The lights are on
Veteran Member - Level 12
"Games can't possibly look any better than this!" Most people have said those words, or some variation of them, either in an awe inspired moment of hyperbolic expression or a willful statement of opinion. Over the past year there has been a more vocal minority than ever before saying there isn't enough improvement to warrant new consoles. The gaming industry loves proving that idea wrong, over and over again with each new generation. Which leaves only the question of why people keep insisting that's the case.
Released in 2007, Mass Effect was widely regarded as one of the first games of the previous generation to truly take advantage of the new hardware. Although not the best looking game of the generation, or even the time at which it was released, the Mass Effect series is a great example of how much changes over the life of a console. The difference in detail between the series' entries is astounding. Worlds that would have been mostly flat and barren are now packed with detail, and the games' already detailed characters are even more so. Over the generation, games progressed from the muddy textures of Gun to the crisp future tech of games like Crysis.
The industry has made giant strides in more than just the fidelity of its assets though. Games are more efficient than ever before, miraculously carving out enough room for new titles to run on significantly outdated technology. Rapid growth has forced more companies to streamline their development tools. Engines like Frostbite 3 are becoming multipurpose, time saving powerhouses distributed throughout, and developed by, multiple studios. All of the work done to keep old consoles relevant, and astronomical development prices low, means there can only be more attention paid to the rest of the process.
There's a lot of room left to expand too. Find a large game and track down a shoreline, something similar to what you would find in Assassin's Creed III or GTA V. There's a good chance the water you've chosen is oddly flat and static as it rolls in on the sand. Find some grass, check to see if it's actually a model or just a two dimensional texture turning as you pass it. In almost every case it will be the latter. Games still regularly have trouble loading their worlds, showing characters coming in contact with other people and objects, or depicting an act as simple as drinking a glass of water. We might have hit the point of diminishing return for textures and models, but visuals in games are so much more than shiny paint and smooth edges.
It's those extra little pieces that make what The Astronauts have accomplished with The Vanishing of Ethan Carter so important. With a team of just eight people and a clever application of technology, they've matched the visual fidelity of the industry's biggest studios. Heck, they may have even exceeded that mark. For some, it might be a nail in the coffin of the debate. As I've argued before, however, I think it's just the start of a transition we haven't fully grasped yet. The future might not lay in better looking textures and more detailed models, but there's a lot of world around that to improve upon. Keep an eye on lighting, animation, how elements of the game interact with the world around them. The changes coming are more subtle, but I'd be willing to bet that the difference is just as substantial at the end of this new cycle.
That's not to say games today don't look good enough. That is first and foremost a subjective assessment of quality, and I think anyone who says there aren't gorgeous games out there is lying to their own face. There's a lot we can't see or predict and I could very well be wrong. This past generation proved many trends unreliable, perhaps these new consoles will prove yet another to be so . What I refuse to believe, however, is that games look as good as they can, or even need to. That would cheapen the accomplishment and drive of people who do so much work to make the games we love look amazing. We need those people doing invisible work behind the scenes, and what they will eventually come up with can only blow our minds. The best part of this is we don't know what will happen next, what trick or technique will become the standard by which we judge other games. We can only sit back and wait, and maybe prepare an ice pack for the collective forehead smacking moment of recognition.