Shining A Light On the Future of Graphics

Shining A Light On the Future of Graphics
Courtesy of Ubisoft
When the current console generation launched last fall, much of the conversation focused on the graphics, as it always does. But unlike the last-gen leap to HD, this time gamers griped that most new titles didn't look much more realistic than the old ones. But maybe that's not such a bad omen.

Western game developers have long endeavoured to make the most advanced-looking games that processing power allowed. Usually, this has meant mistaking looking real for looking interesting, which is perhaps why the coolest graphics on the Xbox One and PS4 come courtesy of Child of Light, a new Ubisoft download that feels like you're playing inside of a painting.

Led by director Patrick Plourde and writer Jeffrey Yohalem, it's a side-scrolling story about Aurora, an Austrian royal who appears to die, only to awaken in the land of Lemuria where she must defeat an evil queen. Being a fairytale, they opted not to try and make it look "real" but rather like a storybook, with a hand-painted art style. The visual argument being that better graphics can mean more creative imagery, rather than just more realistic imagery.

"We believe that videogames are a form of art, and art is about expression and interpretation. Child of Light is a game set in a watercolour world and we were shooting for the magic of a moving painting," explains Yohalem.

The game was made with Ubisoft's open-source UbiArt Framework, which allowed the team to import concept art directly into the game "so players can fly across the brushstrokes of the artists." It was also used for the company's stylized side-scroller Rayman Legends, which is among the new consoles' best-reviewed games. It'll also be used for this summer's Valiant Hearts: The Great War, an emotion-driven, adventure-puzzle game set in WWI trenches, which boasts a graphic novel art style.

Child of Light's own look was partly inspired by Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli, a team who finally dipped their toes into gaming with the best-looking, least-realistic game in recent memory, Ni No Kuni.

"Studio Ghibli relishes the painterly feel of their worlds, using strong colours and atmospheric effects to bring their worlds to life," says Yohalem. "We drew on that inspiration, along with the fairytale feel of artists from the Golden Age of Illustration, like John Bauer." (Bauer was a Swedish illustrator born in the late 1800s who also helped inspire Neil Gaiman's Sandman comic and Jim Henson's Dark Crystal.)

As far as games go, Yohalem says there were also fans of the visuals in Fumito Ueda's iconic Ico, rotoscoped point-and-click classic The Last Express, black-and-white indie platformer Limbo and old-school Tim Schafer games Escape from Monkey Island and Grim Fandango.

All of these examples are incredibly stylized, which is why they still look so amazing despite dating back as far as 1997 and coming out on relatively primitive tech. If you compare them to the now-laughably "realistic" games of their respective eras, their continued visual viability is striking.

Of course, it's you can't judge graphics at the beginning of a console cycle — the games are still being made for both old and new-school consoles, and developers are still sussing out the new machine's capabilities.

Tim Sweeney, the head of Epic Games, which makes the ubiquitous Unreal game engine, predicted at last year's Develop Conference that photorealism will be achieved in the next ten years, with the caveat that won't solve problems like "simulating human intelligence, animation, speech and lip-syncing."

But even the company behind the ultra-realistic (and ultra grey and brown) space marine saga Gears of War is looking beyond with their upcoming game Fortnite. "It's not aiming to beat Call of Duty in terms of graphics, it's more of a Pixar art style."

Yohalem's company Ubisoft, which also makes the Assassin's Creed series and upcoming hacker game Watch Dogs, is obviously doing the same covering of bases. But he notes that creating a unique art style will an increasingly important method differentiation once we hit "peak graphics" as far as photorealism. "Style is the only way forward. This has happened before in art, when the Impressionists shook up the realism of Rembrandt in the Paris Salons. And it will happen in videogames, too," Yohalem says.

"If you express the look of your game perfectly using the materials at hand, the graphics will never 'age' as long as the look is your intention as an artist and not due to a limitation of the tech. Embrace limitation and make it beautiful. The aliens from Close Encounters look more real than most CGI aliens today because they were fully realized by their creator."