There’s no question that games have come on a long way since the 8bit era of the NES and Megadrive. Character animations, lighting, and texture quality are at a point where they’re rivaling animated films in their quality. But they don’t look quite as good as the latest Pixar or Dreamworks animation. Why is this?
One reason is how the medium works. Video games are required (mostly) to be interactive, allowing the player choice over what they do. It’s an active experience versus the passive experience of a movie. Each frame in a movie is meticulously sculpted to show exactly what the directors and animators want the audience to see, and so more time can be put into individual elements rather than having to create an open environment that any part of can be viewed.
This leads to the next reason, every frame of a video game has to be drawn from scratch by the graphics card and that frames content is dependant on the player’s action. This effects environment, character models — does the player have a pickaxe or a gun and are they picking up a pot or are they destroying it — and lighting effects. Character models are getting better and as motion capture technologies improve, but it’s held back by the computing power in current generation hardware.
Lighting is one of the most important factors in any visual medium. The way that light interacts with an environment is one of the many tools in a cinematographers arsenal to set a tone. This is no different in an animated movie or video game, but up until recently, animated movies have struggled to recreate how light interacts with objects in real life. That is until ray tracing was developed. Ray tracing is essentially a way for a computer to work out how physical light and reflections would react to the same objects in the real world, and how an eye would perceive that light.
Think of the human eye as a film camera (it’s not quite a one to one analogy, but I’m simplifying here.) To see, light rays from a light source, natural or unnatural, bounces off of an object and enters our eye. This happens from all around, and some light rays interact with other objects on the way. This is why colours will reflect off some objects. Ray Tracing is simulating the light rays. But this process is computationally expensive, and until recently, it was impractical to calculated on the fly. Yet that is set to change with the release of Nvidia’s RTX raytracing technology built into their latest graphics cards. And it’s not just Nvidia, even the upcoming PS5 and Xbox One successor has promised ray tracing, and AMD has decided to stick to the software route for now. But again, all these solutions are nowhere near the standard of an animated movie. Often games will target one specific implementation of Ray Tracing like shadows, lighting, or reflections. There hasn’t been a game that can globally ray trace, and there probably won’t be for a while.
When Epic Games showed off their ray tracing capabilities in their Unreal Game engine, they showed it off with a Star Wars demo. In it, Captain Phasma, a chrome donning imperial commander and her stormtroopers, walk through a corridor and into an elevator. Lights reacts how they would in real life, bouncing off of the white stormtrooper helmets. Captain Phasma’s chrome armour reflects the world around it and distorts those reflections correctly. This is a far cry from ray-traced gameplay, it’s not interactive for a start, but it shows that even real-time rendering can produce results which can step on the toes of the best animation studios.
There’s an argument that video games shouldn’t strive to look like animation. They’re two distinct mediums with some similar aspects. Look at the explosion of indie games that replicate the 8 and 16 bit aesthetic, there’s no denying some of those games are beautiful. And it’s not just indie games that aren’t striving for realism. The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild looks incredible, but it’s running on hardware that wouldn’t even know what ray tracing is. Games don’t need ray tracing or realistic character models, they simply need to be good games.
To compare video games and animated films is an unfair comparison. Each medium has different goals; one is interactive and the other is passive. On an image fidelity front, Animated films will always be ahead, but that doesn’t mean that games can’t be just as beautiful and just as cutting edge.