What if the video games industry one-day reach a high fidelity level in graphics that makes it indistinguishable from reality?
Would that mean a plateau for the medium? a generation of consoles that lasts forever? And would there still be a need to develop new game engines?
I will try to explain why that plateau is coming and how the ideas of non-other than the Greek philosopher Plato can help us move this industry forward.
With every new generation of consoles, we see new impressive looking games that gradually bridge the gap between the real and the virtual.
That is the result of increased computing capabilities, measured with TeraFLOPS. But in terms of TeraFlops, how far are we from realistic graphics?
Tim Sweney, the Co-founder of Epic Games, the makers of the famous Unreal engine in an interview with Gamespot, said:
“You know, we’re getting to the point now where we can render photo-realistic static scenes without humans with static lighting. Today’s hardware can do that, so part of that problem is solved. Getting to the point of photo-realistic dynamic environments, especially with advanced shading models like wet scenes, or reflective scenes, or anisotropic paint, though…maybe forty Teraflops is the level where we can achieve all that.”
But why is the industry so obsessed with the teraflops, amount of ram and CPU speed when we know that they go against … the law of diminishing returns.
By that we mean: that in a production process, as one input variable is increased, there will be a point at which the marginal per unit output will start to decrease, holding all other factors constant.
Like a farmer who adds more and more fertilizers to his farm, at one point adding more will only increase the costs and not the benefits.
So as technology advances more ram, GPU and CPU power will be needed for less visible results.
Here is an example of what the latest Unreal engine with very good hardware can achieve… while technically it’s very impressive, hyper-realism does not make games more enjoyable. Who wants to relive the real world again in a video game when you can simply open the door and go outside.
There has always been a gap between graphics and reality, in the case of characters we call it the uncanny valley, and we didn’t like it but in terms of context and game environments our brains enjoyed filling this gap.
It’s like the difference between a painting and a photograph. A photo is more accurate, realistic, and contains all the tiny details, but it’s dull and boring, a good painting, on the other hand, captures the soul and essence of the subject it portrays.
With hyper-realistic games, we should be careful what we wish for.
And here is where I think Plato has a good lesson for all game developers in his theory of Forms, also known as Plato’s ideal.
So what is this theory and how can it advance video games?
To explain his idea Plato uses an interesting allegory called ” the Cave allegory”.
In it, he Imagines a cave, in which there are prisoners, tied to rocks, their limbs are fastened, and their heads are attached so that they cannot look at anything except for a wall in front of them.
To make things more interesting, Plato asks us to bear with him and imagine these detainees have been here in the cave in that position since birth and have never seen anything outside of the cave.
Plato continues the allegory by describing the scene like this: Behind the prisoners is a source of light (let’s say fire or sunlight that enters the cave), and between the prisoners and the light is a walkway.
People outside of the cave frequently walk along it bearing their daily objects on their heads like; Plants, food, and animals.
The only thing the prisoners are seeing is the shadows of the objects being cast by the light on the wall in front of them.
No one would blame them if they mistook shadows for real objects because shadows are the only layer of reality they were exposed to through their senses.
Plato then continues the allegory by imagining the situation if one of the prisoners escapes from the cave.
He would be astounded at the world he sees outside and would not believe it. Slowly he would accept a new layer of reality more real than the one he believed in, and notice that shadows are merely a byproduct of a more real Form.
Through this allegory, Plato tells us that the physical world around us is merely a reflection (like the shadows in the allegory) of a perfect ideal world of Forms.
Our world is observed through senses, but the ideal world is one of the ideas.
It depends on how literally one is willing to believe in the existence of another ideal world, but on its face value, the theory simply asks us to think of a more idealized form of the surrounding objects which can exist in our thoughts and imagination.
Let’s take chairs as an example, they come in different shapes and colors, but no matter how they look we instantly recognize them as chairs. For Plato what’s common between all these chairs is the idea of the chair, the ‘Form’ of the ideal chair they all aspire to look like, which also allows us to recognize all of them as chairs.
Plato’s theory of Forms and ideal has profoundly impacted western arts through the centuries, especially in the period between the Renaissance till the end of the Romanticism. Artists were not aiming to mimic the real world but to idealize it and bring it closer to Plato’s ideal,
Even the term ‘renaissance’ means rebirth by rediscovering the Greek philosophy which idealized the man and made him the measure of all things.
When the Greeks invented the architectural orders, they used the proportions of the human body as a guidance in buildings; they wanted to shape the world into an idealized Form of the human body.
The best example to see Plato’s impact on art is by comparing how Jesus was portrayed in pre-renaissance gothic works of art as a weak, skinny and clueless on the cross, but the idealized one was modeled after the Greek god Apollo by being more muscular, athletic and confident.
The same thing with, Raphael’s Mary in his masterpiece “Madonna of the meadow” looks similar to Venus, the Greek goddess of love and baby Jesus resembles Amor, the god of desire.
Perhaps the best embodiment of Plato’s concept of the ideal is the most famous statue in the world, Michelangelo’s magnificent Statue of David, like most visitors last year I noticed he didn’t look like anything in the biblical description as the weak, vulnerable underdog in his battle with the giant Goliath. He looked confident, strong and fearless. It seemed as if I was staring at the daring Goliath.
Now unless one understands Plato’s theory of forms and ideal, the statue of David would not make any sense.
Artists understood back then that art should not reflect reality and its miseries but should aim to redeem its sufferings through idealizing it.
Video-games as a medium is very well positioned to explore endless idealized worlds and places, instead of that we are obsessed with reflecting our world.
There is a game creator who has perfectly mastered implementing Plato’s idea in his games, it’s Ken Levine, the creator of the Bioshock series.
In Bioshock Infinite, he created an idealized version of the American utopian city, Colombia.
We see the American founding fathers portrayed as religious figures from another world, each of them holding a symbol in his hand, Jefferson holding a scroll a symbol of law, Washington holding a sword a symbol of might and Franklin holding a key as a symbol of science and knowledge.
The people of Colombia believed America took the wrong path after the civil war and they decided to leave it below and build their floating ideal city in the sky.
Look at the colors, the architecture, and the clothes of Colombia’s citizens and you can clearly see they are an idealized version of our idea of the American city.
Objects are not the only aspect that Levine is trying to idealize in the game and make it otherworldly, dialogues too, are very theatrical, filled with emotions.
It’s a technique Stanly Kubrick has excelled at implementing in movies like A clockwork orange and eyes wide shut.
One can instantly notice that the body of the main character Elizabeth does not resemble a real human body in many ways, the head to body ratio, waist size, and the big eyes.
This manipulation with the human proportion is effective in building a unique image in our brains about Elizabeth without falling into the trap of making her look comical.
For comparison look at these footages of Elizabeth used for promotional purposes, Elizabeth here was built to resemble a real model. Tell us which one do you prefer?
Changing Human proportions in art is nothing new, artists have been doing that for a long time.
The David statue we mentioned before actually has proportionally bigger hands to body size and that was intentionally done by Michelangelo to make David look mightier and from the point of view of the observer, who will be looking at the statue from below the size of the hands will look right.
Even Trees in any painting from the Romanticism epoch is much bigger than any normal tree.
The lesson here is, instead of focusing on rendering more pixels, polygons and make games more realistic video games developers can add another rich layer to their creations and start to imagine idealized worlds by learning from the visions of Plato, Michelangelo, and Ken Levine.
Games like Mass Effect, Assassin’s Creed and Fallout are not making the player visit new idealized worlds, they are simply replicas of our world with different sets of textures that suit the worlds the creators are proposing to us.
Bethesda repackages it’s engine every time to make us believe that they have created a new world. Fallout and Skyrim are supposed to be two different games in two different worlds, atmospheres, and mechanics but they are not.
Indie Studios are doing a much better job at learning this lesson, they know they cannot compete with big studios at making expensive hyper-realistic games so their only way is to compete with creative new idealized worlds, games like Journey, flower and even Monument Valley are making us visit new forms of realities.
Here is one last message to video game developers and players from Plato himself:
“A good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers”
Plato wants us to think less about frame rates, resolution and Teraflops and focus more on creating a beautiful dream through our beloved medium.