Rejecting Realism: What Video Games Can Learn from 19th-Century Art

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Critics have tossed plenty of plaudits at the downloadable action-RPG series DeathSpank. It's funny. It's hilarious. It will have you ROFL until you PYP. Rumor has it co-creator Ron Gilbert spends 10 minutes each morning shoveling praise for the game's humor off his driveway just so he can get out of the house.

Less remarked upon is the game's visuals. To enter the world of DeathSpank is to get punched hard in the gut: Its beauty leaves you breathless. Gilbert and his (former) team at Hothead Games have eschewed complex polygons for brushstrokes, utilizing a full palette of purples, oranges, and other surprising hues to imbue the jungles, deserts, and "really high mountains with snow on the peaks" with shimmering life. Even the most banal detail, like a cobblestone path, has a painterly quality to it. Objects such as trees and buildings, meanwhile, look positively Potemkin in two dimensions. The overall effect is like turning the pages of a pop-up book.

For me, that's what lingers of DeathSpank — long after the quests have been completed and the punchlines forgotten. The experience can't be replicated in any other medium. And it has me wondering whether the makers of Generic Big-Budget Shooter XYZ are after the wrong prize. Maybe a unique take on reality — and not reality itself — is the holy grail for video games.

For proof, all we have to do is look at another medium that faced a similar quandary in the 19th century: painting.


Put yourself in the shoes of an artist in the mid 1800s. If someone wants a portrait or a still-life to hang on the wall, you're the only game in town. You can command the richest people on earth to sit for hours at a stretch in order for you to accurately record their likenesses. It's a pretty sweet gig.

Enter the photograph. Suddenly people can render in minutes what takes you days with a paintbrush. You no longer have a monopoly on representing reality. What to do?

You innovate. You expand the definition of painting itself. If you're Monet, you say that painting is the depiction of light and how it affects perception. If you're Van Gogh, you say that painting is the expression of a mood. From the cubists' breakdown of form into near abstraction to Jackson Pollock's painting-as-performance and on through to the present day, painting has morphed from the primary mode of representation to one that consistently challenges it. In other words, artists today are less concerned with portraying reality on a canvas than they are with trying to interpret it.

Monet - Rouen Cathedral in full sunlight and dull light

The video game industry is at a similar crossroads. Computing advances mean that game developers can come this close to believably rendering the real thing. And so ambitious and deep-pocketed companies are engaged in an arms race to realism, in the hopes that…what, exactly? That someone will mistake a game for a movie? That they won't realize they're playing a game at all? Just why are game companies so obsessed with representing reality?

Because here's the kicker: Video games aren't movies, and they never will be. I don't care how many polygons you cram onto a Blu-Ray disc. You can throw a hundred programmers at me armed with buckets of silicon and months of crunch time…and I can pull out an iPhone 4 and record an HD video in seconds — you know, video of actual human beings, with the quivering spark of life behind their eyes and nary a misplaced texture or canned animation among them.

So why bother? Why not follow the lead of artists 150 years ago and expand the definition of what video games are? Spirit us to worlds the lens of a camera can never reach. Interpret reality for us in a way we never expected, like DeathSpank does. And above all, remind us why video games have carved their high-score initials into the hearts of millions of people in the first place.

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