The Parallax View

Big budget games with “best-ever graphics” are more real than real because they refuse to address any political realities

When a computer renders an image of a cube, it uses triangles — 12 of them, two for each of the cube’s six sides. The three coordinates of a triangle are the simplest and most flexible way of indicating dimensionality through computer calculation. Adding a fourth point or a fifth introduces too much uncertainty, as there’s no guarantee that they would all occupy a single plane. But the three points of a triangle can always be connected through a single plane to form a surface, which can be joined with other triangular surfaces to form three-dimensional objects.

The planes of these objects can then be tied to image files that allow them to suggest a particular kind of surface — wood grain or speckled gray granite. Infomatic layers give these flat images landscaped depth, simulating physical details with mathematic instructions: deepening a splintered gash in a block of wood by subtly darkening shadows around it; shifting those shadows based on implied distance and angles. This ensures a spatial coherence to the illusion.

This particular process is called parallax-occlusion mapping. John Linneman, writing for Eurogamer’s technical-analysis venue Digital Foundry, credited this technique as one of the reasons the recently released Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is “the best-looking console game we’ve ever tested,” along with the “high quality” multi-sample anti-aliasing, comprehensive wind simulation, and a facial-animation system that allows each character 850 possible expressions. Uncharted 4, Linneman promises, is “the technical powerhouse we’ve been waiting for.”

“Best looking” suggests Linneman is in interested in beauty, but it’s not the game that’s beautiful to him so much as the ability of Naughty Dog, the game’s developer, “to iterate beautifully” on its programmable pixel-shader technology over several years. Beauty, for Linneman, is a matter of representations becoming more fine-grained: “Skin and fat also bend and move realistically,” he writes, “while details such as stubble, pupils, and eyebrows are beautifully rendered in high fidelity.” It’s a strange use of fidelity: The faithfulness of the visuals comes not in re-creating familiar physical details but in using that verisimilitude to affirm the virtue of the renderer, in this case Naughty Dog’s virtuous commitment to producing high-resolution images of anything, no matter how insignificant or unusable.

The more plausibly reality is faked, the more beautiful the pane we place between it and ourselves becomes

Conflating beauty with this kind of indiscriminate fidelity makes it into a measure, a quantifiable outcome of computational processes whose primary objective is always to “create that extra layer of realism.” Beauty should not be understood as aesthetic but mathematical; it is a function of subpixel morphological anti-aliasing, pixel-accurate displacement mapping, screen-space ambient occlusion, vertex shaders, and adaptive tessellation. Even the language used to describe these processes has its own dissociative momentum. To describe abstract mathematical functions with a euphemism derived from ancient Greek mosaic making betrays the programmer’s desire to evolve their way up from the neutral murk of code.

Such superlative graphical achievements arrive with regularity in video games. Six months before Uncharted 4, Digital Foundry said of Star Wars: Battlefront that “there is nothing out there that looks quite this good,” and nine months before that, the site praised The Order: 1886 as “perhaps the most impressive example of real-time graphics on a console to date. The quality of the lighting and materials really helps build a beautifully realistic, almost tangible world for the player to experience.” Rather than generational triumphs, such techno-aesthetic breakthroughs occur almost yearly, with similar claims having been made for Grand Theft Auto V, Far Cry 4, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Crysis 3, and Battlefield 3.

Video games appear to have passed beyond a cultural event horizon wherein “bests” are not anomalies but dependable recurrences, driven by game publishers committed to sponsoring four-year development cycles and hardware makers willing to drag race Moore’s Law, engineering new chipsets or software tools to ensure that next year can always be mathematically more beautiful than the last.

So we learn to become faithful to a generational rite of detachment and mimesis. Beauty can’t be appreciated on its own terms but requires a dissociative reassembly. Computation strips all the uncooperative quanta clotting up the true spirit of reality. The more plausibly reality is faked, the more beautiful the pane we place between it and ourselves becomes.

The idea that realism should count for beauty is an old one. Jan van Eyck’s oil paintings in the early 15th century mark an eerie parallel with our contemporary computerized fascination with creating an equivalent representation of reality. His Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife (1425) was one of the first landmarks of realist aesthetics. It depicts an unassuming married couple holding hands who come to seem almost like a foreground distraction when one realizes the painting’s focal point is a round mirror on a wall behind them, revealing a painstaking (though mathematically imperfect) reflection of their backs, the room in which they’re standing, and two other figures standing otherwise unseen before them, presumably the artist and his assistant.

In Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, David Hockney argued the realistic details in van Eyck’s works could be attributed to his use of a concave mirror to project a reference image from which he could paint, which, when combined with the shift to oil painting, allowed for an incredible amount of fine-grained detail to be captured in the frame. Some doubt this: To paint from a curved mirror lens reference, the mirror would need to have been seven feet in diameter and illuminated by hundreds of candles to provide a clear enough image. But either way, van Eyck’s concept of optics was clearly influenced by lens and mirrors and would prove influential itself. It helped establish a tradition in realistic painting that relies on a concept of reality not as humans perceive it but as it appears through machinery. The grim and acutely wrinkled faces of Dieric Bouts, the exquisite textural details of Agnolo Bronzino, the depth-of-focal-field effects of Lorenzo Lotto — they all mark a shift from painting as a means of conveying shared myths or social values and hierarchies to painting as a means of reconciling human perception with a machined perspective. The approach gave surfaces — fabrics, furs, skin — a hyper-clarity that verged on stupefying, while light and reflections were given a mechanistic specificity that seemed almost supernatural. A century after van Eyck, Parmigianino’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror made the irony of this fixation plain by painting a portrait of a mirror.

“Reality” now occurred in the seemingly indifferent operations of new technology, which the human could only observe and attempt to reproduce as a symbol of higher truth. What drove this shift? Was it Enlightenment principles? New technologies? The death of god? The disintegration of community that flowed from that newly plausible thought? The question tempts a mechanistic explanation that would make the phenomenon itself secondary to the revelatory affect of discovering its origin. Realism is always conspiratorial; it is not ultimately about experiencing what is but mastering the causal (and therefore controllable) principles of what is unseen. This led humans to train themselves to see as the lens sees, to perceive more as a machine than as a body.

The measure of realism became its ability to produce disbelief, wrenching isolated textural and theoretical phenomena out of the fuzzy, multisensory states through which we perceived them outside art and forcing them onto one uniform plane in which the visual was overloaded with the delicate ticks and tells of other senses. One could almost smell the wood grains; hear the soft scrape of velvet brushing against itself; feel the damp, chill air in the Arnolfinis’ sunless room as it was reflected back by their dark, gleaming mirror. In the nested wrinkles around the corner of an old man’s face one could almost feel time as something textural and heavy.

Realism is always conspiratorial; it is not ultimately about experiencing what is but mastering the causal principles of what is unseen

These effects were beautiful in one sense; desacralizing agents that dissolved the piety of earlier religious symbolic orders in another. But they also made the affect itself the idea and subordinated any other imagistic propositions to secondary elements. The wet, yellowed eyes and wrinkled skin of an old man in a gloomy afternoon interior produces a feeling for time but not any idea of it. The complexity of ideas and the communal propositions produced in response to them become instead pretexts for individual sensation, in which the audience marvels at their own capacity for affective response more than an ability to identify a definitive social marker or concept. The audience for these works reflected an even narrower set of interests, preferring the petty, acquisitive wealth of barons and leisure-class empiricists for whom sentimental stupefaction seemed like an aesthetic improvement on the golden devotionals of Paolo Veniziano or Master of Saint Francis. Artists working toward realism were engaged in a bizarre kind of double replication: They created a duplicate for the world, and merchants reproduced and distributed it as both a consumer good and symbol of virtue.

In The Invisible Dragon: Essays on Beauty, Dave Hickey attributes the “primary, gorgeous eccentricity” of images in Western culture to the fact that they “cannot be trusted, that imagery is always proposed to be proposing something contestable and controversial.” He describes another famous realist work, Caravaggio’s Madonna of the Rosary, as “an old warhorse — in this case, a thoroughbred — put out to pasture” because the “visual litigation” it once enacted on behalf of the Dominican order (the Madonna seems to favor Saint Dominic while ignoring Saint Peter) is no longer relevant to its viewers. Its position in a conflict between rival sects and not just its realistic effects gave the image its beauty — as a polemical gesture rather than a series of brush strokes. “The image is quiet now,” Hickey writes, “its argumentative frisson has been neutralized, and the issue itself drained of ideological urgency, leaving only the cosmetic superstructure of that antique argument just visible enough to be worshipped under the frayed pennants of ‘humane realism’ and ‘transcendental formal values’ by the proponents of visual repose.”

“Visual repose” is a good description of what it’s like to play a video game like Uncharted 4. It feels less a part of the realist tradition than a thoughtless amputation of the visual from social or political conflict. Its kind of realism refuses contestation. Its ideology of representation is driven by the avoidance of any explicit ideological markers; it expresses a neutral fidelity to the affect its “best-ever’ technology can produce while ducking all support for any one demographic’s beliefs or propositions. Its elaborate mechanisms for simulating fabric physics or light refracting off water are a shelter from political identification, an escape from acknowledging that conflicts can be social rather than personal.

A depoliticized commitment to a mathematized realism for its own sake reflects an ideal that finds life’s meaning not among others, not in a process of corroboration of different contexts and different perspectives and different realities, but in the inward turn toward the labor of self-actualization in isolation — in technically perfecting the depiction of the self’s lone reality. This realism is for those who are unqualified to lose themselves in a larger group because they are not yet whole in themselves. They are unqualified to even be an extra in a struggle, much less a primary participant.

Video-game realism is less a practice of using computation to simulate reality than the practice of defending the visual from political or social meaning. To render a cube in a vacuum and give it a mathematical skin for players to marvel at, even if it looks like nothing but a block of wood — it’s strangely impossible to recall ever having touched or smelled or felt anything like it.

In an interview for Eurogamer, the creative director and lead co-writer of Uncharted 4, Neil Druckmann, marveled at how complicated the production process had been. “It’s literally a miracle how this thing comes together,” he said. “It’s like an army of talent, I’m kind of addicted to that.”

The more I played Uncharted 4, going from Panamanian jungle to New Orleans suburb, and from ruined Scottish castle to Madagascar island, the uglier it became to me, its refined layers of detail heaping up like pristine cars on an open-air big rig carrying them from the factory to the dealer lot. A martial level of organization, the scale and efficiency made garish by its redundancy — a vehicle whose only purpose is to transport other vehicles.

There is a clear rank and file necessary to creating a photorealistic video game with large environments set across four continents. Uncharted 4’s credits list 12 different art outsourcing companies from around the world that created the digital bananas, palm fronds, street signs, shipping crates, and underbrush — all the objects that flood the frame with overwhelming particularity.

The more I played Uncharted 4 the uglier it became to me, its scale and efficiency made garish by its redundancy — a vehicle whose only purpose is to transport other vehicles

It’s impossible to settle your focus on any one object for more than a few seconds; there’s always a tug of curiosity about what other mathematic accretions are there pretending to be rocks or jeep tires or ammunition crates. The experience narrows one’s vision to a kind of inspection: The eye no longer participates in an aesthetic experience but interrogates the screen veil, roving skeptically across every surface in a state of reluctant awe, not over any particular instance of beauty but at how comprehensive the game’s doubling of reality is, in how neatly all its seams are tucked inward against one another, bouncing the gaze off every glimmering, anti-aliased, anisotropically filtered surface.

Over time, the abundance of digital duplicates to look at serve as a hermetic seal rather than an immersive environment, an impermeable border built up around a vacuum. It is something blank and inscrutable but disastrously frail, the illusion poised to shatter with one bad animation, an enemy’s arm that accidentally clips through an outpost wall or a high-resolution castle that fails to load and leaves a blank covered in pixelated primer.

The rhetoric of publications like Digital Foundry unintentionally reinforce this fragility with a smog of obtuse but irrefutably empirical justifications for shifting video games away from the pursuit of beauty — tenuous and perennially uncertain — and toward the arid landscape of best and worst, certified by an engineer’s manifest of programming techniques. Its jargon-rich declarations that only an extreme minority of readers have the vocational aptitude to understand seem to have their own incomprehensible sublimity, as impressively bewildering as fathomless canyons are to the eye.

Rending beauty from machinery in this way reframes aesthetics as an authoritative deployment of industrial waste, the accumulation of decades of competition among companies trying to distinguish their products from one another with computational imagery that is never more than a few months away from being outmoded. Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas described the product of this productive compulsion as “Junkspace,” which he defined as that which “remains after modernization has run its course, or, more precisely, what coagulates while modernization is in progress, its fallout.” The individual pieces necessary to producing these meaninglessly complicated wastes “are the outcome of brilliant inventions, lucidly planned by human intelligence, boosted by infinite computation, their sum spells the end of Enlightenment, its resurrection as farce, a low-grade purgatory … Junkspace is the sum total of our current achievement; we have built more than did all previous generations put together, but somehow we do not register on the same scales. We do not leave pyramids.” Instead, we leave narrow mathematical simulations of men stealing the last remaining treasures we imagine them holding.

Hickey eventually settles on a description of beauty as entwined with forms of resistance: not the quasi-military deployment of visual technologies to foreclose the possibility of critique, as with contemporary state-of-the-art video games, but visual technologies used to confront “the aura of moral isolation, gentrification, and mystification that surrounds the practice of contemporary art.” Beauty, in his view, dissolves the social distinctions expressed through those forces with a “celebration of marginality.” Hickey uses these words to describe Robert Mapplethorpe’s candid, otherworldly photographs of figures, often nude, against the flat backdrop of his studio wall. Women and men, especially black men, were invested with an erotic sense of grace and vulnerability as exquisite as it was rare in representations of black men, or queer men, or poor men, in most media. Mapplethorpe’s work was beautiful, Hickey writes, because “it was the celebration and not the marginality that made these images dangerous. Simply, it was their rhetorical acuity, their direct enfranchisement of the secular beholder.”

Players are drawn into the pleasure of storming a world of false doubles. The more interchangeable with real objects they are, the more pleasure there is in destroying them

In Mapplethorpe’s bare studio space, each subject contained its own particular life force, separate from the offhand social narratives imposed on them outside. Reality is visible as the theatrical artifice each person is forced to bear. Stripping subjects of their props and performative contexts made room for an honesty that was both shocking and serene. His images embraced the ambiguous doubleness in realism, using the camera in the flattest way to capture the beauty in subjects that was regularly treated as unseeable or recognizable only within the constricted limits dictated by the era’s sociopolitical algorithms.

“The miracle of the photograph, of that allegedly ‘objective’ image,” Baudrillard wrote in Impossible Exchange, “is that through it, the world shows itself to be radically nonobjective.” The false objectivity of representational machines like cameras or graphics rendering programs leads us to collude with the creation of new fantasies of objective truth, eclipsing the old ones to form the basis of our unconscious expectations of what reality is. “The world was given to us as something enigmatic and unintelligible,” Baudrillard continues, “and the task of thought is to make it, if possible, even more enigmatic and unintelligible.”

If there is a beauty in the bizarre insistence on the photorealistic in video-game visuals, it is in how inseparable it is from depictions of violence. Playing through the painstakingly laborious corridors of reconstructed crepuscular “god” rays and animatronic palm trees in Uncharted 4 — or Far Cry 4, or Crysis 3, or The Witcher 3, or Metal Gear Solid V — can be seen as a kind of hostile invasion of the landscape itself, the player overeager to find gasoline barrels to explode or wooden crates to roll into or oil refineries to ignite with C4, shanty towns to turn to confetti, the processor resonating at some melodious golden frequency as each descending particle of debris is blessed with its own unique physics simulation that players won’t even notice as they bear down on the pinhole, the gunpoint center of the screen, searching for the next enemy body to expose itself from behind an overturned market table.

The point of this kind of beauty is purely hostile: It provokes aggression and then drains it in a simulative fandango of mathematics the player will only ever feel by intuition. You never fully understand.

Only a minimal pretext — there’s buried pirate treasure on an island, a doomsday device in a secret base — and players are drawn into the pleasure of storming a world of false doubles. The more interchangeable with real objects they are, the more pleasure there is in destroying them. In The Vital Illusion, Baudrillard wrote that the task of philosophical thought (out of which the computational foundations of video games emerged) is “to go to the limit of hypotheses and processes, even if they are catastrophic. The only justification for thinking and writing is that it accelerates these terminal processes.” Video games extend this, allowing us to both experience the immanent closeness of physical catastrophe in all things while still rubbing up against the screen that prevents those material devastations from being thinkable in daily life as anything other than play.

There is no better description of this quality than ugly, which derives from the Old Norse word for dread, something that impels us to become violent out of fear of what has been augured. There’s nothing beautiful or “best looking” about games that reach the level of visual clarity and technological complexity of Uncharted 4. It is an unnervingly ugly game, driven by the inscrutability of everything inside its frame to attack, a constellation of empty triangles dressed up in dimensional hallucinations.

It’s ironic that the visuals behind these experiences are described in terms of fidelity. One game’s visual fidelity surpasses another, insofar as its technology makes a thing irresistibly, catastrophically destructible. Beauty, when made a matter of technology alone, creates a vacuum in which the only legible desire is violence, or rather the theatrical pantomime of violence, as players submit their own urges to as many unseen layers of encoding and rendering as the crates and castles and enemy soldiers they aim their weapons at. They consent to simulate their desire to hold on to it and avoid facing the vacuum of erased companionship that lies beneath it. They surrender their agency to the implicit commands of the game’s rule set and its aesthetic doppelgänger, a simulated reality that is as inescapable as it is unknowable.

Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York and the author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men.