I wonder if Christoph Hartmann has ever read a book or listened to music. He must have done, surely; a man does not become the global president of a frontrunning publisher in this industry without using one's eyes and ears and imagination. Having recently suggested that developers are currently creatively hampered by the lack of widely available photorealistic graphics engines, Hartmann may look back on some of his recent words and perhaps wince a bit. In a sentence or two he managed to write off pretty much every animation studio there has ever been, insult the intelligence of developers across the world and gamers alike, and completely ignore a thriving indie scene that continually delivers affecting, emotional experiences time and time again.
Let's go back to the original quote.
"What's the difference between the movies and gaming?" Hartmann said in a recent interview. "Movies you just watch. You get emotional involvement in both, but in gaming you interact. That limits you already in what you can do, as certain emotions can't be recreated. 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's limiting. 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."
There are so many things wrong with this statement that it's difficult to know where to begin. I didn't see any photorealistic graphics around while I was bawling my eyes out at Aerith's death. I'm pretty sure that Palom and Porom's sacrifice in Final Fantasy IV came in the from of top-down, pixellated sprites. And what of the somewhat muddied visuals of ICO and Shadow of the Colossus. I must have imagined the emotional immersion I felt there. What of the laughter and the pity that Portal brings? What of this industry golden age of 90s screwball adventure comedy? Hartmann's view is that it's difficult to build a game completely around comedy, but then again films don't do that either. That would be stand-up.
Far from limiting developers in terms of genre, the lack of photorealistic graphics forces developers to innovate in other ways to help impart or, better yet, invoke emotion. Hartmann mentions shooters and action titles because they are the only games that currently have the budgets to be pushing graphical power boundaries. Ironically, they are the least emotionally involving games around, and are arguably the genres least likely to surprise. In this sense, at least, the drive for greater visual realism has led to the exact opposite of Hartmann's suggestion: stagnation.
Not that I'm blind to the advantages of shininess; magpies aren't the only creatures that can appreciate things that sparkle. The little things matter when it comes to world-building, and stunning vistas, fine details that are a cause for pause, and visual signifiers of mood can prove hugely effective in rooting us in an environment. Beauty is inviting, its destruction provokes curiosity, and stunningly rendered games really can embed you in an environment.
But only if everything else is up to scratch too.
And there's a point to be made regarding the difference between portraying emotion and provoking it. Yes, increased visual realism would make it easier for characters on the screen to express emotion (just look at Jodie Holmes' eyes in the Beyond: Two Souls trailer), but there are far more important things to experiment with first. Even in this generation's critically divisive, flagship slice of interactive cinema, Heavy Rain's best sequences come from a synthesis of form and function, such as the disappearance of Jason in the shopping mall. It relies heavily on cinematic technique, but it's the shaky, worried camera, the rising desperation in Ethan's voice, the bobbing red balloon that instils hope and delivers disappointment when it deceives, and the oppressive music that instil a mood of increasingly frantic tension.
Far from limiting developers, the fact that games aren't movies should be incredibly liberating. Interaction raises the stakes and creates personal investment in an artistic product. I don't love the Mass Effect series because it looked increasingly pretty, but because of the attention to the detail and the delivery of a universe that I could change. That interactivity made it my story, my universe, and my choices affected it. That the characters were so well written, and that BioWare gave you ample time and opportunity to invest in them, made the game more impactful. To this day, I'm still not sure why you'd want to play Mass Effect 3 without taking the journey through the other two games.
The journey is so often what leads to an emotional connection in this industry. We're not just watching someone else's journey as we do in the cinema, we're actively a part of it. And Hartmann's view is all wrong. Far from shying away from this and labelling that lack of control on a director's part as an issue, it should open the path towards greater experimentation. Look at Journey itself: a game that fundamentally recognises what drives the emotional feedback of an interactive experience. Masterfully paced and crafted, yet utterly open and completely personal, if you invested in it, Journey provided a delightfully abstract, yet gloriously evocative emotional piece; all wrapped up in a film-length running time that suited it absolutely perfectly.
Of course, we haven't arrived at a "final" point, but it won't come with photorealism as Hartmann suggests. He mentions sadness, comedy, and love, and I would argue that the first two are covered well by this industry - particularly sadness. Loss is something that our industry can do far better than any other not only thanks to the greater investment in terms of time and focus required, but because of the ability to marry choices with dire consequences. The ability to make people laugh, or explore the nature of complex emotions such as love, doesn't come from a desire or need to make things look as realistic as possible, but rather from strong writing (not necessarily in terms of conventional plotting) combined with compelling mechanics, and a willingness to take risks.
Making things look better is frankly the (rather expensive) cop-out option.