As graphics cards continue to increase in capability, modern video games have the ability to push graphical limits way beyond what was thought possible just 20 years ago. Many franchises have sought to create the most realistic graphics on the market. But is it necessary?

Screenshot of Fallout 76 with realistic trees and fog in the background
Fallout 76 featuring realistic lighting, fog, and environmental effects
Image courtesy of Bethesda

Consoles, arcade machines, and PC games have always been limited to the capabilities of their graphics hardware. 25 years ago, the idea of moving polygons and 3-D graphics were mind-blowing, with systems such as the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation revolutionizing the way people looked at video games. It’s only gone up from there.

If a game has better graphics, people are more apt to call it a better game. It makes sense, higher graphical capabilities make for better storytelling and more immersive experience. But in a world where games can trigger the uncanny valley effect, are games with less realistic graphics fighting a losing battle? Moreover, are the best video games realistic?

Realistic graphics in video games isn’t necessary. A game doesn’t have to be hyper-realistic to be relevant or enjoyable. While graphics are important to help visualize the story that is being told, people will play almost anything if the story or mechanics are good enough. Why else do text-based games still enjoy a modest following today? Graphics have always been about enhancing the story, and sometimes, a story doesn’t need hyper-realistic graphics.

Screenshot of Gran Turismo, PlayStation 1 best selling video game
The PS1’s best selling game, Gran Turismo.
Image courtesy of Ray Soderlund on MobyGames.com

Take a game like Undertale. The graphics are reminiscent of the 16-bit era, but it enjoyed substantial success, selling over one million copies since its 2015 release. Games like Dead Cells, Shovel Knight, and more recently, Celeste, all use pixelated graphics that feature little realism. Beyond their retro-style graphics, one thing these games have in common is their attention to detail in story-telling. Undertale brings up questions about morality and ethics.

Dead Cells invites you in with its mystery, humorous dialogue, and solid mechanics. Shovel Knight captures that classic NES nostalgia and just feels good to play. Celeste tells you the simple story of a girl who climbs a mountain- and shows just how extraordinary that adventure can be. These video games have graphics nowhere near realistic, yet they are beloved by many.

It’s important to remember that graphics don’t make the game. They’re just one part of video games to consider. If the story is bad, the mechanics aren’t solid, or the game is boring, realistic graphics will not save you. This doesn’t mean that all video games should go for pixilated graphics. Realism in video games has a place.

It can add another layer of immersion, making players feel like they are experiencing what’s happening in the game. First-person shooters can pull this off brilliantly by focusing on creating a realistic environment and NPCs. Amping up the realism in these graphics can make the events of the game more relevant to the player.

Mario, Luigi, and Yoshi from the Super Mario games
Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

In short, video games need to use graphics that help them tell the story in the best way. Not every story needs realistic graphics, however, and it’s important for modern gamers to remember this when judging the quality of a video game. Not so long ago, Super Mario 64 was considered the peak of graphics (and is still considered to be an all-time classic).