It makes my hair curl to hear some macho-programmer say things like “Next Gen Games are beautiful but brainless“! I think they’re just saying these things to make a point but let it be known that I declare it an objective fact that Next Gen games are NOT beautiful! Their visuals may be “impressive” or “stunning” or “amazing”. But they are not, not by any means, “pretty” or “beautiful”. I’m not going to have Beauty dragged down with the industry’s obsession with photographic realism.
Yes: there is an extreme focus on graphics in games technology. And this does indeed seem to happen at the expense of evolution in A.I. and gameplay. But this is by no means a battle between looks and wits. Because these high-tech games are U-G-L-Y!! Technology does not make things beautiful.
There is a lot of research needed in the realm of realtime 3D aesthetics. This is indeed partly a technological problem but not one that can be solved by hair shaders (though I admit that these could be abused for good). To a large extent because it’s not simply about visual aesthetics but about the mostly unexplored aesthetics of an interactive/generative real-time multi-sensorial experience. But even in terms of pure visual aesthetics, technology can never be the solution. Especially since this technology only seems to be concerned with a recreation of factual reality. In other words: Next Gen technology is a scientific project, not an artistic one.
I agree with Steve Grand that as game characters start looking more and more realistic, the lack of sophistication in their behaviour becomes more and more of a problem. I realized this first when I saw Prince of Persia: Sands of Time in which the realistically rendered character of the prince bounces off the walls like a rubber ball in a pin ball machine. But the game went on to become a success nonetheless and spawned sequels that were so bad they made the “first” one look like an artistic masterpiece.
The truth is that as long as this technology is used for games, not many people will care much about the believability of the characters, with the possible exception of a desire for enemies that can dodge bullets creatively. Raph Koster has pointed this out painfully clearly in his Theory of Fun: once people start playing, all they see is the system. This often leads game designers to think of beauty as unnecessary icing on the cake. For me it totally invalidates games as a worthwhile use of this technology. If we cannot create something beautiful that people will just “play” for the enjoyment of that beauty, the technology does not even deserve to be called a medium.