Blockbuster games are in the grip of a ‘cult of death fidelity’, says former Dragon Age producer


Dragon Age: Veilguard consultant and former Dragon Age executive producer Mark Darrah posted a video on Youtube in which he answers the question “why do AAA games take so long?” It’s roughly 25 minutes, and it covers a lot of topics in a fairly accessible way, from the current enthusiasm for live-action “forever games” in the context of “finite”, narrative-driven affairs, to the “misleading” announcement of much-hyped sequels for many years before full production begins to strengthen the publisher’s brand during a period of drought.

One thing I wanted to pick out and throw to you is Darrah’s discussion of what he calls the “cult of death and fidelity” – that is, the desire for ever greater levels of realistic visual detail and “complexity.”

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“We’re also in a period of what I called the cult of the death of fidelity,” Darrah explains in the video around the eight-minute mark, “where a lot of games are trying to get a hyper-realistic art style, hyper-high fidelity, hyper-personalization, hyper-complexity. These things, while not contributing to to a larger size, nor do they aid create an endless game, they still take a lot more time, if you’re worried about the way people’s hair moves on their backs, it will take some time, which you wouldn’t have done in the past. You’d just spray paint their hair or give them a bonnet or something fairly stationary. reintroducing up-to-date paths of complexity.”

He extends this point to include players’ aversion to things in games that they consider “recycled”, from bits of repetitive environment to animation systems. “Similarly, we currently see that players are against reusing systems and resources, so even if I create a sequel to a game that came out just a few years ago, I can feel as part of the development team that we cannot reuse any of our resources because we will meet with refusal from the players. And while I might be able to reuse some of these animations or some of these models or some of these areas. I may have to replay them to avoid this reaction, so I’m putting extra time into the development process that would otherwise allow the game to be released sooner.

Interestingly, Darrah notes that while the emphasis on giving players endless things to do, access, and enjoy in “forever games” reflects public opinion research showing that this makes the game more enticing, the “cult of death fidelity” and avoidance resource reuse is “more about fear of backlash, as opposed to any more detailed research that says it is necessary.” He suggests that prioritizing the creation of original assets and fidelity is “a trap that development teams kind of set upon themselves,” pointing to Baldur’s Gate 3 as a “perfect example” of a game that managed to downplay “minor visual fidelity issues that ultimately often they don’t really matter.”

That believing in ever-measurably higher fidelity takes up a lot of time and energy without actually adding anything to games is a familiar argument, but it’s always worth repeating. To step into journalistic rage, I’ll add that writing about games that value fidelity for its own sake can be monotonous, albeit partly because enthusiastic readers want us to write about them a certain way.

The related traditions of realism and photorealism are convoluted, electrifying and evolving in their own right, but in video game culture these traditions tend to boil down to numbers and buzzwords – more polygons, more animated objects per scene, more lens flare on NPC tears, with appropriate the need for a stronger one, dirtier pieces of hardware that can run games. Remember, if a preferred interpretation of realism and photorealism is given, it reflects the tastes of the audience that both AAA developers and journalists have cultivated for themselves over decades by acquiescing to the whims of the marketing machine. I’ve written many articles on higher resolutions and elegant up-to-date shader types. One thing I’d like to ask Darrah is: How exactly should creators of blockbuster games dispel the “cult of the death of fidelity”? How should they convince more tech-savvy gamers to abandon the sight of sprayed hair?

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