The Graphics Race: Is Photorealism the Future?

Is photorealism achievable in video games? If so, is it desirable or harmful?

In video games, graphics is important for immersion and to sell the concept of a believable game world. In marketing campaigns, the technical prowess of games is often the main focus, such as in the cases of Crysis and Far Cry, which goes to show that many seek gaming experiences that look as realistic as possible.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Horizon Zero Dawn, Uncharted 4 and Battlefield 1 are all games that are pushing technology to new heights today, but while these showcase stunning results, many would argue that games today do not look photorealistic just yet.

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However, graphics in video games have come a long way in 45 years and technology is developing fast. Today, highly paid actors are used for motion capture to ensure realistic animations and in games such as The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, a technique called photogrammetry is used, where real-life objects are photographed from all possible angles to then be transformed into 3D models in-game, allowing for impressive results.

With these new ways of portraying realism in games, how far can it go?

Is photorealism attainable?

If the definition of photorealism in games is when it no longer is possible to distinguish a game from reality, it can be argued that there still are big hurdles to overcome. For games to look real, there need to be systems in place for snow piling up over time or wind affecting every object in a scene at any given point. Further, there needs to be more advanced destruction on detail level. Red Faction: Guerrilla had impressive results in terms of detail in destruction ten years ago, but not a lot has happened in that area since then. Is there a limit to how real video games will look?

Michal Wawruch, 3D Environment Artist and content creator for the Unity Asset Store, believes there are bottlenecks:

“Personally, I categorize two types of limits – hardware and knowledge. The first one is pretty hard to avoid. I think we will soon reach the time of the five-nanometre manufacturing process; that is when we will really get the answer of how much raw power we have to play with. The knowledge limit is a little bit trickier.

The methods we know is about rendering each frame and optimizing everything as much as possible. For example, the Deferred Rendering method, or more recently the Scriptable Render Pipeline, gives more power into hands of technical artists. There is also a really interesting way of optimizing models called Impostering, which could replace LOD’s (Level of Detail) in the near future.”

Is photorealism desirable?

It is proven that neither the human eye nor the brain can process all information at once. Therefore, it may not be needed to achieve absolute photorealism for us to believe it is real.

Espen Aarseth, Professor of Game Studies and Head of Center for Computer Games Research, believes that video games today are convincing enough – sometimes in problematic ways: “Games already look real, sometimes more real than reality, and enough to fool the media, as when footage supposedly from Syria (in reality taken from the tactical first-person shooter game Arma 3) was used on Russian TV.”

In this instance, the game footage was used as part of propaganda and it is easy to see how this will occur more frequently in the future when games look even more realistic. While this is a potential problem, what about violence in video games? Since games like Grand Theft Auto III created a storm in 2002 for its violent content, how tough will the debate around video game violence be when they are hard to distinguish from reality? Can games look too real for their own good?

Photo from Flickr

According to Espen, players today have a desire to kill virtual characters in games who look photorealistic and new technology will continue to try to accommodate that. On what effects this could have on players, he says: “There is no believable research-based evidence that players of sound mind and suitable maturity are negatively affected by game violence. Hopefully they will have as much fun as people playing games have always had. I do not think we will see a very different debate – or moral panic – than the one we have today.”

Michal agrees: “I think that players quickly developed a skill of isolating any game from real world, even in story-driven games.”

As games become more realistic in appearance, the industry will have an even greater responsibility to reflect on the purposes of it, as well as the positive and negative effects it may have. It is hard knowing how distant or near this future is and what needs to be done to achieve photorealism.

Michal concludes: “I do not know when we will reach photorealism. Normal mapping, per pixel lighting and physical based rendering revolutionized real-time computer graphics, but I personally think that we need something more. Is Nvidia’s use of Ray Tracing in real-time going to bring us to photorealism? I do not know, but I am sure we will be much closer to it.”

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