A great story, great gameplay, and great visuals are the three essential ingredients in creating a successful video game. Most developers use equal distribution, but as technology advances, more attention is placed on having amazing graphics. Sure, the appearance of a game can influence the consumer, but how far should developers reach for photorealism?

What is Photorealism?

Photorealism is a style of painting and drawing that is indistinguishable from a photo. In turn, it becomes indistinguishable from reality. And lately, it has become a goal for video game developers.

There has been a push towards making a video game look as close to reality as possible. From motion capture to photogrammetry (or processing still images), games are looking more and more realistic. Are we looking at our screens or out our windows?

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The strive for it, however, has divided the gaming community significantly. Some people want the game to look real; others want to feel like they’re still playing a video game. So it begs the question: is photorealism doing more harm than good, or vice versa?

Call of Duty - Kevin Spacey

Developing Photorealism

The AAA gaming industry (companies with big budgets and even bigger risks) seems to have sacrificed story for the sake of appearance — more money is spent on how the game looks, from characters to environment.

Take the game BEYOND TWO SOULS, for example, released in October 2013. Players were excited about this game’s release, especially since Quantic Dream was developing it, the same company behind HEAVY RAIN. It also featured Hollywood stars Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe, with Hans Zimmer composing the music. There was major hype around the game and, yes, it looked fantastic. No matter how pretty it looked, however, the trailer for the game looked more like the trailer for a film. BEYOND TWO SOULS even screened at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.

Beyond Two Souls

Upon release, that cinematic vibe turned players into just witnesses. It didn’t feel like they were playing a video game, that they were impacting the story in any way. It was praised for its graphics and motion capture but was heavily criticized for being a game that wasn’t a game. BEYOND TWO SOULS received backlash for its muddied plot, narrative dead ends, and lackluster player experience. There was such a focus on making the game look realistic that it fell completely short in other important ways.

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David Cage, Quantic Dream’s founder, has defended the realistic appearance of games. In a presentation he gave at the 2013 Playstation Meeting, he explained that realism means emotion. The increase in polygons (graphics that compose 3D images) allows developers to capture facial expressions more accurately, to let the player see a character’s soul. Cage believes that the more photorealistic a game is, the more that game can reflect humanity. It can create a stronger connection between player and character.

Brains and Beauty

Now, it’s important to create an emotional connection between player and character. While polygons may increase the realism of facial expressions, however, it doesn’t automatically connect the player to the game. There are aspects to a character that go beyond their physical appearance.

One thing that makes a good game is a good narrative. A story that fleshes out a character’s personalities and experiences will incentivize the player to continue.

Let’s look back at the Quantic Dream game, HEAVY RAIN. Like I said earlier, people were excited for BEYOND TWO SOULS because of HEAVY RAIN. Released in February 2010, HEAVY RAIN was well-received. It was the tenth best-selling game that month and won several awards, including Game of the Year.

While the game was photorealistic, most players were drawn to the story. It’s a film noir thriller, following four characters who are connected to the Origami Killer, a serial killer who uses the rain to drown his victims: young boys. The game heavily focuses on the story, using gameplay mechanics that directly influence it. For example, missing a certain action doesn’t bring up the dreaded “Game Over” screen. Instead, a character meant to help the player, later on, could be dead by that point. The story doesn’t cut and restart; it just continues forward.

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HEAVY RAIN wasn’t a game built around the facial expressions of its characters; photorealism was just an extra element. Money had been spent on realistic game physics, writing the story, and creating immersive gameplay mechanics. It was a prime example that you could have a big budget and spread the costs evenly.

No Budget, No Problem

But what about the developers who don’t have a big budget for those extra polygons? Photorealism runs the risk of edging out smaller companies, which would greatly affect the variety of gaming for players. Indie developers are then forced to use other means of bringing attention to their games. They have to rely on being exceptional with very little. There’s a push for their games to be original in content rather than focus on realism. Sometimes, this is beneficial for the player.

Many successful games released in the last few years were far from realistic. Games like GUACAMELEE and NIGHT IN THE WOODS rely more on content rather than realism. There’s a stronger focus on the story and the gameplay to make up for the lack of polygons. Regarding their appearances, the colors and design of these two games are both fantastically beautiful.


Some developers also choose to throwback to classic visual styles, making their games look super unrealistic. For example, STARDEW VALLEY, released in February 2016, is pixelated and top-down. It’s a farming simulation game in which players must manage crops, livestock, and even their character’s social interactions with others. Eric Barone, the game’s developer, also designed it to be open-ended so players can complete tasks at their own leisure.

STARDEW’s appearance is reminiscent of older games like POKEMON RED AND GREEN and THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: A LINK TO THE PAST. Games in the past weren’t realistic because software limitations made them look boxy. Nonetheless, their appearance didn’t take away from the player’s experience.

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Realism isn’t confined to the spaces of a character’s physical appearance. Meaningful interactions with others and a deeper focus on personality are just as realistic as a freckle or hair strand.

How Far is Too Far?

For developers like Cage, however, that freckle or hair strand holds a lot of weight in a game. They believe that the more realistic a game looks, the more emotion the player will see and feel. But what happens when a video game is violent?

Games already receive a lot of backlash for being “too violent,” even when the violence is far from realistic. Titles like HOTLINE MIAMI and GRAND THEFT AUTO III are just examples. The game doesn’t even have to be incredibly bloody for it to be considered “violent.” It can have a lot of explosions, fighting, or gunfire. The gaming industry is always under immense scrutiny for producing content that could negatively influence a player’s behavior. The interactive nature of video games has even led some to believe that a player will mimic what they see.

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Games are already criticized for simulating action, so what happens when they simulate appearance? Or more accurately, the appearance of a real human being? Photorealism lets players see the “soul” of a character, but what happens when the character dies by the player’s hand? Will they see the soul disappear? The light fade from the eyes? If photorealism captures real emotion, will the player also see the character’s desperation to live?

Photorealism may capture humanity, but developers must consider how far they will go to capture its darker side.

So What Now?

Photorealism in games is a growing trend as more and more titles are released. There are good intentions behind photorealism, but developers need to be wary of how much they push for it. There’s a huge risk in weeding out smaller companies, which in turn limits the variety of gaming.

Sometimes indie developers can’t afford photorealism and have to work harder for their game to be taken seriously. There’s more weight on their shoulders to be original. While this may seem like a benefit, they’re still expected to work more with less and compete with bigger companies.

Any developer that considers photorealism also has to consider the consequence of it. If they are attempting to capture human emotion, they have to capture the dark side. Looking into the soul of character shouldn’t hold just sadness or happiness. It has to hold fear, desperation, and even hate. There are many sides to humanity, good and bad, and if developers use photorealism to mimic it, they have to be willing to jump down the rabbit hole.

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