Evolution of video game graphics: Pixels, Trips to the Uncanny Valley, and to the Future

With the recent release of Toy Story 4, people all over social media have been praising its incredibly detailed teasers, zooming in on the characters’ shirts and hats to find an almost human-like texture. In retrospect, the graphics have improved as a whole not only for animated movies and CGI but vastly so for video games. As a casual gamer, I’ve always found all types of games (and the amount of planning it takes to make them entertainable) amusing. Often times, I’d binge video gameplays of horror or multiple-storyline sort games such as Until Dawn or Detroit: Become Human, simply enjoying the facets and twists in the storyline. Yet, it would take me a while to realize that the execution was smooth for one main reason — the incredibly detailed, human-like graphics. If there’s anything humans have certainly shown steady progress in, it’ll have to be technology. It only feels like a mere six years ago when I was playing a pixelated RPG game on my phone. But where does this all start? Let’s look at it from the very beginning. 

Interestingly enough, there are several popular claims to the first video game. For some, the first-ever video game was Bertie the Brain – made in 1950 by inventor Josef Kates. The game was clunky—quite literally— as it measured four meters tall, and allowed civilians to challenge the AI’s skills in a game of tic-tac-toe. To others, however, Bertie the Brain just didn’t fit the definition of a video game. So in October 1958, the commercially famous ‘first’ video game was invented by physicist William Higinbotham. Known as Tennis for Two, it was the main prototype of Pong, later famously acquired by Atari. Many of us, even today, are well acquainted with this blockbuster classic, and it was a hit at the time. The circuitry involved was also rather simple, utilizing resistors, capacitors, relays, and transistors for gameplay. The games were black and white and pixelated, but at their core, they were enjoyable.

Briefly during the 1950s and 1960s, however, the game industry wasn’t making major gains and momentum. With time and the expansion of consumer culture, not only did a multitude of games arise, but so did more advanced processors. Gaming has an addictive substance, which runs deep into neuroscience and the dopamine networks in our bodies. Essentially, sometimes winning a game creates a euphoric effect equivalent to winning the lottery or, as for some people, the addiction of drugs and alcohol can create. In a dull day-to-day life for many Americans, gaming was their colorful escape from reality (though ironically, many early games lacked color). Eventually, the color was introduced at the very end of the ‘Early Age’, with Atari introducing Tempest, the first color vector arcade game. It was in the Early Age that companies like Atari, Taito, and Sega dominate, but with the ‘Golden Age’ during 1978 to 1986, well-known names such as Nintendo, Tecmo, Konami, and Namco joined the competitive market. 

It’s interesting that there were so many Japanese companies, but the main reason for it is as simple as it sounds: video games and arcades were incredibly popular there, which warranted massive interest. America and Japan both played pioneering roles for video games, as America expanded more on PC games while Japan focused on console developments. Regardless, progress continued. In 1980, Namco released Pac-Man, which was massively popular, introduced the maze-chase genre, and opened up gaming for female audiences. In 1981, Nintendo would release Donkey Kong, which would be one of the first platform games, and also introduced the popular character Mario (known as ‘Jumpman’ at the time) to the world. Dozens of new genres of games were released throughout the 1980s, allowing for a time of creative development. In 1983, Dragon’s Lair became the first video game to utilize cel-animated video instead of computer graphics– it is widely acclaimed as the first 3D video game. 3D isn’t explored much more after this game for several years, not until the onset of the ‘Post-Golden Age’, which stretches from 1987 to our present age. Technology at this stage allows for sprite rotations, scaling, and 3D polygon graphics — a breakthrough at the time. The celebrated Mortal Combat was released in 1992 by Midway Games, and its successor in the series, Mortal Combat II, used high-quality graphics and the most advanced sound system (DCS) at the time. 

By this time, 3D graphics were becoming normalized in games, a huge leap from the decade prior, which was still using pixelated, block-like structures and incorporating color into games. New techniques were utilized, mainly trying to incorporate more human involvement in games. The greatest example of this is Konami’s 1998 release of Dance Dance Revolution, which has had many sequels, spin-offs, and continues to have a large fanbase of avid ‘dancers’. In 2001, Namco released Tekken 4, which would be the first talking game allowing characters to talk and interact with each other. 

As someone born in 2001, it’s still astonishing to me how much video games have developed from here– the onset of ‘online’ features such as in MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online roleplay games) opened video games and apps to a global setting– and I strongly believe this growth will help tie cultures and people all over the world together. With the growth of graphics in the 21st century, there were awkward moments, of course. The ‘Uncanny Valley’, as it’s nicknamed, originates from the Japanese translation ‘bukimi no tani’ by roboticist Masahiro Moti, who made a graph plotting emotional responses of human beings to the relationship between the degree of an object’s resemblance to a human. Essentially, comfort and familiarity steadily increase as human likeness goes up until there’s a valley-like plummet at around 75-80% likeness (hence the name). It then quickly goes up past that, and at 100% for a moving human being, the familiarity and comfort are at its highest. This is due to the human brain’s face-processing network that recognizes human faces and actions, but when approached with the awareness and unnatural ways of CGI, it confuses the brain. 

A lot of video game and robotics companies sought competitively to create a more realistic environment, and in the process ended up creating characters with faces that certainly were rather uncomfortable and ‘creepy’ to look at, confirming the existence of the uncanny valley. A lot of video games from the past decade especially have instances of this, whether it be due to the unnatural movements of the characters or the game-like, plastic look on their faces. It happens in CGI characters in movies as well, particularly in the 2011 movie The Adventures of Tintin or the famous 2004 movie, The Polar Express

So, how are video games today? They’re definitely doing a lot better than a decade ago, and are moving ahead at a fast pace. As I mentioned at the start, I was impressed by Detroit: Become Human’s smooth graphics and how many storylines and directions an individual could take, but with limited time. What I found more interesting was that the actors were scanned in 3D, and their models were made into characters. The actors were also involved in the process of motion capture, allowing for seamless movements to be rendered. Indeed, the characters closely resembled the actors, as expected. I was truly impressed with the progress made in a mere decade.

The game got me thinking– where will we go from here? Has video game graphics plateaued? It feels as if there’s nothing more to achieve for video games, as so many have achieved almost maximum photo-realism in their characters and settings. However, the future has a lot coming its way– especially in terms of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). 

VR and AR aren’t unexplored fields, by all means. In fact, there have been researchers working on VR in the 1980s and 1990s, trying to utilize headsets for a fully immersive environment and experience. However, now, companies such as Oculus and Magic Leap are competitively seeking the best way to fully immerse humans into games, allowing for the utilization of not only hands but the entire body and the senses. Though many are working on haptic suits and gloves for immersion, over time, it’ll become simpler in form as we humans manage to decode and trick the brain into taking us into a virtual world. Perhaps a sci-fi-like metaverse such as in Ready Player One might be closer than we think.

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