How did Surrealism and Expression lose to Realism and Groundedness

Is fantasy valued anymore? or only that which is real

The Last of Us Part II (2020)

“This time, we’re going for a more grounded and realistic story”

How many times have you heard a game developer or movie maker say this at a reveal interview?

They are implying that their work is very down to earth, sometimes very literally, and has great characters with whom you’re expected to empathize to give you an emotional roller coaster ride of the unexpected but also a satisfying story.

Don’t fret over the variety of the stories, they are and will always be uncountable but the majority of AAA games from 2010–2020 seem to have all but forgotten what deviating from reality means. Even more surprising when games worshipped fantasy earlier.

REALISTIC EXPECTATION FOR SURREALITY

Surrealist experiences are viewed disconnected from the audience, since they’re not grounded in reality and Grounded ones as those that evoke human emotions and often placed a step higher than less real ones because…they are relatable? Surrealism goes hand in hand with expressionist works, ones that rely purely on shape and form on things and less on the details of it*. Your eye catches it and understands, that it! that’s how simple identity is understood and impact is created.

*this doesn’t only stand for art but also context of entire things which might be a bit vague to understand now but will soon become clear

But at worst, surrealism is simply dismissed, as fake.

It is disappointing to see beautiful forms of simplistic but powerful expression lost to the likes of works leveraging on relatability to us, mere humans. Does this expression always have to be something we can write and communicate? and not think and feel abstractly on a primal level?

I’ll discuss in brief about the following:

  • The expectation that increasingly realistic Computer Graphics brings.
  • Stories becoming increasingly human centered to the point of expression losing its priority.

WHEN REALISM IS DETRIMENTAL TO FORM OF EXPRESSION

Disney’s remake of Aladdin (2019)

LIVE ACTION REMAKES NOW

Of all things, animated films seem to have suffered heavily at hand of realistic CG. The very notion of remaking a hand drawn 2D animated film into a live action 3D film breathing fresh air in an old classic aimed at a new audience seems like massive cash grab hidden behind All-star casting promos.

What’s stunning is that these films boast some of the biggest cast of popular actors to hook the audience with their voicing and dialogue. This is NOT what made the original film special in the first place.

Humans aren’t physically capable of the extreme expressions as depicted by their 2D inspirations. Magical genies don’t talk like floaty funny beings anymore, the king of the Jungle looks straight out of Animal Planet but speaks in a voice you hear a hundred times before. How could this suspension of belief that was the pride and glory of 2D hand-drawn animation even be replicated in 3D by the new voice actors while also attempting to humanize them?

These films often get mixed responses from the audience due to the uncanny visuals that is neither surreal and extreme nor real. And yet, creators push to repeatedly make as many remakes as they can. It’s just the nature of things.

Le photorealistic Simba from the Lion King remake (2019)

There is a burden that accumulates due to high production values even for the simplest stories, and creative efforts are exhausted on these 1% details instead of the entire picture. With realism, this is bluntly hard on those who do it.

The problem with creating realism, is that everything has to look real AND behave real.

A Power Rangers’ Megazord falls down and doesn’t make an impact crater, nobody bats an eyelid, but a Jaeger from Pacifc Rim Uprising is thrown aside and everybody loses their minds.

People seem to be more concerned about laws of physics than the actual flair of these giant robots fighting. But in earlier days, we we’re excited just to see the sheer volume of these mechanical beings on screen and seldom worry about the weight of the Megazords.

It was acceptable back then, but not now.

Gojira facing off King Ghidora in Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)

“We’re bringing a three headed dragon and a giant glowing moth, you have to embrace the absurdity, for the lack of a better word”
- Michael Dougherty, Director of Godzilla: King of the Monsters

While Godzilla: King of the Monsters was praised by loyal fans of the Japanese created celebrity monster Godzilla, the film was massively criticised for lack of story between the human characters. But the very aim of the film was to depict the insignificance of the human race in the face of almighty power.

SO CALLED, MORE HUMANE STORIES

Perhaps the biggest change in trends in video game storytelling is the shift to making it as up close and personal to the protagonist as possible. Their most ‘human’ thoughts and consciousness and their everyday struggle in their world. Characters embracing their ‘humanity’ even if they don’t belong to Homo Sapiens at all.

It seems, especially, that power fantasy protagonists have been mysteriously robbed of their powers in recent times. The likes of games like Asura’s Wrath and Prototype are diminishing, and almost all AAA games have you in the shoes of a very humane protagonist, or a God reduced to man *cough*, and even moves at an average human pace, because the devs suddenly decided that dialogues and character acting makes for a better story, not necessarily what the actual player does in the game. Growing out of the arcade, goofy Mario-jumping and becoming more focused in attention to detail and making sure, every character is as humanly grounded as possible.

The protagonist stops the finger from reaching Earth in Asura’s Wrath (2012)

While it is difficult to notice this from an original IP standpoint, it’s easier to compare departures of major series from their previous decade counterparts.

THAT LEGENDARY VIOLENT GAME

Back in the PlayStation 2 era, there was one violent game. So many things were violent in early 2000s. Kids we’re glued to watching WWE and reenacting wrestling moves on their friends or siblings on the bed, until the mother came and wacked sense into them. Movies too explored violence without the critical bombardment from social media that eventually follows nowadays. Children those days played more in game parks, pay and play, since most did not own computers or consoles themselves. So, about this one violent game…

I remember my first acquaintance about this game was someone telling me:
Dei, andha game la avan chain vachchi adipan da”
Translated from Tamil to English:
“Dude, that game where he beats people with chains”

The angry man who refuses to die that is Kratos, from God of War 2 (2007)

This ‘chain’ mentioned is the infamous Chained Blades belonging to the God of War protagonist, Kratos. Wielding these chained blades, you beat the living hell out of the entire Greek mythology encyclopedia. The arcadey feel of the game was often associated with Kratos being a demi god himself then the God of War, dethroning Ares. One could say Kratos practically exploited this weapon of his in every manner possible, be it in movement, swinging and climbing through everything from Greece to Olympus, or in combat, decapitating fellow Gods in all creative ways possible.

Kratos danced like a ballerina while the blades cut everything flesh and bones.
It is a true spectacle to behold.

These God of War games we’re critically acclaimed for their animations, character scale, and cinematography as this included a plethora of characters -Gods, monsters and everything in between.

Kratos rips out Poseidon from his avatar at super sonic speed in God Of War 3 (2010)

God of War returned in 2018 and had changed massively with Kratos now in Norse lands and a son with him on the adventure (this time to ‘not’ butcher the entire Norse pantheon unless they get in his way).

Kratos advising his son Atreus in God of War (2018)

Only this time, the Director wanted to tell, yes you guessed it, ‘a grounded, real and emotional story’ one of a father teaching the ways of life to his son, after the mother’s death. The whole development crew having grown older and out of the teenager cherished violence that Kratos embodied. The entire combat was shifted from leaping into the air upercutting your enemies to moving at old man Logan’s pace and hacking with a boomerang ax. The game’s pace was vastly reduced because…. Kratos is too old for it.

Gone is the beloved double jumping which served the gameplay so much, with mid air combat. Gone are the crazy looking executions and extreme lines of action that the marvelous animations of the previous games brought to the table. Everything is at ground level and combat arenas are claustrophoic compared to the previous games. Now there is less difference between a Viking and Kratos.
A man and a God.

Is the brutal combat the main priority of God of War anymore? or is it the father-son relationship over which the player doesn’t have any control over?

By turning into a grounded game, God of War 2018 might’ve been, forgive me, robbed of the God and War, a symbol of dominance and power, it once stood for.

DEVIL MAY CRY

The best way to describe DMC to a fellow Indian is to say it’s the Rajinikanth of video games. (Rajinikanth is the synonym for style in Indian cinema)
One glance at the intro sequence of DMC 5 and you’ll know you are stepping into the most stylish action game ever made.

Dante dual weilding a motorcycle in Devil May Cry 5 (2019)

Devil May Cry started out in 2001 as an action game where the more stylish you play, the better you are rewarded. You play as Dante who uses guns, swords, guitars, power gauntlets and whatnot to dispatch enemies with such style and flair that would put a stereotypical Indian film’s fight scene to shame. It released 3 sequels till 2008. The sequel DMC 5 would only release 11 years later in 2019. A lot happened in the games industry by this point, most series have departed from their arcadey but fun and unbelievable feel to boasting realism and Hollywood inspired stories.

But when DMC 5 came, nothing changed. The game still wants you to kick ass in the most stylish way possible. Compared to other action games series *cough* Darksiders 3 *cough* that embraced grounded combat systems, DMC 5 had you riding your rocket arm, breakdancing with fiery gloves and boots and even chainsaw-ing enemies with a motorcycle!….. in mid air!

All in all DMC 5, looking beautifully realistic, still delivered a personal story of family reunion, and realization of self-worth through the character, Nero’s awakening, without abandoning it’s over the top stylish set pieces and absurdity that the creators believed is its essence.

HIGH STANDARDS OF REALISM IS NOT ALWAYS BENEFICIAL

In 2019, Asobo studios released a great game called ‘A Plague Tale: Innocence. The game’s quality and the team’s efforts were highly praised. A real marvel that a team of 40 could make such realistic and richly detailed places and characters in the game and still deliver good gameplay.

Amicia cuddling her brother Hugo in A Plague Tale: Innocence (2019)

After 10 minutes of playing, I tasted its bad apple. The realistic animations of the life-like humans in a video game makes or breaks the game even if it has the best Quixel Megascans environment. The devs, I’m guessing by this point, didn’t enough budget for quality facial capture, and facial animations turned out robotic and utterly low on quality compared to the rest of the game.
A Plague Tale looks and feels on par with other realistic AAA games out there but has sub-par facial animations compared to them, which seems out of place for a game that places it’s characters and their relationships at it center.

Is this what AAA characters are all about now? telling stories with human like facial expressions instead of actual gameplay/player experience.

The trend you see above is that Western Entertainment is more concerned about realistic game production than the East. Japanese games still haven’t lost their arcade-ey wackiness, and I do not think they will either. While European and American made games have strictly begun to obey Newtonian physics, humane emotions, and Hollywood story formats, there are enough Japanese games that are still loyal to the action genre DNA since the earliest action games.

Entertainment is manifestation of fun, happiness, wonder, fantasy and anything that amuses one’s mind. From Dragon Ball to Pursuit of Happiness, every storyteller wants to wants the best entertainment for their audiences. We have come a long way in the last 20 years since Computer Graphics were only a novelty to them being expendable now, used in films in a way you do not even realize there was CG involved at all. And so the methods these stories were made and told changed as well, as our push towards advanced technology continues in an attempt to deliver the most believable stories.

By restricting our feet to the ground, we forget that sky is the limit, I don’t know if that could also mean literally. I believe the next decade of games will not only cater to further realism but also develop more interactions between the player and the World that are iconic to that game and do not lose on the expression.

There is just so much more potential in the imagination than can ever happen in reality. Telling grounded and realistic stories is not the absolute definitive way to developing a better story, neither they should be the logical evolution further.

The article above is in no way to criticize the efforts of the creators of respective works. I appreciate all of them and their content since it’s a tremendous effort to create them. This is only intended as a look at changes in trends over time and whether we personally like it or not, will continue to happen.

Art, Media, and video games