The graphics of games have come a long, long way from the days of
Tennis for Two in the 1958 OXO in the 1952 (Corrected thanks to Jani Vainiomäki). This first graphical video game ever used only a very limited display of an oscilloscope. On this kind of a display, even presentation of text was, if not impossible, at least very cumbersome.
Some people argue that these days the graphics are so good that further improvements are unnecessary. I disagree.
It’s true that for some games the limit has just about been reached. For example reconstructing a Formula 1 race in a way that’s almost indistinguishable from a TV broadcast is achievable. This is because a race settings consist mostly of quite static elements such as the track and the cars. Static elements are a lot simpler to model. Of course cars move but they don’t usually change shape if not for a collision. The audience is also quite distant most of the time. For these reasons lacking details won’t distract the gamers from the immersion of the game.
I think that the most graphically demanding games deal with a rather surprising genre: human drama. When you’re trying to convince the gamer that the characters in the game are real people that they should care about, the minute details can break or make the game.
Graphical glitches which are often present in games are especially distracting in serious drama games. If your character can accidentally fly or see through walls, the realism is quite easily shattered.
Even more difficult is recreating the human face. We human beings develop our face recognition skills at a very early age and from then rarely a day goes by without using it in some capacity. That’s why it’s so difficult to model a real human face: they are so familiar to us.
In my opinion human faces in games have been unrealistic until just recently. Heavy Rain from last year and L.A. Noire from this one have really pushed the envelope.
Heavy Rain is a game dealing with very serious concepts such as a loss of a child. The game consists of some actions scenes but the most important part of the game is telling a human story which would be impossible if not for the most advanced facial modeling.
L.A. Noire takes a step even a bit further: the main gameplay aspect is observation of people’s faces. Your character is a police detective interviewing suspects. Breaking a murder case might depend on noticing a small tell of a lying suspect.
Although Heavy Rain and L.A. Noire are quite merited I would argue that you couldn’t fool a viewer into confusing them with a real video of real people. I think succeeding in this might be the most important milestone since the dawn of 3D games.
And that is why graphics improvements still matter.