The weird correlation between "realistic" graphics and suspension of disbelief

Maybe it’s just me, but lately, I’ve gone back into a few old games again. Asherons Call, EQ, and several others that are products of the late 90s. For me, there is this weird connection, to games that have an unrealistic but moody look, and immersion. I find it very difficult to invest in real looking worlds the same way. Maybe it’s because I don’t get the same feeling of being transported into something different my from normal reality. Maybe it’s rose colored glasses, or some combination of the two.

EQ has always been this way for me, no matter how many times I go back to it, I still get that same feeling walking into Crushbone, or any one of the million places there are to go in that game. There is a sense of place in those games that you just don’t get with realism.

I think this is also one of the reasons I really loved minecraft when it first came out, it’s the same sort of thing. Because my imagination has to fill in some blanks, I feel oddly more connected to it, I feel like I have more invested in it.

The latest couple of Tomb Raider games would be a perfect example. They are amazing looking, and often, have amazing vistas that you can stop and look at for a bit and go “wow, that looks awesome”, but I never feel like I really inhabit those worlds. Very odd.

It’s the same that happens with the uncanny valley or very high framerates on film. The lack of enough real information makes the brain have to actively work to fill in the blanks ( O_o <- like in this ). However, if the depiction is closer to reality, two things happen: first, the brain stops doing that extra work that we associate with narrative engagement and then (weirdly) you have to make a more conscious effort to get the suspension of disbelief. I would say this happens in very few games yet, but I think it’s working on very realistic environments and perhaps characters already. The other thing that happens is that the level of realism is not normalized across the board, with, for example, realistic graphics but still simplistic AI. This creates disconnections and fractures within the mental model you have of the fictitious world and breaks suspension of disbelief.

Yah this is exactly why worlds like EQ and AC make so much sense to me. Everything seems to be in the same place. It all makes sense together.

I feel the same way: I’ve always preferred a cartoonish or clearly “fake” look to games than a photo-realistic one. (Plus, games made in such a way tend to age better!)

Not totally related to this, but I found an interesting trend in my gaming.
Back in the second half of the 90s, I was disliking 3D graphics because their “realism” didn’t allow me to transpose into them the way I could with 2D games.
Nowadays, I just can’t get into openworld big budget games for the same reason… but I find, playing older (“ugly”, by simple technical standards) 3D games, I am able to get into them much more easily.
What I am trying to say, @Ultrazen: maybe give it a dozen years, and the new norm of photorealism (bearing uncanny valley catastrophy like that PS4 survival horror game whose name I forgot) will make the current 3D inspiring to us too!
But it’s a funny thing how the brain works.

I hear you, and I fall into this same pattern @Ultrazen, but I would note that there is a sweet spot that changes. When EQ first came out, I enjoyed it but many times beat my head around some of the limitations of the game in comparison to MUDs I played. Yes, text based. Why would I do that? For the same reason, my mind created the scenes that were printed out before me into a more elaborate thing than it really was. As we get older that changes as memories fade, but those in the recent past are still fresh enough that they feel comfortable.

Nostalgia is a big part of it too. Why can I watch a beautifully shot modern western yet reminisce about old black and white westerns while doing so? Because they speak to me in the time that I watched them. The setting, the people I watched them with (my grandfather,) etc. You’re happy in EQ for nostalgic reasons just as much as immersion reasons. That first time you went into lower Guk, or caused a train in Blackburrow, or your first raid. It isn’t just that your mind fills those gaps in reality for graphics, it is also that your mind is happy re-remembering those experinces.

I also believe that it’s easier to get immersed in a virtual world when there’s a (coherent) fantasy setting than with an ultra realistic environment. Maybe it has to do with our critical sense that tends to go dormant when we are surrounded with fantasy elements.

I think this comes down to screen clutter. If you play of the early 2000 3d games the first thing you probably notice is simple geometry and how POIs (objects, npcs, etc) tend to stick out because of this, making them much harder to miss. At least that’s the case for me - when I played games like Alien: Isolation or Bioshock Infinite I spent way too much time obsessively hovering over objects in the rooms in hope of getting a contextual prompt that would tell me if I can interact with the item or not - because it was very hard to tell at a glance if that is possible or not.

Is it possible this is what you are experiencing? The games you define may not be “realistic”, but they ‘make sense’ with all of the elements put together - including sound, graphics, interface, AI and play.

I agree that some of this is nostalgia, but in the case of black and white, the same mechanism is at work. A black and white world is a world that doesn’t exist (for most of us), and therefor is very evocative. There is an other worldly quality to black and white, that has always been appealing. I have always loved B&W photography for that reason.

That’s certainly a big part of it. But on the other hand, there are certainly modern games that have incredibly cohesive and well produced/coordinated gameplay and environments. I really think a lot of it is just having room for my imagination to fill in some of the details. Modern games can very often deprive you of that in many ways. I also think this is one of the functions of 1st person vs 3rd person, which has always been a sore spot for me is well. We could get into a big discussion about mirror receptors, and how powerful of a human capability that is as well. 1st person is just inherently more immersive to me. I have never ever played a 3rd person game where I got “lost” in it like I have something like EQ when I played it exclusively in first person.

Just trying to get a better understanding of all these elements, as I think it pertains to music and painting as well, both things that I make a (crappy) living doing.

Alien: Isolation had this subtle but clean visual vocabulary where pretty much anything that could be interacted with had green LEDs on it. Anything that was red (or orange-- it’s been a while) was currently locked or unavailable. I thought this was really smart given how rich the environments were. Kept the HUD lean. Ah, here: Items however were a dull orange glint so that still required a bit of combing.

Some of the flight sims I’ve enjoyed the most have been the ones with big blocky vector graphics. Gunship 2000, A-10 Cuba!, Hellcats and that FA-18 game

I have had the exact same reaction… I’ve tried quite a few modern flight games, and I’m just not sure why they don’t give me that same sense of being in the world… It may just be that I’m getting old, and my brain is fried and immune to stimulus at this point lol.

I think that might be a different issue than the graphical one, as the flight sim genre took a turn for some sort of weird accuracy (well… aiming to be ‘simulations’), versus being actual games. I didn’t have a PC back then, so I hadn’t experienced most of the sim genre when I was younger, but when I got the chance on a Mac (arguably not the best simulator platform) and after the cold shower that was Falcon 4 and some helicopter simulator whose name escapes me, I was happy when I was introduced paradoxically later to A-10, the first Red Baron, or even Chuck Yeager’s Air Combat.
But then, writing this, I remember how I am actually just like you and I was taken away by X-Plane 5 and its plain surfaces or early textures, something I never quite experienced playing any of its iterations since then… A tentative explanation is that I think, in my case, it is because the lower graphic quality (or absence of clutter, as @Bateau was pointing at it) might allow me to focus on the sound - and I know I have a far more aural than visual sensitivity.

As an aside, perhaps you’d be interested in playing House of the Dying Sun? It’s a space fighter “sim”, but the graphics might be just up your alley.

I know what you mean @Ultrazen. I finished Anachronox last year and that had a tremendous sense of place given how old it is. It helps that the game just oozes atmosphere with the music and personality of the characters and world.

I’d also like to give a shout out to some modern games like Proteus, Bernband and the unusual looking Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor (which I haven’t played yet) that all have these low-fi but really hypnotic aesthetics.

There’s an art to evocative and immersive worlds that somehow gets lost in AAA productions. It’s not necessarily about fidelity so much as being perhaps too literal. I think the last modern day AAA game I played which I got lost in was probably Dishonored and I think that’s because it was a little on the impressionistic side with a real sense of style and visual flair. Actually, I’d add Alien Isolation too because they really nailed the environments in that.

You know, another theory I’ve had for years is that it depends on the type of game you’re playing and the speed at which you move through the environments. Thief, Deus Ex, Metroid Prime, Dishonored, Alien Isolation, Gone Home, SOMA, Brothers, Anachronox, Proteus, Bernband, even Dear Esther which I didn’t like. They’re all games where you take your time through the environments and I think this does wonders for immersion and getting keyed in.

Although Titanfall 2 is realistic and super fast with a fleeting campaign, I was surprised how effective the brief moments of downtime were. Perhaps because it contrasted so heavily with the action, you could feel the… I dunno, the sense of place, bleeding in. I’m also thinking of the shelters in Metro 2033 here, and the ‘village scene’ in Uncharted 2. I hear SWAT 4 has incredible sense of place too, and, again, that’s a slow game. Actually, I could go on and on with examples here :-)

So I suppose I’m not entirely convinced that it’s just down to more impressionistic graphics and leaving blanks for your mind to fill in so much as it’s about the speed at which you’re expected (or allowed) to experience the worlds. The derision aimed at (and the coining of the term) ‘walking simulators’ suggests to me that gamers generally aren’t so great with slower games so there’s an ADHD approach to keeping them entertained with pacey campaigns and plentiful action sequences, or the worst: UbiSnot markers sneezed all over maps, incessant HUD pop-ups, challenges and cheevos tugging attention every which way. I don’t know about you but most of that junk just distracts me and breaks immersion.

Okay, I’m waffling now.

The recent Tomb Raider games have a lot of this. They have these really beautiful, elaborate set designs, that someone obviously spent a long time on, and in some cases you are through it in a manner of seconds. Contrast that with the first Tomb Raider game, where you spent quite a bit of time in the same areas, often getting to really “know” them being the key to figuring out how to get out of them. I’m not sure if people have the patience for that stuff any more, but I think you are correct that time spent in the same locations or the pace of the game do help to build that sense of place. God knows you spent enough time in places in EQ. Just the number of hours I’ve spent in Crushbone alone with various characters, is more than I’ve spent playing entire games by a huge margin, and it does help to give the place weight beyond what it is in reality. Interesting point!

Thanks for this! Haven’t played it, will go check it out :)

I’ve felt this way as well. I really feel I grew up in the golden age for video games because going from text games to blocky graphics meant I was still using my imagination almost as much as reading a book while playing. Now things looks so close to real life your brain only picks apart what isn’t real enough instead of just filling in the blanks.

Great thread!
This is something I’ve often wondered about, as I am one of those who frequently loves to go back and play my older games, and there’s just that ‘something’ about them that modern games often lack.

I’ve thought about it from time to time, but never too deeply, and usually would end up writing it off as pure nostalgia. Which it is, which begs the question: What exactly is nostalgia?

There are some thoughtful theories in this thread, but this example (based on @geggis’ excellent post) is one that has never before crossed my mind. Having played both the newest and oldest Tomb Raiders, I find a lot of truth here. Not that it explains everything, of course, but I think it’s one piece of a fairly complex explanation. New Doom vs. old Doom would be another example of this for me. I played old Doom as exclusively SP, and spent a lot of time becoming intimately familiar with each level. I was a slow, methodical, exploratory player, and loved the game that way. The new game sort of discouraged that.

I’m playing Arx Libertatis (engine port for Arx Fatalis) just now and remembered this thread - after I somehow managed to tear myself away from the screen after being fully immersed for nearly 2h straight. It’s so easy to look at and quite easy to navigate too, surprisingly.