What do Animal Crossing: New Leaf and Cyberpunk 2077 have in common? The answer is obvious, you could answer: they are both video games. That’s right, but there’s another, less obvious answer, which is that they both represent realism. Specifically, the realism art movement that began in France in the mid-1800s and which in one form or another has continued to evolve to this day.
The painter who first invented this expression is Gustave Courbet. It presents paintings that shock the artistic elite of the time. His painting, “A Burial at Ornans” (1850-1851), was a depiction of the funeral of Courbet’s great-uncle; a peasant burial on a scale deemed excessive for such modest subjects. The 315 x 668 cm canvas encompassed everything, immersing the viewer in the hidden reality of the peasantry, which the aristocracy of art lovers would normally never have recognized. Giving such importance to the lives of the poor and rural populations destabilized and threatened the upper classes of post-revolutionary France.
Realism is an art movement term that can easily be applied to triple-A video game titles with their advanced graphics and commitment to imitating nature and human experiences and, in particular, their photorealistic visual excellence. Nonetheless, elements of realism can also be found in video games that aren’t celebrated for any photorealistic quality.
So, to come back to a variant of the original question, what is Is a 19th-century style of painting have in common with an animated video game featuring a cartoon-like human who lives in a village populated by fantastical animals – or, indeed, 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, it is the connection of a virtual world to the real world. This game’s main attraction for a player is its offer of reassuring predictability; a carefully designed and controlled experience. However, in this bastion of security, the developers have inserted the unpredictable element of realism through the concept of “chance”. Animal Crossing: New Leaf, despite all its cartoon-style characters and settings, immerses us in a sense of reality by injecting real-life random events into the game.
One of these injections is the fact that the game character, unbeknownst to the player, can be attributed with “bad luck”, causing the character to be constantly subject to tripping or falling and so, in a manner irrational, altering its expected playability. The seemingly inconsequential act of tripping transports the player out of their comfort zone and into a difficult pocket of reality, pushing the player back into unpredictable real-world actuality.
This duality is found in many video games; the player’s promise of escape coupled with an unexpected and hidden level of reality.
Sometimes, however, the element of realism can be taken too far. Far Cry 2 has been mocked by players for its slavish commitment to realism while blatantly using unrealistic ideas in parts of the game. also employing the clearly whimsical concept of fixing bullet holes in a jeep with a wrench! This game highlights the difficulties faced by game developers when trying to achieve realism while realizing the fantasy nature of video games themselves.
Cyberpunk 2077 uses an artistic aesthetic that aligns with realism and mimics the human experience using conversational options. Some game endings depend on accidental conversations while others are the result of conversational choices. Realism for many people, however, is purely visual, as experienced in photorealism. Photorealism is based on the assumption that photographs, used as a source of inspiration, offer an authentic view 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 in which the player suspends their disbelief in the most fantastical elements due to the inherently realistic nature of the game.
Realism is synonymous with “truth” both through a representation of the ordinary and the “everyday” and/or through a meticulous and realistic appearance. However, the phenomenon of realism in video games is not exclusive to Triple-A titles. Indie titles have often been praised for their focus on personal experiences, encouraging player empathy towards a character whose situation is one they would likely never experience personally. There is a parallel between the realism exhibited by the painter Courbet and the pioneering stories in independent video games. Additionally, indie titles have more and more opportunities to evolve into more realistic aesthetics due to the availability of free software, such as Unreal Engine’s “MetaHuman”.
Video games are, at their core, new experiences. The possibility of living a new story; a new environment; a new way of thinking. Engagement is enhanced when fantasy is integrated with realism, a historic movement that offered immersive, realistic scenes a hundred years before video games were even made.
Video games that offer a story will leave the player with an experience that is both real and “out of the ordinary”. Something new, stimulating and invigorating. Sure, some video games are violent free-to-play games designed for that simple purpose, but many go beyond that.
Many video games are artful and should be enjoyed as a beautiful aesthetic and emotional creation that now dominates interactive media. It may be true to say that many video games take on a new art form of their own; a mixture of realism, photorealism and fantasy, yet to be fully appreciated for the artistic experiences they truly offer their players.