After seeing Quantic Dream's new tech trailer, "Kara," I found myself thinking about the evolution of visuals in video games. When video games first emerged as a form of entertainment, they were visually simple. From the late 1940s to the early 1970s, interactive electronic games took their first steps. From the Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device to more recognizable games like Chess and Pong, video games had found a foothold in our society even if they weren't exactly popular yet.
The first home console, the Magnavox Odyssey, brought with it slightly more complex visuals and even a little color with the help of plastic overlays players could place on their TV screens, but it wasn't until 1980 and Galaxian that gamers were finally treated to color in a game. This was a significant step in the movement toward realistic graphics. How would we view Nathan Drake or the jungles of Crysis if games still lacked color?
Jump now to the Nintendo Entertainment System, the home console that revolutionized the industry and jump-started a business model where platform owners license third party developers to make games for their systems. Games on the NES were capable of displaying many colors at a time and game art was now given more consideration. Games were still composed mostly of blocks of color, but the beginnings of texture and variety were beginning to make an appearance. The Super Nintendo succeeded the NES and launched game art into a new realm. Instead of swaths of bright colors, games now had realistic texture and variety. Jungles, mountains, spaceships and any number of environments could now be represented fully. Of course, gamers have always been able to populate the sometimes-sparse worlds of earlier games with their imaginations, but forward movement in graphical fidelity and detail was extremely welcome.
The PS1 and N64 marked a giant leap forward and a step backward for graphics all at once. Games could now be rendered with polygons, allowing for wild new mechanics, but models and textures were simplistic and often ugly. Certain studios were able to strike a delicate balance between style and realism, but looking back, it's obvious that the first steps into the third dimension were rough and a focus on realism was usually a poor choice. There were some great games on both platforms, but the 3D visuals haven't aged well.
After the PS1 and N64 came the real powerhouses: the PS2, Xbox and Gamecube. Realistic textures, lighting effects and characters were starting to make an appearance. Developers had more horsepower to work with, and objects became less blocky. More advanced textures and techniques were used to make surfaces represent their real-world counterparts. Faces were now more human, no longer a series of rudimentary shapes. In all likelihood, even the best looking games to grace these systems will lose their luster in a few years if they haven't already, but I will always remember this generation as the first time games began to look slightly real.
And now, after all these years, we've still got a lot of work left to do. Games like Uncharted 3, Crysis, Metro 2033, and many more are pushing the boundaries of realism. Just like every previous generation, these games will fade over time, and we'll probably look back in a decade and wonder how we ever thought they looked realistic. But for now, it's amazing how far we've come.
Tech demos like Quantic Dream's Kara are always exciting because they give us a glimpse into the future. The whole point of games is to take us out of the real world, so exact realism isn't an attractive goal, but visual fidelity and realism are separate entities. Every step developers can take to eliminate seams, blurry textures, aliasing, frame-rate drops and awkward animations will allow players to become more fully immersed in a game's world. I don't want photo-realism, I just want fantasy worlds I can fully believe. We've come this far, and I'm excited to see what the next generation brings.