During an interview with GamesIndustry International, 2K Games boss Christoph Hartmann made the statement that certain types of games are unable to achieve particular emotions due to the limitations of current technology.
He surmised that if we were able to achieve photorealism in games, then we could properly convey those emotions.
"Recreating a Mission Impossible experience in gaming is easy; recreating emotions in Brokeback Mountain is going to be tough or at least very sensitive in this country…it will be very hard to create very deep emotions like sadness or love, things that drive the movies. Until games are photorealistic, it'll be very hard to open up to new genres. We can really only focus on action and shooter titles; those are suitable for consoles now. To dramatically change the industry to where we can insert a whole range of emotions, I feel it will only happen when we reach the point that games are photorealistic; then we will have reached an endpoint and that might be the final console."
Naturally, this was met with a fury of gamers coming out in droves to declare that, "GAMES DON'T NEED GRAPHICS!!!!" and other arguments that fail to really understand what, I think, Hartmann was getting at.
In this industry, we love to compare video games to movies. For many reasons, I believe it's a poor comparison, but for the sake of the argument we'll start there.
In film, the actor can display a wide range of emotions without ever having to spell out exactly what they are feeling. You could place an actor in a white room with no sound and no dialog whatsoever, and he could convey many emotions and probably even tell an entire story. In movies like Brokeback Mountain and many other films, there are parts that feature no dialog and rely solely on the actors to move the audience. This is, however, something games struggle with.
Let's compare a scene from a movie with no dialog and real characters with a similar clip from a game.
The first is a scene from the movie Before Sunrise. It perfectly captures that moment when you first fall for someone and does so without the use of any dialog. You could even mute the audio so you don't hear the music and you'd fully understand what the characters are feeling for each other.
Then there's this from the game Heavy Rain:
Boy, you guys sure are right! Better, more detailed, more realistic character models would never help that completely not-at-all-awkward scene — stupid quick-time events notwithstanding. Yeah, I understood what was happening and what they were trying to convey, but that doesn't mean that it made me feel anything.
Games are the amalgamation of all other art forms. They have the ability to tell stories through a beautiful mixture of drawings, level design, music, storytelling, character development, and player interaction with the world. This is something that no other medium can accomplish. However, gaming has not reached a level of graphical fidelity that it can properly convey emotions without the aid of another art form such as writing or music.
Let's look at some recent games that go for human-like character designs. Games such as Heavy Rain, Mass Effect, Grand Theft Auto IV, and Red Dead Redemption, just to name a few. All these games try their hand at varying levels of emotions and exceed to some extent, but if we remove the actual dialog and music of those games and put the onus of conveying a feeling solely on the character model, can they do it? I don't think so.
Heavy Rain's awkward love scenes look like two clay models being rubbed together by a little kid. Mass Effect's weird repetitive motions, blank stares, and Shepard's creepy smile during dialog look and feel fake. Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption both share similar design elements, and I couldn't imagine a scene from either game playing out without the help of dialog.
Do all these games have great writing, though? Well, some of them do, and that's the key. That is the only thing that makes these characters feel like they are truly conveying emotions to us.
Is that a bad thing? Certainly not. But I believe Hartmann has been taken horribly out of context when speaking of "photorealism in gaming." It makes little sense that he would ever make that point with games like Thomas Was Alone, Shadow of the Colossus, or The Maw in mind. Clearly, he would be talking about games that prominently feature humans doing human things in human-like environments.
What boggles my mind is that so many people have become so vehemently argumentative about anyone ever suggesting that graphics could (or should) be better that they have completely failed to understand, what I think, are the intentions of his quote.
You can't have photorealism of something that isn't real. A game like The Maw is able to convey emotions without the use of dialog or photorealism. Then again, there's no such thing as photorealism in The Maw because nothing in The Maw is real.
When a game can make me feel what I felt while watching that scene from Before Sunrise without the aid of dialog, then I'll change my tune. But until then, I welcome all advancements in graphics, because creating emotions is more than just dialog and music, and right now, that's all games have.