There was something deftly unimpressive about Guerrilla Games' showing of Killzone: Shadow Fall last week. It may only have been a small demo, and certainly a work-in-progress, but I wonder if it had the audience at Sony’s conference cringing as much as I did. Maybe my expectations were too lofty - examining each frame of every explosion, measuring draw distance, mapping the amount of moving objects, charting the way light glints off the weapons. Perhaps that would make anyone pessimistic. Yet, through such a lens, how could anyone expect to be satisfied? Looking for a next-generation leap is, at this point, a bit delusional. Graphical advancements met a steep series of diminishing returns long ago, but to its credit, Guerrilla is clearly managing to display some new technical possibilities on PlayStation 4 . . . just with more subtlety than some may have hoped.
But what’s got me jaded about Shadow Fall and (in general) the upcoming generation isn’t that the visual jump is too small, but that maybe it’s already too large: a pursuit of photorealism that’s becoming all too reckless. Developers might be jumping these distances before judging them, giving us production values that don’t have any reason to be as high as they are. When this happens, games come up short of their intended visual impact and prove unable to land on solid footing. Instead, they fall short, into a ravine, down the cliffside and into what’s commonly dubbed the ‘uncanny valley.' This pit widens with each generation and represents the ever-increasing disconnect between what looks real and what we all know is very unreal.
This is hardly a new criticism; the problem was even more apparent in 2005 when PlayStation 3 tech was first demoed at E3. Indeed, last week’s reveal comes off as decidedly modest when looking back at that fiasco, where Guerrilla was literally showcasing a CGI interpretation of a first-person-shooter that had yet to be. Killzone 2’s footage was so outlandish, so beyond modern capabilities, that it simply couldn't be believed. A game couldn’t be that seamless, couldn’t be that human; it just couldn’t. To this day, it remains a perfect example of the kind of realism we want to believe is possible, but that we know is not. As lovely as new textures and particle effects get, as surreal as screenshots become, when actually sitting down with games that tout realism, I will find that they are just that - games. They will feel like games, they will control like games, and the better they look, the more they will have to try and fool me that they aren’t, in fact, games.
Consider the original Assassin’s Creed: one of the most well-marketed projects of the past decade, talked up and shrewdly exhibited by the very talented Ubisoft. It advertised cities that breathed, reacting to the player's every move. Dynamic A.I. would immerse you in the role of Altair, an assassin in the era of England's crusades. The game’s producer, Jade Raymond, would demonstrate for us how Altair could approach a target from several different angles, and every time she played a small portion, it seemed too wonderful to be true. In the months leading up to release, Assassin’s Creed was defining the term ‘next-generation’ more than any other game of the time; I told myself I could die happy after getting my hands on it. But upon its release, what did I find? Medieval cities, yes, but astoundingly medieval game design, as well.
Instead of ‘real’ sword combat, I was merely treated to a primitive counter system with pre-rendered takedowns. Instead of human intelligence, the city guards had a behavioral trigger firing every time you broke into a slight jog. And instead of enabling actual espionage, angles of approach would be completely arbitrary, with the entire game acting as a very fragile illusion. It felt silly precisely because it appeared to be so real. Only when perched above it all, looking down at the marvelous architecture and the bustling movement of people below, could you imagine yourself as part of an actual, living environment. Visually, Assassin’s Creed had what it takes to make that environment believable. But when interacting with the streets below, the game tumbled down from lofty, theoretical heights to a carnival of nonsense where you could leap nimbly above a marketplace, decked in cloak-and-dagger, only to have the populace below bewilderingly repeat, “He must be drunk!”
And we are a bit drunk, a bit intoxicated by the power of our own technology. We demand developers take immense visual steps, however awkward they may appear. Fans clamor for old games--games that benefited from simple graphics and cartoonish charm--to be remade with the capabilities of modern hardware. These games were impressive precisely for how they dealt with their respective eras' limitations. To throw legends like Ocarina of Time and Final Fantasy VI into the jaws of Unreal Engine, and to expect a better product to come out the other end, is problematic. We need to think harder when it comes to graphics and the role they play in our interactive medium. Graphics aren’t just coats of paint; they can’t just be considered an upgrade you get when a new system is released. They form a medium in and of themselves, and must be respected to be used properly.
Jump back two generations - to the ending reign of PlayStation 2, when developers really had a grip on the platform. Even then, necessary shortcuts were made to avoid the consequences of being too ambitious. For instance, Shadow of the Colossus--a game so historic it’s become somewhat obnoxious to talk about--was originally planned as a multiplayer game. Players would ride together and take on the roaming colossi as a unit, but the concept proved too unwieldy. Perhaps there was a lack of resources, or certain obstacles were just too complex for the programmers to cleanly overcome. For playability's sake, the idea was ultimately dropped in favor of a single rider.
Fumito Ueda, the producer behind Shadow of the Colossus, explains this entire process effectively, if succinctly, when he says that “a game has to fit into what the technology allows.” He makes a comparison to music, saying that “in hip-hop it's a three-minute track, maybe, with a lot of restrictions, but you're still trying to convey a very powerful message to deliver to your audience.” What can you do, as a lyricist, if given a slice of a certain track with a certain beat? Under these limitations, how can you manage to still express yourself? The same concept is what defines great game design, where a team of creators makes something magical happen within a platform's limitations, which inspire creativity.
What bothers me about Killzone: Shadow Fall, then, is that it seems like a game that works outside the given limitations. Whether these limitations be of PlayStation 4 or the actual development team, Shadow Fall's early footage seems to imply an experience it may not deliver. I don't trace this problem to any lack of talent on Guerrilla’s end. I trace it to gamers, who demand a certain visual quality that can’t be met comfortably by game designers. Here, we have a huge metropolis of science fiction that's a backdrop for... what? The same enemy A.I. we’ve had since 2004? What purpose do these graphics serve? Why are you doing all of this--making everything utterly gorgeous--if you’re just going to do that? It’s off-beat, it’s out of rhythm, it’s uncanny. The higher our visual expectations get, the weirder these games are going to feel.
Ubisoft's Watch Dogs demands the same questions. As insanely awesome as it looked last week, is it going to play like that all the time? Or is it just another clever demo of a very planned, isolated sequence that Ubisoft has proven so good at selling us? Will the game’s world fall into place believably, or is it in over its head? I don't mean to say the games we saw last week will fail, or turn out badly. I'm just asking: Will this be the game I actually end up playing? Watch Dogs may, in fact, come to be enjoyable for completely different reasons. Ubisoft was able to salvage something out of the original Assassin’s Creed when it stopped trying to pretend its game could be a pragmatic, historical simulator, and instead focused on giving us a goofy, semi-hilarious sort of "Grand Theft Assassin" playground. Ubisoft got honest about limitations, and better games were created as a result.
Perhaps it’s not pessimism I hold, but skepticism. I look at footage for a game like Watch Dogs and it’s still got me excited for the PS4, truly. Reading in-between the lines during these kinds of hype festivals keeps me optimistic - not for the game in question, but for the hints of greatness it offers on the coming generation. For me, one such hint was Aiden Pearce's jacket. Really, look at his waist coat. Did you see it move, how it swallowed every gust of inner city wind and whipped back in response? That kind of step up in animation is a beautiful thing to dream about. I see so many jackets in PS4’s future, and I just can’t wait to see them flap in the breeze.
Gives me shivers just thinking about it.