This topic has come up in the gaming press several times in the last week. Back and forth and round, with futurists using it as an opportunity to put down predictions on when we are going to make it to that point (If you guessed they said at 10 year intervals, you’d be right! No one ever says something is coming out in 13 years). Aside from the phrase photorealism being utterly useless in a discussion (do you mean visually? or do you mean with the supporting elements also perfected?) and the original inciting comment being either misinterpreted or incredibly stupid, it hasn’t exactly been a deep debate.
Photorealism, whenever we reach it, is just going to make things worse. The uncanny valley effect will only be worsened when cruddy voice acting and poor facial and body animation betray that perfect looking human as anything but. Attempting to bring all those into line with our graphical fidelity means even more than the frankly ridiculous amounts of money we are spending on game development currently, which just isn’t sustainable. What we have now isn’t sustainable. Bugs will become even more jarring and immersion breaking, assuming you overcome your especially steep uncanny valley to begin with.
You know what’s “photorealistic”? Movies and Televison, because they use photos, except television has operated at a lower resolution and framerate for years. Guess what, those mediums still have problems with plot, dialogue, science abuse, acting, and a dozen other potential pitfalls. Add in gaming’s unique variants (why can’t I use a crowbar to open a door or take apart some crates?) and one wonders why we’re bothering to improving graphics at all. Seriously, graphics look pretty damn good as of late. Gone are the days of squinting at some polygons and wondering what they were supposed to represent, and so hopefully are the days of selling a game on brand new graphics technology instead of actual gameplay or story.
That doesn’t even begin to cover the technological limitations that are currently preventing photorealism. In movies you have to go shoot in front of a brick wall; in games you have to create a brick wall from scratch that will hold up to viewing from any angle. Then someone has to make a texture for that brick wall that won’t noticeably pixelate when zoomed in on. And a graphic system that creates a shadow for each individual brick when the sun hits it just right. Now do that for an entire building, street, city and have everything look realistic at any angle and zoom. Oh BTW, monitor resolutions top out around 2560×1600, so now you need to do a whole bunch of math to ensure that the rendered result actually looks good.