Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Graphics in Games 10 : Realistic vs. Non Realistic Portrayal in games

In the newest generation of graphics, we now have the technology to portray extremely realistic characters. But both today and in the past, games did not always strive to portray realistic looking characters, sometimes preferring a more stylized look. There are a huge number of different stylized looks however and can vastly vary in terms of look and feel compared to realistic portrayals. Sometimes they can even try and combine the two together to try and give a unique look to the game. Today I would like to try and compare the two different styles and the benefits and cons of both.


Quick Definition

First off let’s just define how we might talk about realistic portrayal. There are a large number of games that have realistic lighting, effects, graphics and models, though perhaps the models have proportions that aren’t entirely correct. I will be ignoring the fact that their model’s proportions aren’t quite correct because the game in question shows all signs of otherwise trying to show a realistic environment and world. This doesn`t mean it has to be a real world setting of course, it just means it looks realistic .

Also to be fair, most games that have characters with very whack proportions in every single character(I am talking super giant heads) will most likely NOT be realistic and be aiming for stylized. If there are effects such as a cell shader that makes the entire world look more cartoonish even with properly proportioned models, then I would put it in Non-realistic portrayal. I think it will be obvious to tell when a game goes for realism and another goes for a more stylized look.


Mass Effect has consistently shown great realistic visuals

There have always been games that strive to make it the next revolutionary step in graphics and try to showcase their games in tech demos. Today there are a lot more games that strive for this goal and many more succeed now to the increased technology we now possess. Games such as Crysis, Gears of War, Mass Effect, Call of Duty, Battle Field, Final Fantasy, Bayonetta, Tekken and so on, way too many to count, possess the strive to go for such realistic looking settings. Their use of lighting, particle effects, facial animation, and other effects give them a very jaw dropping look if done correctly. Like I said there are a ton of games out there that already try and use a realistic look now. There are just as many games that try to go for a more realistic look that try to portray a more unique style, perhaps more, I am not entirely sure there are way too many games being released.

Battlefield 3 provides some very realistic visuals

So what’s an advantage of going for realistic? Well there is personal preference out there, and there are many people out there who enjoy a more realistic looking setting. Some love developers going for the next generation of graphics and being awed by how real a game can look. Depending on the game in question, getting realistic graphics is pretty much necessary. Games such as BattleField, being a war simulator essentially and having a reputation to keep, needs to try and look as realistic as possible to cater to it’s fans.  Choosing a realistic setting in this case helps enhance the war simulation feel and enhance the overall experience of the game. I doubt the majority of fans would want to play the game looking all cell shaded with large headed characters (though there would of course be some that would).

Crysis has been a benchmark for PCs since 2007

With use of bump mapping, lightmapping, shadow mapping and other effects to show texture and lighting, realistic graphics become a great possibility and much easier to do in the past. There are some very cool effects to enhance the effect of scenes and make them look more realistic or enhanced and many easy to do. Techniques such as improving facial animation are also much greater than in the past, games such as L.A. Noire showing very great facial animation. However I can’t say this point here can only be a positive for realistic, it would be a positive point for unrealistic because they also rely on create effects to enhance the feel of their game. Basically, advancing technology helps both sides of the coin and can easily show massive improvements on both sides.

How L.A. Noire uses facial animation

Before we get into disadvantages, let’s look more into Non-Realistic so that we can compare the two more easily.

Bomberman`s rather cartoonish look

There are plenty of non-realistic games out there with plenty of stunning effects that look “realistic” but overall the feel of the game aims towards a non realistic look. Just take a look at Mario Galaxy, there are plenty of cool particle effects, but the overall lighting, style of the characters and more simplified texture looks and color palette make it go towards non-realistic. Speaking of Mario, a lot of Nintendo games go for this kind of look due to the cartoonish, happy go lucky nature of their characters and to appeal to a wider audience. Going for a realistic Mario might be a turn off for some younger children.

Continuing on this point, non-realistic lends itself to a much wider range of different styles. This allows you to appeal to different audiences in different ways. Again, going back to Mario, he needs a non-realistic look, he needs to provide a bright, happy, inviting environment with quirky looking characters that would never look right in a realistic fashion or simply couldn’t exist. Sure, seeing a realistic looking Bowser might be cool but it might scare some children. This is why non-realistic works, it provides the opportunity for looks that will truly appeal to certain audiences. Like any good cartoon, they stick with that certain style that gives their characters their unique feel. Trying to change it to a more realistic look can look weird and make fans sad.

Bomberman tried to take the more realistic approach and failed

Again like I said in the realistic section, improving effects, improving hardware have allowed greater effects in all games. No matter what style of game, improving technology will always enhance the feel of the game. Improving technology means easier and newer ways of calculating techniques such as cell shading, which makes the game look more cartoony, and with newer ways could mean more efficient ways. This means more opportunity to add other effects or just enhance the overall frame rate. Once again this can also apply on the realistic side too.

Dragon Ball Z games have always gone for a cell shaded look in order to look like the show


So we saw some examples of what these both provide in terms of aesthetics but let’s talk about comparing them in a more technical manner. In this comparison, it’s to see which is overall easier to implement in a game since we already know the benefits of using either one. I will be awarding “points” to whoever I think has the advantage in each category. Let’s start with animation.


Uncharted has consistently had some great animations

We all know that realistic games would try and go for realistic looking animations, or at least try their best to. Really good examples of this might be Uncharted 1,2 and 3. Drake’s animations have a lot of very realistic qualities to them thanks to the techniques the developers used. But now the thing is a lot of effort MUST be made to make his animations look good. Being a high budget game by a well known studio, when they are aiming for realistic look they have to put a lot of effort into capturing and animating the character to look really good. Otherwise it would take players out the experience, because even with a realistic looking setting, if the characters don’t match then there will be a loss of immersion. I can say this, in a Call of Duty game, I always frown at how the characters run in a multiplayer match because despite the game going for realistic, they run so strange and it takes me out of the experience. This especially applies for facial animation in cutscene heavy games. A really bad facial animation system can lead to some very bad cases of loss of immersion.

Due to the lego style, a skeleton structure to match an entire human isn`t required to bring these characters to life

Meanwhile on the unrealistic end, even with a low budget studio aiming for a certain style, they have more lee way with their animations. This is because if they are aiming for a funny walk for a cartoonish character, it doesn’t need to have all the detail a normal human would require to walk normally. They can spend overall less resources to achieve the certain look because they didn’t define their animation to look like a human or a creature with certain weight. Granted they can still aim for it and they shouldn’t aim for bad animations either, but overall they can spend less resources to satisfy their needs compared to realistic games.

I think I have to give it to unrealistic games because there are many cases where less resources would be needed to make the animations work with a particular character and not lose immersion inside of the game.

Realistic 0 || Unrealistic 1.

Models and Textures
Batman Arkham City needed to make sure the detail on Batman and his various rivals had sufficient detail to represent the iconic characters

It’s a similar case for models and textures as it is for animation. Realistic, once again has to put much more effort into making sure the characters look realistic. Model proportions must strive to be correct (Though it’s still acceptable in some cases) but usually games striving for pure realism in their human characters will strive to try and get these. Texture quality is now getting higher standards by this generation and so realistic games must strive to try and match it lest they cause some disappointment. This means a lot of effort must be made to ensure some great looking textures onto the character and mapping it all out onto the character and creating those textures can be quite a task.

Tales of Vesperia uses a cell shaded style that doesn`t need as much detail in textures

On the other hand for unrealistic games, depending on the particular style, you could even lack textures based on the style you choose. A game with a cell shaded style like Tales of Vesperia means there is less need for textures on the game, because you can see its mostly solid color with some minor textures due to the nature of cell shading. That means less overall effort required to implement the textures for this particular game. For model proportions, less effort again in a lot of cases. Characters don’t need to follow a strict human form all the time and changing their proportions is not as big of a deal as it is for realistic. This can also lead to very simplistic characters such as Kirby who would overall need very little effort in terms of both model and animation compared to a realistic human.

Overall unrealistic models and textures would probably require less effort in many cases.

Realistic 0 ||  Unrealistic 2.

God of War III had great lighting effects

In terms of lighting, a lot of new technology has emerged that makes realistic games look truly fantastic. But once again a lot more precise calculations will usually be required for realistic games. Games like God of War 3 had some very crazy good lighting, which is required to make the games look more realistic. Bump mapping requires good lighting in order to look good and realistic characters simply won’t look realistic without good lighting. This means this is essentially a massive requirement and a lot of effort must be made to make the lighting look good for a game. If you take a look at Mass Effect 2, there were some instances where, even though the lighting was good, it caused some problems.

Once again for unrealistic, it’s not always required to have the best lighting. Based on the type of game, if going for a simpler, cell shaded look then you won’t need as much lighting effects. Granted though, that the effects can be processed after some very high level lighting calculations, which essentially means it can still take a lot of effort. However this will vary depending on the game and the techniques used by the developers.

However like I said, realistic NEEDs good lighting in all cases or it will fail or look bad. Therefore I will have to give the point once again to unrealistic.

Realistic 0 || Unrealistic 3.

Particle Effects

This is where I might want to call a tie between the two, because unrealistic can go to lengths to make some very good particle effects just as much as realistic. Both of them can strive for amazing looking particle effects that look realistic. You can say that unrealistic can just go for ones that fit with their style and go for lower level particles and this is true. Realistic would probably have to try and go for the best in order to fit with their game and make the game look, well realistic. I don’t want to give this again to unrealistic because a lot of unrealistic games use a lot of great particle effects that take as much calculation as a realistic game, but on the other hand a realistic game needs to look real and needs to look good.

But I will just give the point to no one for this case to be nice.

Realistic 0 || Unrealistic 3

Conclusion of Comparison

So we can see that overall unrealistic and more stylized games are probably easier to implement in general and this should be true. A lot more effort is required to make games look like real life but that’s not to say a lot of effort isn’t put into the stylized games as well. They can require just as much effort. But the comparison shows that since a lot more effort is needed for a realistic look, it also means that a larger budget and more time would be required. This can be bad for indie developers (which is what I might be come) and smaller companies with a lower budget. We don’t have the resources to go for a realistic engine at times which means that overall, going for an unrealistic look can overall be more beneficial.

Skyward Sword went to a stylized look rather than realistic

Take a look at Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword on the Wii. The Wii has never been a power house but Skyward Sword uses a painting like style to give it a unique feel, where as it’s predecessor, Twilight Princess went realistic. Also take a look at Windwaker with it’s cellshaded style aged better then Twilight Princess. I know I went over this point before in another post but I want to reinforce this. The unrealistic look that was 3 years older aged better than the realistic look that Twilight Princess went for. Also Skyward Sword pushed the Wii to the limit and used a style that took advantage of hardware limits. We have never seen a very realistic looking game on the Wii simply because it doesn’t have the power to do so. Going unrealistic helps us get over these disadvantages.

I hate repeating myself but Windwaker aged better than Twilight Princess did

I think it’s fair to say that overall there are currently more advantages for unrealistic looking games over realistic looking games, but I enjoy them both. I love both types of games and I hope to see both evolve and grow. But for low budget or low tech consoles then unrealistic is probably the best way to go.

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