How much better can graphics yet?
From the beginning of home gaming to now, the next generation has always led the way by improving their graphics. Every new console has better graphics than the one it proceeds. The NES was an 8-bit console, SNES 16-bit, Playstation 32-bit, and since then they’ve used different metrics to illustrate graphic fidelity. Whatever the tool, the same thing has always been true, graphics have always improved over time. For many that’s the accepted status quo, however, to stop and think for a moment – does that mean there is no glass ceiling for how much graphics can improve? To answer that question in simple terms, no. The extent of improvement from one generation to the next has slowed down, we are reaching the plateau of what can be done with graphics. Take the Playstation 4, it is not THAT much better than the Playstation 3, a notable spike in quality? yes, but not as extreme a leap as prior generations.
In my opinion, the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X will see gaming graphics reach the peak of their potential and the reason for this is photo-realism. By my estimation, this will become a problem with the Playstation 6 and whatever the equivalent Xbox is called. Let’s use God of War 2018 and Resident Evil 2 2019 as the examples. Santa Monica’s God of War is photo-realistic. No longer does Kratos look like a graphical approximation of a person, remove his ash tattooed flesh and ripping bod and he looks like someone you might pass on the street. The crows-feet, the wear and tear caused by the ravages of time and hardy battles, there’s also the flecks of grey hair in his beard. This level of detail is present in all the major characters, the details in these craggy visages look like they are products of a full life rather than the work of a programmer. Moving away from the character models to the world design, every bit of landscape or man-made machinery tells its own story. Take a still from one of the games many panorama’s and show it to someone who doesn’t game and they’ll probably assume its from some fantasy movie – probably shot in New Zealand or Europe. This sort of confusion has already happened with football games, where someone walking past has quizzed me on what match I am watching. To move to Resident Evil, this is all also true too, but here there is an added extra realism to the world. The burned-out cars that litter the streets of Raccoon City, the dark, dimly lit city streets or the blood-spattered (and worse) wallpaper on the many hallways of this labyrinth police station are relatable. With the exception of the blood, these are all images that we can relate to our real lives and how closely the people at Capcom captured them is frightening. Admittedly, these games are by some of the best and most talented developers in the world. Still, with every passing year, graphics are looking better and better. Then add the new, upgraded hardware due in quarter 3 this year and this sort of graphical fidelity will become the norm. That’s long before we get the apex of what the PS5, Xbox Series X and high-end PCs are capable of, too.
Let’s reconsider that statement. In a few years, games that can be confused for real life will be the norm. Let’s use this opportunity to ask the opening question again only worded a little differently. How else can graphics improve if they can already achieve near photo-realism?
We already have part of the answer, both the upcoming new consoles have high-quality SSD hard-drives and are capable of high-end ray tracing. I am not going to pretend to understand the technical details of either, however, one allows the hardware to load information faster than ever and the other takes lighting effects to levels comparable to the work the world’s best cinematographers. With those two boxes ticked, where else is there for graphics to grow? Particle effects? Incredible things have already been achieved with particle effects (remedy entertainment with Control, for example), explosions and the like. Flora and Fauna? Guerilla did wonderful work Horizon: Zero Dawn on that front. Let’s just cut this Q&A session short by saying that modern graphics are reaching the limits of their potential. The glass ceiling isn’t too far away now, and once talented men and women hit that roof what’s next? On the other side of that metaphorical glass ceiling is the uncanny valley, where graphics are so good they are indistinguishable from the real and that’s some science fiction thinking, the potential side effects of which are terrifying. Skynet AI, anyone?
I’ve come to the point of the article where I either put up or shut up, I can’t spend all this time saying “no” without offering my own solution. And my answer is two simple words, art design. There’s only so long you can chase the dragon of realism, eventually, developers will have to admit that there’s no more room for growth and instead of pursuing realistic for realism sake they’ll have to readdress their approach. Graphics for graphic’s sake will no longer be the common currency of gaming. Okami, Nintendo, The Legend of Obra Dinn, Persona, Ninja Theory, there are countless examples of developers crafting their own aesthetic. Just because I have made this case, it doesn’t make it is so. The more mainstream gamer will still see graphics as an important thing going forward, which brings a new question to the next generation of games and its developers. How do you improve what you already have and incorporate an artistic aesthetic without alienating the more casual, conservative gamer? It’s a compelling debate and if it does come to pass – it will be interesting to find out.
Next time I’ll be talking about something a bit lighter, these last two articles have been a bit on the heavy side. I might talk about the South Park games, not because they are relevant to what is happening now. Funnily enough, those two new games are an interesting aside to the debate I just had.