Are realistic games TOO realistic?

November 17, 2008 Off By Chris Hinton
Project Gotham 4PGR4’s take on realistic car graphics

I remember years ago looking at a racing game demo running in Dixons. I forget what the game was, or even what console it was running on, but I remember thinking, “Wow, those look like real cars!” Years later I look back and think I must have been pretty naive. I wish I could see that demo again, but somehow I doubt it looked all that realistic.
Jump forward to Project Gotham 3, and I said the same thing, “Wow, this looks so real!” – until Project Gotham 4 came out. Fortunately, I’ve given up on thinking that the latest generation of game is as “real” as it’s going to get. But it did get me thinking…
Games designers are constantly searching for a way to make their graphics look as realistic as possible. Clever shading, volumetric lighting, bump-mapping, ragdoll physics, internal skeletons, and advanced AI are just some of the tricks available. I really want to think about the graphics today, though, and ask the question, “are designers trying too hard to attain realism?”
It’s the little details that make something look realistic, but getting a natural look is very difficult. Designers can end up adding textures to clothing, or even walls, that you wouldn’t really notice if you saw a similar object in the real world. But, because you can see it in the game, it looks forced. When I look at my living room wall I don’t see the texture of the wallpaper because it’s pretty subtle, but there’s a good chance that someone building an in-game model of my house would want to make the texture obvious so that viewers would know it was there and, supposedly, that it was highly realistic. Movement can be another tricky area, where a designer tries to mimic every little nuance of someone’s movements but actually ends up making them look like a puppet on a string.
Perhaps this is a problem with the whole format though. Obviously textures, patterns and nuances are there in real-life, but maybe it’s just that we don’t look at them. Or rather, we do look at them, but we pay them no attention. I mean, when was the last time you checked the grain on the bannister of your stairs? When we load up a game, however, we do become much more likely to check out the realism of otherwise insignificant things. Maybe designers have to put effort into making the details obvious because we expect to see them when, really, we ignore most of the detail around us and focus on the one thing we’re actually doing.
So what do you think? Is there too much detail in video games to make them realistic? Is there not enough? Or should we just forget about the whole realism thing and realise what we’re never going to get a perfect representation of the world in a game?
Let us know your thoughts in the comments!