Videogames have strived for visual realism since the tools for doing so became available. 3D graphics were normalized in the 1990s and consumers and developers both realized that “facsimile over fiction” would soon become desirable, as well as a major selling point for games and systems for years to come. Even today, we are sold new systems on the hopes that they will be more powerful than the last, and that that power will get us one step deeper into the uncanny valley.
But visual realism is a constraint, it restricts the imagination. It is just a declarative statement made visual—some pictures are not worth 1,000 words. Forza can present players with the most realistic car in games—painstakingly rendered down to every bolt and rivet—but it is still just a car. Its edges are defined and how it looks acts as the end of a statement. There is nothing beyond it, no abstraction, it really is just a car. The visual real has nothing to say. It sparks not the imagination but the notion that the familiar is enough.
Take, for example, EA’s recent-ish Star Wars Battlefront 2. With the power of Frostbite engine, the worlds of Star Wars are rendered in such a way that it genuinely seems real, a wartime travelogue through other worlds. But it leaves nothing to the imagination, there are no lines to fill, and all of the colors have been drawn in. Imagination, no, there is no room for it. Yet, the Star Wars Battlefront 2 of 2005 affords players the power of imagination through visual abstraction. An attempt at the visual real in 2005, due to power limitations, meant that the resemblance of anything real was not truly feasible. Everything is not filled in: the sparse, blocky, and oddly lit worlds of this Battlefront 2 leaves a lot of the visual world and its textures up to the player.
The inherent power in these “simplified” visuals is that every frame is an unfinished painting, a story not fully told. The player is met halfway and asked to finish the tale. The most fascinating part of Star Wars is the margins of its universe and the stories told therein. When those margins are filled in and painted through down to the smallest detail, then the affordance for imaginative expression is shut out in its entirety. Expressionism can be its own realism, and realism does not have to be anything at all. Games do not have to strive for them, and while AAA game-dev will likely never give in to the abstract, the indie-space is rife with thought-provoking and moving visual textures that challenge the player to think on (and within) the image rather than just accept it as is. The best videogame images express rather than show.