There’s been a lot lately that has had me considering the graphical power of modern gaming. The PS5 reveal showed off some impressive tech, and the recent launch of The Last of Us: Part 2 has shown the power of current-gen consoles like arguably no other game has. Despite these advancements though, I’ve just ceased to be impressed by realistic looking graphics.
Now, the graphics vs. gameplay debate has been done to death, especially by traditional games media. Frankly, I don’t think it’s worth even considering anymore. Just about every rational person is going to choose the game that’s fun to play over the one that looks as close to life as possible. After all, games are an interactive medium at their heart, and while pretty graphics can bolster the immersion or “wow-factor” of any game that’s already great, people simply looking for stunning, photo-realistic visuals can get them in another medium. What I don’t see talked about nearly as much, however, is the art style vs. photo realism debate.
The Art of Ratchet & Clank HC – $31.99
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from: Things From Another World
What the next generation has in store
Allow me to get my exceptionally controversial stance out of the way before I go much further; I don’t see myself ever being impressed by “realistic” looking graphics in games again. I think that, if we’re talking about gaming technology in terms of how realistic we can make our games look, we’ve just about hit the ceiling on how impressive it can be. Sure, there will always be a million little details that could be added to make a game more true to life, but generally speaking, those details just do nothing to impress me or absorb me into an experience.
While I was watching the PS5 reveal, I remember the utter apathy that I felt at the 2K21 reveal, watching the sweat slide down the nose of the man in the trailer. It wasn’t interesting, impressive, fun, or anything else that might make the visuals something to take note of. If you had told me that this level of detail could already be achieved on current-gen consoles, I would have believed you without question, because there just doesn’t seem to be the same technical jump in visual quality that there has been in other generations.
On the other end of the spectrum, there was plenty in the PS5 reveal that did impress me. Kena: Bridge of Spirits, Goodbye Volcano High, Deathloop, and more, all boasted unique art styles that looked visually spectacular and set them apart from many of the other games shown. Out of all the games that were shown, those are the ones I remember most, not the ones that looked like glorified tech demos. So, why buy a new console for games that, on a visual level, look like they could be played on a PS5?
Well, we won’t know for sure until it comes out and we can see the difference that the new box makes on the ways those games are played. For all Sony did right in that presentation, arguably their biggest misstep was keeping the biggest improvements somewhat more subtle than you’d expect. The Project Athia trailer didn’t impress me, but the new Ratchet and Clank game did. The speed at which new worlds loaded, the fluidity of not just the gameplay, but the dimension-hopping, demonstrated a massive improvement over the current-gen. Those are the innovations that I want to see trumpeted, not the realistic-looking sweat from 2K21.
I’ve been asked what I think the best looking game of the generation is, and people always expect one of several recent games as my response: God of War, Red Dead Redemption 2, The Last of Us: Part 2, or some other big-budget, Triple-A blockbuster. The truth is, I think the best looking game of the generation is Cuphead.
Never before have I seen visuals that truly elevated an experience so high above what it would have been otherwise. I showed that game to relatives who had no interest in gaming and watched their jaws drop as they soaked in the lovingly crafted environments, character models, and animations. Every ounce of that game dripped with love and passion, and the art style was a true testament to that. Things like Red Dead Redemption 2 just don’t even come close to that for me.
The aforementioned games aren’t even the best in class for triple-A, in my opinion. Aside from Cuphead, I personally feel as though Dishonored 2 was the best looking game of the last generation. Gorgeous and immersive, the watercolor look of the world was such that I found myself thoroughly exploring every room in the game, soaking in the atmosphere. It was so much more impressive to me than anything else I’ve played lately and more impressive than most of what I saw in the PS5 reveal.
Why are publishers still pushing realistic visuals?
A lot of the reason that realistic graphics have been pushed as an essential part of the future of gaming is that they are arguably the easiest way to measure and demonstrate progress. The easiest way to sell a new console to someone who might only be a casual player of video games is to show them the leap in graphical power. If the reveal of the PS5 told me anything, though, it’s that that isn’t enough anymore. People have come to expect more, they’re bored with realism. The aforementioned 2K21 trailer was the subject of a lot of mockery, because it advertised the game in a way that just isn’t effective anymore. Even Project Athia, supposedly the big tech showcase, hasn’t garnered nearly as much coverage as, say, Bugsnax.
This isn’t to say that there’s no place for realistic graphics. There will always be an audience for those kinds of games. The thing is, publishers are starting to realize that audience is not the only one they need to serve. A lot of people are ready to move on from that, and it’s time for the industry to start providing choices.