Videogames are often treated as a linear history—at least, visually. From Pong to Red Dead Redemption 2, graphics have only gotten “better”. We are an industry that strives for the visual real. There is a reason why new consoles always launch with racing games: “Look how realistically we can render these cars, weather effects, and we even digitally scanned every surface of all the real race tracks into the game.” The uncanny valley is the increasingly reachable benchmark. Videogames will not be validated as an art form until that art just looks like life. Yet, the best art rarely evokes the objective visual structures and outlines of reality. So why should videogames yearn for this?
It is a simply readable (and sellable) benchmark. Easy marketing. If this new console can make games that look like this rather than that, then the old console becomes obsolete. Placed in the closet, a new more expensive system now sits in the entertainment center. The cycle continues.
Realistic graphics are one of the absolute least appealing aspects of AAA videogames. Who cares how well the trees blow in the wind when the visual purpose is merely that—visual. They often say nothing beyond the desire to recreate or replicate a place, a time. But games are at their most compelling when they challenge places, change time, and create new worlds and visual representations of the every day and the abstract. Few titles actually use the advances in realism to create something surreal, so when that does occur, I am usually all in. Control has been the most recent example of that–the everyday structures of American bureaucracy rendered into the most minute detail only to be folded into and over by a haunting brutalist, ever-shifting dreamscape. Realism is a tool. It can be a starting point rather than a benchmark.
Avalanche Studios’ Mad Max uses the Apex Engine to craft a world grounded in realism. The desert landscapes look as real and expansive as expected, the cars all seem to work and break apart as one would expect, and the day/night cycle is a detailed facsimile of a daily cycle that is incredibly nuanced. But this at-first-glance appeal to the laws and structures of a normal natural world are broken apart by dives into the surreal and through the embracement of the abstract. We are brought into the viewed world of an everyday apocalypse that is easy to imagine—a nuclear-blasted desert landscape that is seemingly unending. But it is the small moments and encounters that send Mad Max into the oily surreal. Max’s car tears through the desert as a too-orange sun blisters the horizon while Chum Bucket screams, “The dark ones are above, the buzzards have seen us!” and it is in these moments where the burnt out, dehydrated dream of Mad Max comes to life.
The story of Max Rockatansky is a fable, a story passed from campfire to campfire. He might be immortal or he might not even be real at all. His legend is simple—a normal being molded into a blunt object whose only language is brute force. A starting point, a car, and a destination. The stories of Max involve those three things. There’s violence around it all. The narrative of Mad Max is hardly abstracted. In fact, it is often too simple, too rote. Caricature is sold as dimensionality and disability is played as a gag, as well as a visual means to engage in othering. The gaps and quiet moments in the narrative are where the abstract takes hold—often visually. The world secretes oil as if it is blood seeping from an open wound. This world revolves around oil. It is everything, but it amounts to nothing more than a means in which to further perpetuate the cycles of violence and persecution in the endless desert. It keeps the rusted, monstrous cars alive and it brings Max and his foes from violent encounter to violent encounter. An unending highway of cracked gravel and battered sand that only leads to the same thing—the locations might look different, but the mayhem is always the same.
There is a surreality to the bloodshed that is built through visual realism and grounded physics. Bodies break and bend under the doing of violence that looks and sounds realistic enough—it is gross, punchy and unnerving. Yet, there is something off about it. Max is inhumanly strong. His punches and kicks resound like thunderclaps against the painted bodies of the War Boys. He should never survive what he goes through, but he always does. Max’s fists and his car serve as his guiding forces through the wasteland. The War Boys jeer at him until they are within his reach—they then bemoan him as a monster, a blasphemer, and some sort of demon. They just might be right.
Max’s violent progression succumbs fully to the dream-like whenever he encounters the ethereal being, Griffa. It is here where players upgrade their Max. Griffa is an apocalyptic magician, a being both in and out of time. Disappearing and reappearing at random, he always has something to say to Max about “destiny” and “purpose”, and Max always left on his knees as he shakes himself awake from a fugue state. Is Griffa real? Is he a figment of Max’s broken mind that both gives Max a purpose to his meaningless violent existence and a feeling of progression, of empowerment? Yes, at least that is where my beliefs lie. The painted War Boys whose skin is either covered in layers of white or mustard yellow stand in stark contrast to the orange, burnt desert only exist to die by Max’s hand. So, Max has to give himself a reason to do so. He settles on destiny.
It is also through Griffa where the realized surreal weaves its way into the game’s systems, themselves. Given that Max’s skill points can be spent in a variety of ways, the real and actualized body of Max becomes a fable, itself. An ethereal jumble of descriptions and actions and patterns. I have written previously on the power of games as an exercise in the oral tradition(s) and it is through the building of Max’s abilities that he himself becomes the myth and legend he has been described as in both the game and George Miller’s films. Every player's Max is both different and slightly the same. He can look a multitude of ways and his skills will assuredly very. It all depends on who is playing (or telling) his story. Max is no more an agent in his world than the quasi-fanatical War Boys. Max’s story goes where his fable takes him, and it does so as it is being told. The endless desert and highways that Max’s journey snakes through are not barren just through ruination; they are barren because they are a story not yet finished. The highways are being paved as they are driven on. And Max’s realistic personage and animations tear at this notion of the body as a fable, but they help to ground that idea as well. His body is the nexus point and the novum through which apocalypses are built and stories are told. He has to look like a real being because without his realized body as an anchor, then the surrealed realism of the apocalypse would not work.
It is one thing for a videogame to step into the uncanny valley, to portray the real as a digitized, interactable object and/or series of recognizable affordances. A virtual door can have a knob just like the door to your closet. That knob can be twisted and the door can be opened along the axis of its hinges just like your door does. Beyond the door can be a virtually realized and perfected facsimile of your closet, but games can be more than that. We should ask for—no, yearn for—more than that. What if, beyond that door, there lies a perfectly and intimately realized version of your closet, except for the fact that nothing is connected and everything is floating warbly through the cramped space. The real can so easily lead to the surreal—it can give us access to the abstract and to dream spaces—we just have to come to the understanding that realism and the uncanny graphical valley can afford such notions, rather than be the punctuation that ends such desires. AAA games can do this, they should do this. Mad Max is more than just a realistic desert and a jumble of snakelike highways. It paints with the brush of an objective landscape artist (if such a thing were to exist), but the paint used is seeped in the oily abstract that sits just below the normalized, routined existence of all things. Let the real give into the abstracted, boundless beyond.
Screenshots captured using Mad Max’s photo mode on an Xbox One S.