Kyle Chayka on Photorealism in Videogames for Kill Screen


There will come a point when photorealism in videogames reaches its zenith—when the grass your avatar treads on looks and bends like real grass, when polygon glitches no longer exist. See a trailer of Battlefield 3 gameplay or Crysis 2 for examples of how the immediate future of videogames reaches toward a perfect photorealism. But what happens after that point is achieved? The photorealistic approach seems to me to be a dead-end street, an aspiration that, once perfectly achieved, leads to a death of possibility.

But what if we shook up this definition of realism and believability a little bit? After all, a videogame is never going to be real. Even a photograph—a chip or piece of film exposed to light—is more inherently connected to physical reality. Videogames, in contrast, are only depictions and representations of reality, artificial approximations. What if, rather than continuing to move toward slicker and slicker approximations of reality, games instead provoked players into new ways of seeing reality, and new ideas of “realism”?

Chasing photorealism has led to some incredible gaming experiences, but it’s also limiting, defining graphical success only in terms of how real something looks. Visual art hit this conflict when photography was invented—if photography was able to instantly capture reality as it existed, long the territory of painting, what was the role of painting? But what rose out of negotiating that artistic tangle were new forms of art...