Is 4k realism ruining gaming?

By Bruno Citoni

How I learned to stop gatekeeping and love Euro Truck Simulator 2.

With the release of the ninth generation of consoles around the corner, a lot of the marketing and press about the upcoming PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X is focused on – unsurprisingly – the technological advancement in their graphic capabilities.

Launching in November, both consoles will support native resolutions up to 4K and refresh rates up to 120fps. That’s more pixels displayed each second than you can shake a stick at. This is happening in parallel to improvements to texture quality, polygon counts, lightning engines and so on, so forth. But a potato displayed in 4K is still, shockingly, a potato.

As technology requirements for games increase, so do their budgets, making it harder and harder for a developer to justify the adoption of anything other than cutting edge technology. This is especially true in highly competitive markets where franchises like FIFA and Call of Duty, which rely on small incremental steps in realism to legitimise churning out a “new” title every year for full retail price, still draw a massive number of players and money.

Jeering on the other side of the mainstream fence is a community of people for which “real” gaming is, without exception, the visual equivalent of a birthday at a theme park filled with candy floss and fireworks. Their main gripe is against the ultra-realism and level of detail of current AAA titles, which is ruining the experience in a variety of ways. 

First off, the “real is brown” trope. Over the past decade and until very recently, the colour palette of games has been dominated by brown and grey in an attempt to stay true to life, eventually turning everything into a bland and boring brown blob.
Secondly, realism takes away from the all-out fun. Raise your hand if you ever looked at a game like Euro Truck Simulator 2 and thought “Why would anybody get off work and decide to drive a truckful of cargo from Helsinki to the south of Italy? Games are made to experience something we can’t experience in real life for those escapism feelz!” Guess what, 18-year-old me? Different people are allowed to enjoy games for different reasons.

I’m going out on a limb here, but I’m pretty sure we’re never going to see a Call of Duty or an Assassin’s Creed title embracing pixel art, but that’s part of – excuse my pun – the game. AAA titles are an incredibly expensive investment, designed to appeal to mass audiences and as such those featuring unique or particular art styles are few and far between. Even then, games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Dishonoured, Borderlands, or Persona, while being big-budget games, have also managed to pick a unique aesthetic and reap the rewards by appealing to people on both sides of the argument.

Indie development isn’t going away, either. Because of the costs of a fully-fledged AAA game, the adoption of unique, quirky and styled art is always going to be the go-to strategy for indie developers. And in fact, there are also a few indie games that managed to have great success while sticking to pixel or otherwise very stylised art, such as Stardew Valley, Undertale, Hotline Miami, and of course Minecraft.

At the end of the day, the video game panorama is constantly getting vaster, delivering something for pretty much everybody. The technological advancements that are responsible for homogenising mainstream gaming are also creating new genres and experiences by making indie video game development more accessible. To be honest, I’m just in it for the ride: with or without candy floss and fireworks.


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