Realism Beyond The Graphics in Gaming

  1. It seems to me that people have stopped pointing out how beautiful a game looks in recent years. Or maybe, they point out that every game looks good and we simply expect games to come with their own photo mode so that we can ogle at their beauty. Graphics and polygon count used to be how we measured whether a game was immersive. We didn’t say that a game was “realistic”, we said that games “looked realistic. But we no longer count polygons in the dozens, but the millions. Texture mapping has multiple layers, so now gravel looks like an actual collection of pebbles, and you can tell the difference between different types of metals. No, I’m here to tell you that graphics are no longer the make-or-break factor in immersing a player into a world or finding a game “realistic”. So here we go.

Contextual Animations

I’m starting with what I think is the most important and impressive element today. I remember being blown away when Altair used his hand to push aside civilians to get through a crowd in the first Assassin’s Creed. Nowadays, that’s my yardstick for a video game. I get annoyed now when avatars jump from standing animations to a single running animation.


They should have two or three animations so they go from a standing position, a step of walking, two steps of walking, then to a run. And when I change direction I better see them turn on their heel rather. These animations are small, and you might not even notice them consciously, but they go a long way. Naughty Dog does great, usually having unique animations for every log, car, and cliff Nathan Drake climbs over. And the way Joel brushes aside some branch in his way – genius. I love seeing a character’s idle animation, stretching or checking their watch. It’s nice, in a game, when you notice that your hero doesn’t swing their sword in the exact same arc literally every time.



Another small detail that goes a long way is giving clothing their own movement. Seeing the tail of a jacket flick in the wind, or the character’s long hair float when the player falls or jumps really puts players into the world.


watch dogs

Give the NPCs a life. I mean, nothing is more jarring than seeing the same guy standing at the same spot with the same impassive look on his face at literally all hours of the day. Have them walk around, or go to bed at night. Can they have a hobby> Can they go fishing or smithing or something? And please don’t make them repeat the same nonsense at me every time I pass them.

Weather Systems

Weather systems and the passage of time, like graphics, were big deals back in the day. And like graphics, we’ve come to expect it. If the sun and the moon don’t pass over our heads in real time, we’re a little put off now. But there are still some developments to be made. For one, we can get more weather systems than sunny, cloudy, rainy, and (sometimes) snow. I mean, there are more types of rainfall than just “downpour”. Can’t we get a pleasant drizzle, occasionally? A mist? And snow doesn’t always fall in a soft, beautiful dance. Sometimes it hails! And what about dust storms or wind storms?


And the world needs to be affected by the weather. I’m always impressed when I see a puddle form, or my character’s armor gets dusty or wet in accordance with the weather. We’ve become used to trees swaying in the wind in games, but I’m still impressed whenever I see it.


This one is a big deal with people. We all acknowledge being surprised by the physics puzzles in Half-Life or Portal early on.

portal 2

Even today, I’m impressed when I push a jagged boulder down a lumpy hill and the two interact as if they’re a jagged boulder going down a lumpy hill. Amazing. They’re still working the kinks out of these systems, giving every individual item their own weight and weight distribution is hard after all. But I’ll be real pleased when I bump into a cabinet of jars and they don’t shoot in all directions like they were shot out of a cannon.

Hit Boxes

So this one annoys a lot of people, and it’s especially important in fighting games. The hitbox is the detection point between two opponents. These guys used to be terrible. You’d see an enemy’s spear clearly go over your head, but the hitbox was so large that the game read the attack as a head shot and now you’re dead. But now the hit boxes are so precisely mapped to your avatar’s  model that I’ve even seen people go into a greeting animation and somehow dodge an attack that went in between their elbow and ribs. I love it.


On a side note, characters should also have an animation that fits the way they were attacked. When you punch them in the jaw from below, have their head tilt up, instead of them flinching away int the same manner as when you punched them straight on.


Probably the most fun is destructibility. This can manifest in multiple ways. The most obvious is the ability to blow up buildings, but I’m more impressed when I see a wall crumble under bullet fire. Often buildings have their own hidden health bar, and they’ll suddenly explode when that health depletes, even if you were chiseling at it with a knife. But when a concrete wall crumbles or a glass window shatter or a wooden beam snap – man, that’s just satisfying.


It’s also fun to see items have their own destruction. I mean, why can buildings explode but mugs and plates are unbreakable? It’s particularly immersive when you see that items and clothing on your avatar get scorched or torn. Remember the first time you noticed Batman’s cape showing signs of wear and tear? I do.


This is the current fad. Every game seems obligated to put in a choice at every turn. I don’t need to tell you what improvements need to be made to the choice system, but here are a couple obvious points. 1) have “Super Evil Bastard” or “More Saintly Than Jesus Himself” is less believable than having no choice at all.


If you want to be realistic, give me several, non-binary choices that display some nuance. 2) This is obvious, but the choices should have an impact. Nothing takes a player out of a game more than being given the option to save the villain, choose that option, and then the game kills them anyway. I mean, it’s not fun for one, but it also just makes it feel like your playing a scripted game rather than being immersed into the world.

Contextual Audio

People always seem to ignore the importance of audio. It’s one of those things that we almost shouldn’t notice. I mean, if the world is going to feel immersive, you can’t get distracted by these details. But hearing the audio reverberate appropriately to the size of the room is a big deal. And hearing your boots sound like they’re walking on gravel or snow, or sand is incredibly immersive.


On a side note, I really like when a character speaks appropriately to their surroundings. When Nathan Drake wanders over to an impressive landscape, I like hearing him say “Look at that view.” Or when Prompto says “Can we take a break, now?” after the group has been traveling all day. And Aloy saying “That was a close one” after a battle that you almost died in is just a good touch.


Some other small details that raise immersion;

-When you can see your reflection in water or in a mirror.

-When ice melts in heat (I remember Metal Gear Solid having ice that melted at a faster rate when they were smaller pieces).

-When things that are flammable, actually burn when you put a blowtorch on it.

-When enemies flee in terror of your rocket launcher or get outraged when you take their gun.

Anything else? What other small details impressed you? Let me know in the comments below or @chadmwilson

#How Realism In Graphics Has Changed Video Game Industry