© Written by Rob Ager July 2014




Sensory detail in movies is an interesting little subject. Film makers pay a lot of attention to what is shown on screen. Costumes, props, set structures and locations are carefully selected and designed to compliment the story in progress. If you’re going to show two tough guys having a fight then you probably won’t have them wearing pink t-shirts, bicycle shorts and tennis shoes. Today’s aesthetic fad of having tough guys dressed in black gets us away from Batman of the 60’s TV series and gives us The Dark Knight, which to me looks a lot like a fancy dress gimp costume.

Of course it’s perfectly possible for a couple of guys wearing totally inappropriate clothes to have a fight in real life, which would of course be amusing. So in this respect movies are a strong departure from reality – the sensory details are orchestrated, often according to fads, to encourage certain emotional responses from the audience, highlight certain plot themes and, perhaps most importantly, to remove the kinds of bizarre and funny sensory contradictions that often occur in real life.


Most scenes in movies are also designed with simplicity compared to real life. Just enough sensory detail is added to the sets to support the notion of the content of the scenes being plausible, but in real life there is often additional clutter and people in given situations that, if they were included in movie versions of those events, would distract the audience. This can be great in off the wall comedy films, but is terrible for most other genres of film.

Sensory realism in movies is also avoided in that film makers dub sounds in post-production, tweak audio levels of dialogue, use lighting equipment on location instead of just shooting with the light that’s actually there, and create artificial sets – which in old movies and TV shows are often laughed upon by modern audiences for their obvious cardboard and plywood nature. Home made point and shoot videos are actually much more realistic because what is in front of the camera has been tampered with much less than in a big budget movie scene, but the home video result is often ironically a sort of watered down experience compared to the orchestrated sensory content of movies.

An immense amount of effort is also put into making game environments seem as realistic as possible in sensory terms and the results are often stunning. Rage, for example, is packed with little details that not only look quite real but also make the environments look like they have an actual history.

Everything is weathered and beaten up. The crumbled ruins contain all kinds of detailed clues of a civilization that once was. It’s certainly impressive, but how important is it? People have been playing video games by the millions since the 1970’s and some of the most popular early games contained only a small fraction of a percentage of the sensory detail that goes into today’s most popular games.

The contrast is breath taking, but even with today’s hyper-real graphics people can still tell the difference. There are all kinds of subtle ongoing defects in today’s most sensory detailed games that remind the player that what they’re seeing and hearing is artificial. We see edges of polygons where surfaces should be smooth, textures that become pixelated or blurred up close, bits of landscape that disappear and repeating texture maps that create unrealistic cross hatch patterns across terrain. But it doesn’t seem to matter. Even when First Person Shooter gaming looked the original Doom it was good enough that millions played and became addicted.


So what’s with the continuing obsession with making gaming look even more photo realistic? It seems to be primarily a marketing gimmick. When a new game is demod for an audience and said audience don’t get to actually play it the first thing they notice is the sensory aesthetics. A game can have incredible playability and depth, but a lot of people will ignore it if they don’t witness impressive graphics and sound upon first exposure.

Games that become popular on the strength of playability but have poor graphics and sound tend to be marketed through strong word of mouth, sometimes good reviews and especially through play sampling - as in somebody else has a copy of the game and lets other gamers try it out. The ultimate game today that reveals the simple notion that increasing sensory realism is not the priority of gamers is Minecraft. In terms of graphics and sound this multimillion seller game looks ancient, but it has outsold some of the best looking games around. The reasons for its popularity are quite complex so we’ll be referring back to Minecraft several times throughout this article.


Much harder than getting things to look real in games is the challenge of getting them to act real. A lot of games look great in still shots, but once we start playing we find that surfaces that should be soft and easy to damage are actually indestructible. They’re unscathed by swords, bullets and explosions. We can’t dig through dirt or chip rock out of walls. We run through heavy foliage as if it isn’t there. And such details are probably more important than how real things look because they are more relevant to gameplay.

Another facet of games and movies which reduces detail is the use of cartoons, which have a largely flat and textureless appearance - a world consisting of little more than solid colours and clearly defined shape outlines. The appeal to the developing minds of children is understandable, yet it also holds appeal for adults, as series like The Simpsons, King of the Hill and Family Guy have shown.

We also watch movies on flat screens. There’s no need to focus our eyes because the film makers have done it for is in camera. So if realism is what people want then 3D film making ought to be very popular, but a quick read through the Wikipedia page on modern 3D films reveals industry market analysis links that show that 3D movies had a brief spike in popularity with the likes of Avatar, but in the years since audiences have been gradually more inclined to go and watch the 2D versions instead. They want to watch movies, not be in them.

A last interesting point I’ll add about sensory detail is that a lot of people don’t like CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery) special effects in movies because they can tell it’s not real. It either looks too smooth, moves too fluidly to pass as organic, or generally lacks the natural defects that make up real world visual experience. And no matter how real it is made to look the audience still instinctively know that it was never in front of the camera, simply because the special effects would be too hard to do in real life. Some people still prefer old school special effects, even though they often look tacky and rubbery. The difference being that the tacky effects ironically feel more real because they look like things that can actually be touched.

I’ve no doubt that sensory details in games will get better and better. Soon we’ll be seeing individual blades of grass with insects running between them, rock textures that still look real close up and so on, but it may just end up being embroidery. Those games might not play much differently to the ones we play now for reasons we’ll explore shortly.