Birds of a Feather
The above screenshot, released with the announcement that Volition will be including the "ostrich hammer" as an unlockable weapon in Red Faction: Guerrilla, throws the rest of the game's earthy (well, Martian) brown tones and sci-fi lego boxes into painfully sharp relief. Volition got the idea for the weapon from a NeoGAF photochop that pokes fun at the game's dead-serious portrayal of Martian revolution. With the ostrich hammer, you can smack people in the face with the ostrich's belly as you swing the bird around by its unfortunately long neck. It's the deadpan, realistic portrayal of ostrich hitting armor that makes it work. This is the first time I've noticed people actually becoming excited about something in the game.
There needs to be more of this absurdity in games, and less sci-fi geek wish fulfillment. Shouldn't photorealistic graphics make the prospect of ludicrous, surreal worlds all the more tempting? Apparently not, since what we often get are boneheadedly literal transpositions of ideas that are already cliches on paper.
Can Volition explain the ostrich hammer? Does it matter? I think that internal consistency negates creativity. A toothy, reptilian, bipedal alien strapped to a portable cooling apparatus makes all too much sense in the Resistance 2 backstory. In contrast, in DOOM II, demons from Hell meant skeletons with rocket launchers strapped to their backs and obese dudes with gatling guns for arms. That was cool, though people raised an eyebrow even back then. Consider the subtle, but significant, transition from Half-Life to Half-Life 2. In the former, white-coated zombies and bullsquids made up a new vocabulary of scientific terror. In the latter, robots became a much more common sight, and headcrab biology became something we could write about. It seems that the better graphics technology becomes, the more pressure is felt to draw creatures and situations that might be feasible in the real world. Reality is the dream. That's boring :(
Unlike other visual mediums, videogames practically coerce their audience into believing them. Still images rely on illusion; cinema relies on continual forward movement. Games appear to react to us, so we can't help but react in return. But they're far, far behind other mediums in appreciating the uncanny, sublime, and morbid qualities of the body. For all their gore, can any single act of violence in games echo in your mind like Bunuel's eyeball-cutting scene?
I want my expectations to be disrupted more. I don't want to just play out my fantasies. I want to do things I have not imagined. This probably isn't going to happen in a seamless, internally consistent world. Compare two videogame mashups, Eat Lead and ROM CHECK FAIL. The former had 500% more graphical firepower and 1/100th the imagination. The latter exploded your mind with the simple technique of juxtaposition.
That said, I'm excited about the following screenshot of Beyond Good & Evil 2 -- one instance where photorealism may actually heighten, not dampen, the game's uncanniness. (Plus, there's that desert backdrop, which looks like J.G. Ballard's Vermilion Sands.)