Falling Toward The Uncanny Valley: Do Better Graphics Mean Better Games?



The Future Is Now

This year’s E3 confirmed what we were all hoping for: the most powerful console ever built, the Xbox One X, is the best machine to fulfill all your gaming dreams. This thing’s got all the bits, Hertz and flops you can imagine. Clearly, I know very little about what these specs mean. However, you don’t need to understand the numbers to see how the games run and, boy, do they look gorgeous.

Even while knowing that some of what was shown was pre-rendered or bits of gameplay painstakingly glossed for the best performance, there was an air of wonder looking at all the games presented with the “Playing on Xbox One X” sticker. Do you remember the first time you saw something like a 3D movie that did 3D well? (For me, it was Avatar.) I was hit with a feeling that combines awe of how far the technology has come and excitement of where it could possibly lead. But before I run to the store for a new 4K TV and camp out on the Xbox site for a preorder, I had to stop and think if there are any downsides to a console engaging in competition with PCs over power.

Are we being sold the graphics we want?

There was a time when frames per second and resolution weren’t at the forefront of games discussion. It was a simpler time, really. We all played the games and, unless there were some game-breaking bugs or stutters, we were happy to focus more on gameplay than performance. Most of us bought consoles because of their accessibility. They were specifically built for convenience with a focus on the plug-and-play ability. PCs have always been more powerful, as many PC players will tell you, but console gaming was never really about power.

Perhaps the focus on graphical performance has grown with the popularity of PC gaming. As the market for PC gaming continually rises, more games are being released for both consoles and PCs. If you think about it, these days there are very few actual exclusives for consoles when you consider many of them are released for PC as well. Comparisons being drawn between games’ performance on PC and console are inevitable, despite the fact that the latter didn’t originally intend to compete with the former. This is all speculation, of course, but my hope is the conversation surrounding new releases will start to be less about dropped frames and more about how fun they are.

Photorealism seems to be the ultimate endgame of the race for the best graphic fidelity, but consider the uncanny valley. As technology gets closer to replicating the human form, it’s harder for us to get emotionally attached to it because the differences become glaringly obvious. This effect is unsettling for most people who would be perfectly fine watching or interacting with a cartoon version of themselves.

Technology vs. Creativity

Recently, I stumbled upon an old interview with game designer and Nintendo legend, Shigeru Miyamoto. The lengthy discussion (which is definitely worth a read) at one point touches on the restraints of developing for the NES that led to the visual design of one of the most iconic characters of all time, Mario. Because of the limitations on the number of pixels available for the character, Mario’s nose, hat and moustache were all drawn so that his face would stick out. Interestingly, the only reason Mario wears overalls is so that his arms are more noticeable during animations.

Creative innovators always strive to test the limits of their medium. One of the biggest fears I have for gaming is that a visual standard would be set and new ideas will fall to the wayside. Does anyone else recall the heap of gray, drab, “realistic” shooters that came out toward the end of last generation? I remember thinking, “wow, this look so real and awesome.” Then it seemed like that was the only type of game that was being made anymore. Eventually, a few developers began to stand out because they were able to showcase what else they can do with the tools provided.

Indie games, as of late, have offered some of the most artistic and unique visual aesthetics across all of gaming. Sometimes, that can be the result of just an extraordinary vision that leads to the undeniable beauty that is, say, Ori and the Blind Forest. On the other hand, it often comes down to smaller budgets and the need to construct an aesthetic that will pull people into the gameplay. Firewatch immediately comes to mind as a game that has an art style that immediately stood out to me, despite the fact that it’s not at all flashy. It did, however, fit perfectly with the gameplay.

We Can Have It All

If I were to make a list of the number of games I’m excited to play on the Xbox One X, I’d probably just have to annotate it with the whole Xbox E3 conference. There’s some amazing looking games on the horizon for us fans. I was also happy to see a large number of ID@Xbox games on display as it eases some of my concerns at the moment. I’m happy that Microsoft has taken the effort to design a console with a priority on game performance. If someone is able to develop a game that perfectly encapsulates the human experience with photorealism, that would be a technological marvel that they should be applauded for. I, however, will be sticking to my sweet, uniquely-beautiful, little indies.


Aquila P. 

Aquila is a long-time lover of all things Xbox from Boston, Massachusetts. A musician and teacher, when she’s not gaming she likes to take in all things pop culture. You can read more of her writing on movies, television and music on her blog.

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Aquila P. (The Eagle)

Aquila is a long-time lover of all things Xbox from Boston, Massachusetts. A musician and teacher, when she’s not gaming she likes to take in all things pop culture. You can read more of her writing on movies, television and music on her blog. https://eagleeyes05.wordpress.com/