Try to imagine playing a game and believing that you are actually, physically and emotionally, present in the game’s world. Imagine an NPC death affecting you like the death of a real loved one. Imagine hunger, fear, love, sex, and excitement all happening to you as though you really were a resident of Lordran or Skyrim, of WWII Europe or Ancient Greece, of the Citadel or Azeroth.
We have not reached perfect photorealism in video game graphics, but is it a promise even worth keeping? Our understanding of the problem itself is so general, that it’s impossible to answer without first figuring out what we mean by “realism”.
The Contradiction of “Creating Reality”
Simulating reality in video games is just that: a simulation that is not reality. New leaps in VR gaming may make a difference. But for now, video games have to specifically stipulate on every aspect of their objective accuracy, and do so only as much as it’s demanded of them. Remember that both Call of Duty 1 and Call of Duty 4 were hailed as realistic, and Infinite Warfare probably will be too. This means that what we call the reality of graphical models or “photorealism” in games depends on player perception.
This makes it not reality at all, but a fantasy of simulated reality, the detailed accuracy of which is directly dependent on what players demand of graphics in order to call them “real”.
Increasingly, leaps in graphics card technology have drawn developers to perceive photorealism as a selling point. In other words, they expect better simulations to equal better or more profitable games. All of us have at some point agreed with them, and bought a video game purely for the excitement of playing something that looks real. What we’re after is immersion and often we, like developers, believe that graphical realism is the surest shortcut to achieving it. But is immersion really dependent on a video game’s graphics? To put the question another way, does fantasy depend on its nearness to reality?
Interaction, Graphics, and You
Environmental interaction has been a staple of game consoles showing off their processing power for quite a while. Series like Far Cry, Battlefield, and Red Faction have all touted the ability to interact with and destroy environments. We’ve perceived this as we were meant to: as more realistic game design.
But think for a second about interaction. In the real world, interaction occurs constantly. The very notion that things have to be stipulated on in order to be interacted with is a restrictive and fantastical one. When playing a video game that brags about its interactive setting, it’s only natural to test the limits of that environment and to be quickly disappointed. You can shoot cups off the table, but those windows don’t shatter. You can destroy that building, but not this one.
Once you’ve discovered the limitations of the reality, it is no longer real to you, and no longer immersive at all. Reality is not something you perceive but something that you’re inside of, within which you perceive everything. As soon as a game touts total destructibility or dares you to test its limits, you will discover the finite simulation at work in your perception of the game’s world.
Even if the graphics had reached a point of total control over every variable and the world was larger than any person could conceivably traverse, if it’s a game, it was programmed, and if it was programmed, it has limits. As a player, you will always be subject to those limits.
The same is true of human likenesses in games. We all know about the Uncanny Valley—the queasy feeling that you know a robotic or animated or simulated person is not real—but keep in mind that the more real the fake person appears, the stronger the feeling becomes. People in The Legend of Zelda aren’t mentally challenging to interact with, but people in Fallout 4 seem like strange, distant manikins, like an alien’s idea of people. A quick search of all the fanfictions on Fanfiction.net reveals a supporting trend. People fantasize most about characters that are less realistic, with Pokémon and Kingdom Hearts leading the list with 70-90,000 entries each. Fallout is down at around 7,000, Call of Duty at about 2,500.
Mass Effect is a video game in which you can have simulated sex, yet Sonic the Hedgehog has twice as many fanfiction entries, many of them sexual in nature (I looked so you don’t have to). I’m not saying there is a direct reverse relationship between realism and immersion and I realize that a list of fanfictions is not conclusive. I’m saying that if such a list can even exist, then there isn’t a relationship at all.
But people, myself included, get immersed in video games all the time. If we can begin to accept that graphical realism is a problematic approach to making a game more immersive to a player, then what is actually required? How do games become, if not our reality, then their own reality?
Personal and Spatial Immersion
Imagine your new video game is a hamburger you bought because it looked great on the menu. Imagine its perfectly-modeled bun being hit by real-time, organic lighting. But imagine that when you taste it, it doesn’t taste like anything. Or maybe it tastes like something, but only 75% of the time. It’s hard to get immersed in a meal that you can’t experience because the chef only cared about its appearance.
Obviously I’m comparing graphical realism to the appearance of a hamburger. But here’s the big question, for this whole article in fact: what, if not realistic graphics, is the equivalent of taste in a video game? What really makes a game world an immersive experience?
Compare the promises made by a destructible environment in Red Faction and Battlefield to Minecraft. There is nothing realistic about Mojang’s ode to an afternoon spent inside an upturned box of Legos. But what millions of people discovered about the worlds of Minecraft is that spaces that are consistent in themselves are more immersive than a simulation of the real world, which we all know pretty well and can spot the flaws in immediately.
The rules of Minecraft are clear and organic. The world doesn’t behave realistically, but rain and monsters and lonely nights feel real because as a player you understand the stakes and conditions and you have direct control over how prepared you are to face them. The experience of dealing with those conditions is any game’s “taste.” Skyrim is big and beautiful, but subject to some disillusionment when the horse stops working, or you exploit your way against the floor textures onto a mountaintop just by jumping, or a shopkeeper is trying to appear realistic while your brain screams at you that they just aren’t.
Control and consistency are the secret ingredients to spatial immersion, which a player armed with the desire for fantasy will always be able to find through gameplay. All games, even those that simulate realities, are fantasies. But the games that acknowledge and accept this are the ones that are able to achieve the reality that video gaming strives to be, not a copy of the real one, but one that uses space to become a system in the player’s mind, a subset of perception that can be inhabited and experienced as a world all its own.
If the industry continues to strain production budgets and development concepts with the desire to push hardware to the limits of graphical realism, games will only continue to be more measured, limited, and fake (especially for how “real” they look). How many examples do we need of a game series upping the graphics but losing immersion in the translation? How many more games like Thief, Alone in the Dark, and Final Fantasy XIII, before we discover that the simple pleasures of Pokémon, The Legend of Zelda, and Minecraft are more real in our minds because they are worlds we get to experience, worlds that do not pretend to be without limitations, but which show off those limitations. It turns out that only inside limitations, and not realism, can a game immerse the player into the conditions of its fantasy, and into its world.
Games that pretend to be reality will always be a trick. Before you buy next year’s Call of Duty, or FIFA, or NFL, or NBA, consider that there’s a reason these come out every year. A simulation never lasts long.