From Cyberpunk 2077 to Animal Crossing, realism is an integral part of video games

From Cyberpunk 2077 to Animal Crossing, realism is an integral part of video games | Pro Club Bd

What do Animal Crossing: New Leaf and Cyberpunk 2077 have in common? The answer is obvious, you might reply: They’re both video games. That’s correct, but there’s another, less obvious answer, which is that both represent realism. In particular, the artistic movement of Realism, which began in France in the mid-18th century and has continued to develop in one form or another to this day.

The painter who first coined this expression was Gustave Courbet. He presented paintings that shocked the artistic elite of the time. His painting A Burial at Ornans (1850-51) was a depiction of the funeral of Courbet’s great-uncle; a peasant burial, and on a scale considered excessive for such lowly subjects. The 315 x 668 cm canvas was all-encompassing, immersing the viewer in the hidden reality of the peasantry that the art-viewing aristocracy would normally never have acknowledged. Attaching such importance to the lives of the impoverished and rural population unsettled and threatened the upper classes in post-revolutionary France.

A Burial at Ornans, 1850-1851, Gustave Courbet.

Realism is an art movement term easily applied to triple-A video game titles, with their advanced graphics and commitment to emulating human nature and experiences, and particularly their photorealistic visual excellence. Nonetheless, elements of realism can also be found in video games that aren’t celebrated for photorealistic qualities.

New Horizons also keeps the realism alive.

So, going back to a variation on the original question, what does a 19th century style of painting have something in common with an animated video game in which a cartoonish human lives in a village populated by fantasy animals – or with a futuristic cyberpunk video game?

The answer is that they both share the characteristics of realism. In the case of Animal Crossing: New Leaf, this is the connection of a virtual world to the real world. The main attraction of this game for a player is the offering of reassuring predictability; a carefully crafted, controlled experience. However, within this bastion of security, the developers have injected the unpredictable element of realism through the concept of “luck”. Animal Crossing: New Leaf, despite all its cartoonish characters and settings, pulls us into a sense of reality by inserting random real-life events into the game.

One such injection is the fact that “bad luck” can be attributed to the character without the player’s knowledge, causing the character to continually trip or fall, thus irrationally affecting its expected playability. The seemingly inconsequential act of stumbling transports the player out of their comfort zone and into a pocket of challenging reality, propelling the player back into the reality of the unpredictable real world.

This duality is found in many video games; the promise of player escapism coupled with an unexpected, hidden layer of reality.

Sometimes, however, the element of realism can be taken too far. Far Cry 2 has been derided by gamers for its slavish commitment to realism, while using overtly non-realistic ideas in parts of the game. For example, the game keeps reminding you that the playable character needs antimalarial medication, while on the other hand it also employs the obviously imaginative concept of fixing bullet holes in a jeep with a wrench! This game highlights the difficulties game developers face when trying to achieve realism, yet still achieve the fantastical nature of video games themselves.

Cyberpunk 2077 uses an artistic aesthetic that leans towards realism and mimics the human experience through the use of conversational options. Some of the gamers depend on random conversations, while others are the result of conversational decisions. However, for many people, realism is purely visual, as experienced in photorealism. Photorealism is based on the premise that photographs used for inspiration offer an authentic vision of reality or, in the case of video games, an accurate impression of reality. Games like Cyberpunk 2077 mix the familiar with the unknown to create an environment where the player relinquishes their disbelief in the more fantastical elements due to the game’s underlying realistic nature.

Realism is synonymous with “truth” through both a depiction of the ordinary and the “everyday” and/or a meticulous, lifelike appearance. However, the phenomenon of realism in video games is not exclusive to triple-A titles. Indie titles have often been praised for focusing on personal experience and for encouraging the player’s empathy towards a character whose situation is one they would likely never experience in person. There is a parallel between the realism of the painter Courbet and the stories that pioneered indie video games. Additionally, with the availability of free software like Unreal Engine’s MetaHuman, indie titles have increasing opportunities to move towards more realistic aesthetics.


Unreal Engine MetaHuman.

At its core, video games are about new experiences. The opportunity to experience a new story; a new environment; a new way of thinking. Participation is enhanced when fantasy is integrated with realism, a historical movement that provided immersive and realistic scenes a hundred years before the invention of video games.

Video games that provide a story leave the player with both a real and out of this world experience. Something new, challenging and invigorating. Granted, some video games are violent all-rounders made for this simple purpose, but many go beyond that.

Many video games are artistic and should be recognized as beautiful aesthetic and emotional creations that now dominate interactive media. Perhaps it is correct to say that many video games are set in their own new art form; a blend of realism, photorealism, and fantasy that is yet to be fully appreciated for the art experiences they truly offer to their players.

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