E3 is nearly upon us. Somewhere in Los Angeles, event planners are marking maps of the expo floor. PR reps proofread PowerPoints. Developers brew coffee as they pull yet another late night ironing the wrinkles out of a demo. Microsoft and Sony sit in the wings like gladiators waiting for the gates to rise, and the weapons they will battle with... are graphics.
The fact that touting graphics is a foolish strategy doesn't mean they won't do it. At Sony's PS4 reveal, they trotted out David Cage to talk about creating realistic human faces. The only game-based portion of the Xbox One event consisted of Infinity Ward bragging about animating arm hair and a motion-captured dog. Despite many looming questions, console makers are still selling us systems based on how good their games look.
It's a mistake. Realistic graphics are a dead end for a whole host of reasons. The uncanny valley. Spiking production costs. Diminishing returns as we creep closer to photo-realism. But I've yet to see anyone pin down the greatest problem: that game mechanics haven't caught up with graphical improvements. In other words, we can make a game look like the real world, but we don't have the technology to let the player interact with the world realistically. This graphics-mechanics gap causes a psychological reaction that we've only started to explore - and that has defined many of the problems of this console generation. We're living in the uncanny valley now.
Put simply, the more realistic games look, the more we expect them to behave like the real world. Games have always been engrossing and compelling, but it wasn't until graphics reached a certain fidelity that we started to hear the word immersion getting tossed around. Suddenly, instead of simply amusing the player or telling a story, games became about creating a believable digital world. While gameplay continued to advance apace, graphics rapidly outstripped it. Devs found that they could make a world look more real by putting a high-pixel gloss on an already-working set of game rules, with only a few mechanical tweaks or added sections to advance interactivity. Better still, improving graphics made games easier to sell the game to the public - after all, it's difficult to advertise a new combat system on TV or in a magazine, but you can show off handsome screenshots. However, while artists added polygons by the thousands, the programmers struggled to keep up with how the world actually behaved. The results were hallways with a half-dozen doors, only one of which opened. Characters you could marry that don't behave in any way like a wife or husband. In a now-infamous 1994 review, Edge Magazine downgraded Doom because you couldn't talk to the demons. That's been an internet joke for awhile, but people who use the review as a punchline miss the review's point: that Doom leaned on its visuals and masked its shallow world with "impressive padding" like beautiful mountains you could never visit and 3D-animated enemies that were reused ad nauseum. In other words, stunning visuals reminded the writer of what he couldn't do rather than what he could. Nearly twenty years later, graphics have become near photo-realistic but we're still stuck with shoot, reload, pick up object, place object, inventory and menu screens. And the more games look like the real world, the more these mechanics seem increasingly atavistic because they're so game-like - we've created a medium where we're invited to immerse ourselves in real-looking environments, but our method of interactivity breaks that immersion.
Early in game history this was less of a problem, simply because games looked like games. During the era of Atari, the Super Nintendo, and the Playstation 2, unrealistic elements weren't questioned since players knew that the medium had limitations. We mentally dealt with extra lives, invisible walls and non-opening doors the same way a theater audience accepts that an actor miming riding a horse onstage is, in the context of the play, riding a horse. Most artistic mediums have conventions like this, where audiences allow artists to fudge or hand-wave details in order to tell a story within technical limitations. For example, sitcom audiences accept that no matter what happens in a given episode, the ending will uphold the status quo - Homer Simpson might go to space or win the lottery, but by the end he's still a lower-middle class suburban schlub. Jackie Chan can beat up hundreds of guys because he's Jackie Chan. In games, players are limited in how they can affect the game world because it's the game world.
The closer we got to photorealism, though, the more gameplay conventions started to butt up against how we perceive games. Few people argued that Metal Slug and Contra glorified war and dehumanized foreigners because in those games both the guns and the enemies were fairly abstract. You could tell a machinegun from a flamethrower, sure, but the guns themselves had no real-world analogue. Enemies didn't crumple or hold their wounds when you shot them. Their dead bodies didn't lie in the street, faces staring to the sky as you walk past them.
Suddenly, killing waves of enemies - a perfectly normal thing in the abstract language of games - became uncomfortable for a growing number of people. It also became harder to explain to outsiders why violent actions were permissible in the context of a game. When you try and explain to non-gamers that it's fun to kill your friends in Battlefield 3, they look at you like you're deranged for two main reasons: Battlefield 3 looks fairly real, and in real life killing is not fun. To non-players, ending a life is difficult, unpleasant and emotional, while to players in the context of a team deathmatch, it's nothing more than scoring a goal. Because we understand that death is not a big deal in the language of videogames, friends can kill friends with no ill-will afterward. The fact that we wouldn't find gunfights amusing in real life goes without saying - we don't worry about it the same way we never shed tears for the Nazis that Indiana Jones kills in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's just a convention of the medium. To us it's digital cops and robbers, but to an outsider it looks twisted and cruel.