Star Wars and Realism

starWarsVanity Fair has an extensive article on the newest chapter of the Star Wars saga, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. Lucas Arts is releasing this game as an official addition to the Star Wars cannon, filling in the years between Episode III and Episode IV, much as the game Enter the Matrix did for the Matrix series. The article is written for the uninitiated, and as such it gives a brief history of videogames and explains what technical limitations are currently hindering video game realism. The article claims that new technology, however, may soon dramatically improve videogame realism and perhaps topple the barriers to “greater public interest in the medium.”

Now, that statement is silly for two big reasons. First, it presupposes that videogames are still not a mainstream medium. Game software and hardware sales almost doubled box-office receipts in the US last year, but video games are still written about like the weird stepchild of the entertainment family. Second, the author seems to think the public isn’t embracing video games because Solid Snake’s bandanna doesn’t flap in the wind realistically enough. Video game popularity isn’t hindered by the lack of narrative variety or the near-religious devotion required to master complex games. The medium just needs better special effects.

The article has a brief mention of the Wii’s popularity (a system that completely eschews over reliance on eye-popping graphics) and The Force Unleashed’s movie-like plot line, but generally continues as if better physics engines are the key to video game maturation. Overall the article is well written and does a good job of giving readers a look inside a cutting-edge game studio, but I think it follows a common misconception that better graphics produce a better game.

Graphics are to videogames what special effects are to movies: dangerous. It is rare these days to watch a movie with amazing special effects and a strong plot. Most simply try to wow the audience with brilliant colors and realistic monsters, and the story languishes. Conversely, you have a movie like The Science of Sleep that uses only the simplest special effects and relies on compelling characters and compelling writing to make an engaging film. Videogames, like movies, can benefit from realistic 3-D animation, but over reliance on brute force visuals can produce lazy storytelling. I think games need better writers more than they need better particle effects. We need diversity more than we need density.