If you keep even marginally abreast of gaming news, you've likely been pointed this week to a trailer for an in-development game called Get Even. The video, with the enticing title "What is Real?" was made by a Polish company called The Farm 51, and has been breathlessly touted as the first obvious example of truly "next generation" graphics. (A sampling of headlines: "Get Even - A Game that truly looks Next-Gen"; "Game That Actually Looks Next-Gen Gets Its First Trailer"; "Get Even': A photo-realistic first person shooter for next-gen platforms"; "Shooter graphics look next-gen"; etc., etc.) As of this writing, the video has garnered over 500,000 views.
The trailer splices together real and rendered representations of a dilapidated, graffitied industrial interior to great effect; though a careful eye can distinguish between the two, the level of detail and fidelity to an actual physical space is undeniably impressive. (An easy way to tell the difference—the first few shots, with shaky camera work, are real; Any shot with smooth panning is rendered) The trick is achieved through the use of a 3D scanning technology—called Thorskan—by another Polish company, Beyond Reality, which specializes in 3D rendering. The video is catnip to a gaming public that has begun to realize that the new 400 and 500 dollar consoles it snapped up in record numbers over the holidays don't actually play anything particularly impressive. Look, it says, hope is on the way, in the form of photorealistic gaming.
But what does the video actually tell us about the game, and the way it will appear when it comes out in 2015? Not as much as it would seem. The rendered parts of trailer are impressive but totally static. The swooping camera lends the illusion of movement, but any real change in the video only happens in live action. Significantly, the only time when we see rendered humans, they are totally still. In the rendered parts of the trailer, there doesn't appear to be any actual physics or collision or dynamic lighting—the things that make a game move. What we're seeing is a very detailed but totally inert 3D scan of a room.
The promise of photorealism and lifelikeness through technological breakthroughs is, of course, nothing new. Games have used motion capture for years and years; game characters still move like game characters. Developers have used photographs as textures for years; textures still look like textures. In the process of moving from technological demonstration to playable game, something is usually lost. While new and better consoles may mitigate and even lessen the extent of that loss, the general tendency is undeniable.
For example: Rockstar achieved the famously uncanny facial capture in L.A. Noire through a form of 3D scanning. They released a stunning tech demo, too, but by the time the captures had been turned into something comprehensible to the game's engine, they were diminished greatly in detail; they looked like, well, part of a game. Capturing things in detail is not really the problem; displaying them is.
And that's the million dollar question regarding Get Even. What will these scans look like when they are prepared for and put into the Unreal Engine? BuzzFeed asked The Farm 51 director of development Wojciech Padzur just that question. He replied via email: "We want to keep every pixel of every texture clean and accurate in full-HD resolution so it requires a lot of work and special routines in objects preparation."
But whether or not the game that ultimately comes out will achieve that goal remains anyone's guess. In 2011, the Australian software firm Euclideon released a tech demo of their Unlimited Detail graphics engine, and the video that demonstrated its wow-factor, nearly atomic-scale granularity went viral. No games have ever been made with it.
Implicit in the way this video has been framed to the public is the idea that The Farm 51 has somehow "figured out" or "cracked the code" to next generation visuals, have somehow "unlocked" the power of the new consoles, showed what they can do. Well, no: the level displayed in the video is merely palette-altered version of the 3D scan displayed on the website of the company that makes the 3D scanning technology. This is a demonstration of what a very cool new scanning technology can do, not of the capabilities of the PlayStation 4.
Which is sort of the point with Get Even. Object detail is only one component that goes into making a 3D computer game, and it's the most obvious one. But only when it enters into conversation with the actual things that make a game work—a physics engine, lighting, animation, and so on—can we say that it is representative of a potential consumer product. It's worth mentioning that The Farm 51's past games, NecroVisioN and a HD version of Painkiller both looked good, but hardly looked photorealistic. And it's not as if the high-end PCs for which they designed the 2012 Painkiller were categorically different in horsepower than the PC-based PS4 and Xbox One. So, will Get Even look anything like the demo that is driving the gaming press wild? Wait, and see.