The rapid advance of gaming tech has ensured that both developers and gamers have been overly focused on replicating reality. Every so often you'll hear someone proclaim that the current technology is "good enough," usually right before a new game arrives to reset the standard and provide a new basis for complaints. Doom 3 raised graphical expectations long before its release. So did Crysis, for good reason. Quantic Dream's photorealistic Heavy Rain is the current frontrunner for the "Best Upcoming Game That Makes All Other Realistic Games Look Bad" award.
How often do we see games that permanently raise the bar in terms of artistic expectations, though? That truly redefine what we hope for from the medium? Not very often, unfortunately. And I'd venture to say that this is due, in part, to a disproportionate focus on visual fidelity.
This may be changing. One need look no further than games like Okami, Team Fortress II, Prince of Persia, or even World of Warcraft to see evidence of style that outshines realism. Not to mention smaller-scale games like Flow and PixelJunk Eden.
It may well be that we've arrived at a point where gaming technology is - dare I say it? - "good enough," and developers no longer feel that their titles must be visually realistic to get gamers' attention. In addition, I think the medium's matured to the point that it attracts more visionary talent. There's a wellspring of creativity out there just dying to be tapped in games.
I'm as impressed and intrigued as anyone by the Heavy Rain content I've seen so far, but I hope the scale continues to tip in favor of creative abstraction over realism. I hope games like Psychonauts and Brutal Legend won't always be considered major creative risks because they don't look like the latest Tom Clancy game. And not just because what looks realistic today will undoubtedly seem dated in a few years. Why do we play games, if not to escape from reality? I want to explore the unfamiliar. I want old scenes rendered in striking new ways. I want more games that, like Wind Waker, are willing to show me something new and different.
Adam LaMosca is a writer, researcher, and gamer in Portland, Oregon.