The Difference Between Advanced And Realistic Graphics

GTA_4_iCEnhancer_Mod

As we prepare to enter next generation console gaming, seeing more and more of the technology developers are bringing out for new hardware, I think it’s time some people started to highlight the difference between advanced graphics, and graphics that actually try to replicate reality.

It seems like most big budget games these days are trying to look increasingly “realistic,” and most people do take them as such, but with most games that’s not really the case. There’s almost always some artistic license or stylization going on with the lighting technology to make the game look not real, but like what the developer intended. A minority of games, usually simulation games, actually intend to look photoreal, and when they get close to accomplishing this goal gamers are usually left wondering if it’s magic.

The most famous example is probably the Gran Turismo series. Small GIFs of Gran Turismo 5 look like races on TV, certain screenshots look almost indistinguishable from photos, and replays are usually held up as some of the best visuals on the PS3. This is usually due to not only the advanced graphics engine, but also the great pains Polyphony takes to replicate how each track is lit in real life. The same goes for other sims like Project Cars. This is why even older racing sims like Gran Turismo 2 look so realistic for their time.

Another sim that keeps catching my eye for this reason is ArmA III, particularly its use of depth of field. I’ve had to do double takes to realize I’m looking at screens of this game and not photos, and not even the recent Unreal Engine 4 or Frostbite 3 engine demos make me do this. This is what I think ultimately separates a realistic-looking game from one that just uses a bunch of advanced effects or tries to look cinematic instead of realistic. How many recent games have actually tried to fool you into thinking you were looking at real life?

Out of all the new engine demos we’re seeing right now, the only one that actually seems to be trying to create realism is Konami’s FOX engine. Hideo Kojima has showed off comparison shots between his engine and photos, but the day/night cycle demonstration is particularly impressive.

If you look into the PC mod community, a popular way to mod games seems to be to change a game’s lighting and color scheme to look more “natural,” often by removing filters the developers put there.

For instance, most people who play Fallout 3 probably don’t know that the entire game on default settings actually lays a bit of a green tint over everything. After installing a mod that removed this filter in the PC version, I was immediately shocked at how much more all the colors popped out and generally how much clearer everything was. I think you can do the same thing with Deus Ex Human Revolution, which has a sort of yellow tint over everything. People are also coming out with pretty amazing results with Skyrim.

A particularly impressive mod for the sake of realistic lighting has been Grand Theft Auto IV’s ENB iCEnahncer. If you haven’t guessed it already, the screenshot above is actually the PC version of GTAIV running with iCEnhancer. This mod has also made me do double takes.

One gameplay-related difference between stylized and realistic lighting is how darkness is treated. A blog post explains how Valve authored the default lighting in Left 4 Dead to subconsciously drive players and generally made it brighter than it would be in real life. When I installed the realistic lighting mod for Fallout 3, one side-effect was that whenever night fell, outdoors areas became practically pitch black. This caused me to either avoid venturing into the wasteland at night, use the flashlight on my Pip Boy more often, or download another mod that gave me night vision goggles.

It’s pretty obvious why most developers don’t actually make their games look realistic even with all their crazy lighting effects — it would look less exciting a lot of the time. That’s why you mostly only see it in sims. Still, people should recognize that games like KillZone, Crysis, and even Uncharted don’t look realistic at all. They may look pretty, but they look far from real, and it’s mostly due to artistic factors, not technology.

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