Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Realistic Graphics Are Broken

Robert Rath | 6 Jun 2013 16:00
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L.A. Noire Screenshot

But recently, even longtime gamers with a background in game conventions have begun to question the gap between the narratives and the action of gameplay. If you've read game journalism in the past year, you've no doubt come across the term ludonarrative dissonance. Though the phrase sounds painfully academic - even for an occasionally pedantic soul like me - it accurately describes the feeling that of game mechanics that don't jive with the story. Nathan Drake is a likable and ethical guy in the cutscenes for example, but during the gameplay itself he guns down thousands of people over treasure. Over the last few years we've heard a lot about this ludonarrative dissonance, but there isn't a lot of exploration about what causes it. Interestingly, it's caused by the same thing that makes actors onstage mime riding a horse - that is, technical limitations. There are so many shooting games, for example, because shooting mechanics work well with existing technology. That sounds like a cop-out, with studios doing what's easy and safe, but it's hard to blame them for not wanting to stake cash on new mechanics that have interactions more complicated than the straightforwardness of combat. As Heavy Rain or L.A. Noire can attest, game mechanics that represent realistic conversations and environmental interactions are still in their infancy. Why can't you talk to the demons? Because it would involve a clunky and immersion-breaking system, and it's just easier to shoot them.

This gap has become such a problem that for the last couple of years designers have actually written their games around recontextualizing the dissonance. Spec Ops: The Line played with the idea by having the violence take a mental toll on Captain Walker. Far Cry 3 and Blood Dragon satirized game conventions like collecting items and leveling up. Even Uncharted 3 dealt with Drake's compulsively self-destructive lifestyle. These games worked around the problem rather than solved it, but the general consensus seems to be that we're approaching a point where realistic visuals are undermining the conventions and mechanics that have defined games to this point. When we see realistic worlds we can interact with, we instinctively want to force real-world logic onto them - and the structure isn't there to support real-world logic. David Cage can show me all the soulful old men he wants, but I know that when I speak to those emotional eyes I'll do so with an immersion-breaking conversation wheel or "Press X To" command that reminds me that yes, I'm playing a game. This industry is so hung up on reality - and the justified fear that game-like mechanics break immersion into their facsimile worlds - that they've led an effort to harness our physical bodies into the game. From motion controls to the Oculus Rift, console and peripheral makers made it their goal to remove "obstacles" between the player and the game. Take away the controllers and screens, they seem to believe, and immersion will be complete. While I'm all for new control schemes, I'd argue that controllers don't break immersion - they didn't when I played Skyrim - and I was engrossed in games well before realistic graphics became the norm.

In fact, many of the runaway successes of the last few years - from Angry Birds to Minecraft - have turned away from realism and embraced consciously game-like aesthetics. Such a route allows you to play with game mechanics rather than against them. Why do stone blocks float in air after I've mined everything around them? Because it's a game, and it looks like one. My brain doesn't expect a world made out of 1 x 1 Legos to follow the laws of physics. The solution to some of our problems with "realistic" games could come from abandoning the aesthetic, as these indie games have done out of necessity. Let games be games and don't worry about making them look real.

Another option is to take ludonarrative dissonance head-on by putting a large amount of development behind bringing mechanics more in line with the visuals. Use the processing power of gaming PCs and the next generation of consoles not to give us prettier worlds, but ones that react to our actions more realistically. Studios are currently trying to close the gap by addressing the problem as part of the narrative like in Spec Ops and Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, but playing off the dissonance and making fun of it is a stopgap measure. Snarky references and in-joke sarcasm get old fast. Creating game worlds that behave more realistically is going to be difficult and expensive, but someone has to do it eventually. Many experiments will fail, but the one that succeeds can create a unique game that's sure to get attention.

Peripherals could also hold out some hope. While I'm a little cynical about motion controls, I do think devices like the Oculus Rift create opportunities for advances in mechanics. Likewise, while the Kinect has never been particularly useful, if it could respond to natural language speech like Siri it's conceivable that we could eliminate conversation wheels at some point in the future. But none of these address the main problem, which is that games look too real for the systems behind them.

And perhaps we'll just have to live with it. While ludonarrative dissonance is an issue and our supposedly "realistic" game worlds are little more than Hollywood set facades, we may just have to acknowledge the discrepancy and go about our lives. While "yes, it's weird, but it's okay because it's a convention of the medium" doesn't cover all the issues created by the reality gap between graphics and mechanics, it's a useful tool to rely on until the technology improves. That doesn't mean we need to stop writing about it, or talking about it, or trying to solve it, it just means that for now we have to work with the technology at hand - and be aware that photo-realistic worlds with limited player interactivity can create a strange feeling in the player.

And maybe one day, when we've made sufficient advancements in hardware and AI, we might even be able to talk to the demons.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Austin, Texas. You can follow his exploits at or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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