Thursday, April 5, 2018

A call for video game neorealism

Bicycle Thieves (1948)
This is adapted from a spur-of-the-moment Lost Levels 2018 talk.

In video games, we understand realism as meaning photorealism: a hyper-real commercial aesthetic that's cynically detached from politics, emotion, and reality. Photorealism is also about escalating the video game value system, where high production AAA games are generally seen as more "immersive" and well-crafted than something that's less photorealistic. These are supposedly the videogamiest video games.

But outside of video game aesthetics, realism means much more. There's a centuries old tradition of literary realism, that sought to plunge the reader in the banal moments of everyday life. Social realism was a movement to paint more of the poor and working class, while socialist realism was a state-sponsored hyper-heroic style about personifying socialist thought. And today, we arguably live in an era of capitalist realism, where art and culture cannot imagine a world outside of capitalism. Reality is not a fixed thing -- there is not one realism, but many realisms, and each realism has a different type of commitment to reality.

So to imagine a world outside of photorealism, I'd like to build-off of another historical moment in realism -- and that is (Italian) neorealism in film.

Umberto D (1952)
From Wikipedia:
Neorealism is characterized by a general atmosphere of authenticity. André Bazin, a French film theorist and critic, argued that neorealism portrays: truth, naturalness, authenticity, and is a cinema of duration. The necessary characteristics of neo-realism in film include:

a definite social context;

a sense of historical actuality and immediacy;

political commitment to progressive social change;

authentic on-location shooting as opposed to the artificial studio;

a rejection of classical Hollywood acting styles; extensive use of non-professional actors as much as possible;

a documentary style of cinematography
"Without Pity" (Senza pietà) (1948)
What would a neorealist video game look like? As a starting point, I guess I'd like to try adapting some of Bazin's argument as a manifesto...

A neorealist video game should focus on truth and authenticity. It should have a definite social context, and a sense of historical immediacy. It should have a political commitment to progressive social change... (ok so far so good...)

A neorealist game should use on-location shooting as opposed to the artificial studio -- (wait, hm, no, let's try that again) -- a neorealist game should rely on assets and non-professional actors sourced primarily from the physical world (?!) and these assets should be minimally postprocessed, cleaned, or optimized... raw photos, raw video footage, raw 3D scans? (I regard this as a crucial strategy for destroying photorealism: to deploy more accurate but less polished likenesses, and detach realism from production value.)

A neorealist game should adopt documentary styles of cinematography, which to me, means no singular unquestioned first person / third person focus on one character. That doesn't mean the game camera should try to feel disembodied from the world, as if it were a neutral observer / fly on the wall! It's more like... the player perspective, and perspective shifts, should be actively concerned with the construction of the story / setting. There needs to be some sort of commitment or concern for how things are.

There's a great 5 minute analysis called "What is Neorealism" that argues the core of neorealism is about the slower shots, fewer cuts, lingering in scenes, and messiness of the story. Where a classical Hollywood film would follow only essential story beats around a central character, a neorealist film explains much less, and features all the "in-between" characters and moments that make real-life. Our good friend André Bazin would call this a "cinema of duration", where time and place are more felt by the viewer.

I think farming simulators, truck simulators, and walking simulators are maybe the closest thing to a "design of duration" with their unique commitments to preserving long in-between moments.

In contrast, anxious antsy games like Far Cry 5 constantly get worried that not enough is happening, and thus totally fail this "slow games" neorealist critique, at least formally, if not also socially and politically.

Anyway. That's some early thoughts on what a "neorealist" game could do. I think many games have implemented aspects of neorealism, but it'd be cool to witness a full experiment that really dives into it. No, it doesn't have to be a grayscale game about working class people in postwar Italy, but we'll know it when we see it.

But mostly, I just wish "realism" wasn't such a dirty word in game criticism and theory. I hope I've shown how, historically, realism has been a powerful progressive tool for rethinking art and its relationship to the world.

Don't let AAA game aesthetics monopolize realism! Realism doesn't belong to companies! Realism belongs to the people. We just have to reach out and take it back.