic-although it's physics are dynamic.

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Membrain said:

Graphics and all are nice, but I feel like the most important element when talking real-life details is interaction. Being able to bump into a table and watch it wobble in a fairly true-to-life fashion does more for me than making said table look like it's made of real wood.


The believability of the table's wobble--or the way it breaks apart if you were to smash it--is dependent entirely on realistic graphics.

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I'm not sure if I can entirely agree with you there. Whilst realistic graphics work when the rest of the game is supposed to be realistic, ala Half-Life 2, then sure. On the other hand, I've seen a number of games with cartoonish or otherwise non-realistic art styles that nevertheless felt "real" because there was a distinct amount of object interaction going on.

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