To further understand the importance of graphical fidelity in gaming, we must analyze the cartoon to understand why we respond to the video games in a childlike nature. Cartoon drawings preceded the video game, and what even preceded animated television were comic books and the graphic novel. Understanding the realism of comic books is to understand that the drawn faces of characters are indeed not real, yet we accept them as such. Comics theorist Scott McCloud explains the theory behind this phenomena. In his theoretical comic book, Understanding Comics, McCloud begins his argument by associating icons with concepts. The icon, he says, is used “to mean any image used to represent a person, place, thing or idea." In other words, McCloud refutes that an American flag is a country, male and female restroom signs do not equal people, and so forth. These icons are merely representations of conceptual ideas, that through wisdom and common understanding, we accept and comprehend as larger meanings.
It’s fairly easy, however, to associate icons with realistic representational meaning. Eventually, icons are associated as pictures, and pictures are what we associate as realistic. Yet, they are still not realistic. As McCloud notes, the resemblance of pictures to real physical objects varies, and so must the level of iconic content. To put it in easier terms, McCloud states, “Some pictures are just more iconic than others". And because pictures of the same icon vary, meaning becomes variable and abstract. Arguably the most important factor toward understanding the realism of icons is that they lie on a spectrum.
McCloud uses facial icons to represent the spectrum, which is not only essential toward understanding cartoons, but toward understanding the realism behind video game graphics. On one end of the spectrum lies a photograph, a snapshot of a person’s face that contains all of the wrinkles, blemishes, and facial features one might find in a real human being. As the spectrum moves forward, however, those same wrinkles become non-existant, strands of hair transcend into singular colored hair parted in one direction, the mouth becomes one singular drawn line on a page, and so forth. In other words, the once realistic drawing simplifies until it resembles the most basic of a cartoon.
But McCloud – unknowingly – created an icon in and of itself when drawing this facial spectrum in a panel. For not only does the spectrum represent the realism of a drawing, it conceptualizes the history of video games from the beginning of its conception in the 1970s to where we currently stand in graphic fidelity, yet also points us toward tomorrow. If we were to place dates under each face on the spectrum, one would have to place the 1970s - give or take - on the most basic cartoon face. That era represents the primitive 8-bit gaming days of Pong and Atari video games. Leap to the next face on the spectrum and one enters the 16-bit, and then the 32-bit, 64-bit, and so forth. As the years have progressed, so too have graphics in video games.
Not only does this spectrum chart where we once were in terms of iconic detail, it charts where we are. I do not believe it would be accurate to claim we are at the end of the spectrum, but we are fairly close. Until we reach the graphical capability that meets the standard of cinema will we hit the picturesque portrait of the face. Take, for example, Sony’s PS4 Pro and Microsoft’s upcoming Project Scorpio. Upgraded iterations of the current consoles that we currently possess in our homes, these consoles make use of 4K television, higher framerates, and enhanced High Definition Resolution. This is the next leap toward the portrait, but there are still more hurdles to overcome. We must reach a point where the eyes of a character contain life, where what we see that which is completely computerized is near impossible to distinguish as digital. The portrait is our goal, and in 40 years as a community, developers have reached impressive benchmarks.
Now take McCloud’s explanation when approaching the realistic drawing of a face versus the cartoon face. McCloud claims, “When two people interact, they usually look directly at one another, seeing their partner’s features in vivid detail. Each one also sustains a constant awareness of his or her own face. But this mind-picture is not nearly so vivid; just a sketchy arrangement… a sense of shape… a sense of general placement." It’s true that we spend more time in our lives looking at the faces of other people rather than our own. In fact, the only time we truly spend time on our own appearance is when looking in a bathroom mirror or the front-facing camera of our smart devices. To describe one’s own reflection from memory would take a painstakingly longer time than simply describing the person’s face that which is in front of their own eyes. Here we must understand McCloud’s argument that we associate a basic cartoon image with our own faces, as we do not fully comprehend our own image, and that we comprehend a drawing of a realistic face as someone other than your own. There is simply too much realistic detail to apply to someone else than that of yourself.
If we are to continue the notion that our video game history lies on a spectrum of detail, then we must put into account how we associate ourselves with the video games that we play. Placing ourselves on the spectrum that represents our current generation of video games, return back to digital Kevin Spacey. We associate this character with the human being, the celebrity. Minus the lifeless eyes, those facial features are so iconic, so picturesque that we know and comprehend that the character depicted onscreen cannot be ourselves. It is too uncanny a resemblance of another human being that we simply cannot perceive the character as anything else.
Now travel down the spectrum toward the less detailed cartoon face, aka that which we associate as our own. This represents the era of gaming that we associated ourselves with the character of the game. Due to the technological constraints of the hardware, developers simply could not create video game characters that we associate with other people. From pixelated characters to geometrical, blocky designs ranging from the 8-bit era to even the Nintendo 64 and late-Playstation 2 eras of gaming, on a subconscious level, we simply could not comprehend that we were playing video games with anybody besides ourselves.
The one caveat, or counter to this argument, can be represented through Roleplaying games (RPG). The RPG requires the player to create and customize the features of their own character, one that is specially designed to interact with the vast world that the game creators developed. This created character is wholeheartedly one that the single player creates, and thus can be concluded as an extended, fictional version of themselves. Think of games such as the Mass Effect series or Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls and Fallout franchises. There’s no doubt that the more advanced the graphical engines are, the more immersed the player will be in the experience, on some level existing in the world. Yet this differs from the sake of the argument; for although the Call of Duty franchise has strayed into the future, the series – and other first-person shooters alike – ground themselves in the primary world of which we exist in and present a recreation of wars in the past or the possibility of war in the future. There is a certain level of realism that RPGs do not contain as their worlds are set, for the most part, in the secondary world of fantasy and dystopia. Although they may reflect our own world on an allegorical level, they do not take place on planet Earth, and there would be no cause to recreate a digital replica of a celebrity such as Kevin Spacey unless the character model is established as a fun easter egg of sorts that the developers placed as a surprise.
Of course, McCloud is not without explanation for this reasoning, either. McCloud argues that the reason we associate ourselves with that of a basic cartoon face is due to our own childlike sense of wonder. He claims, “I believe this is the primary cause of our childhood fascination with cartoons. Though other factors such as universal identification, simplicity and the childlike features of many cartoon characters also play a part." Think back to our previous statistic of gamers. To reiterate, 77% of men and 55% of women gamers ages 18-29 currently play video games; the same demographic that grew up since the birth of video games. And if they didn’t grow up at the beginning, many of these gamers played video games in previous generation cycles, cycles where graphics were not advanced enough to evoke uncanny experiences in the player. Not only that, a portion of these gamers also grew up during the first of uncanny experiences where it became astounding as to how realistic graphics were developing.