When talking about the concept of simulation, we are always dealing with a highly idealized model of reality – otherwise, it wouldn’t be a simulation. Simply put, the logic of how the reality behaves as a whole is just far too convoluted to be fully understood, and as a result, fully replicated in a model. Simulation is, by definition, an inferior (i.e. simpler, cheaper, more practical) construction of its original referent, and as such, an instrument for experimentation and play. But the most importantly, for play.
So even the most advanced scientific simulations today fall short of replicating the reality as it is, and commercial simulations like video games must compromise the modeling even further. Of course, we have come a long way from abstract Lego-sized pixels to relatively credible visual depictions, but the gap between reality and simulation is there – and always will be. The question is, to what extent we notice that gap, and what can we do about it?
On that note, I remember back in 1996 sometimes putting Grand Prix 2 to the replay mode and then squinting my eyes so that the vision blurred enough to make the imagery look more or less photorealistic. I did acknowledged the stupidity of that exercise, but it made me realize nevertheless that convincing “synthetic realism” in real-time was indeed possible, even if one had to alter one’s perception to achieve that.
This is the reason why I find sometimes off-screen YouTube gameplay footages fascinating, since the camera (especially when shaky) adds in a way an extra layer of realness to the imagery that may be otherwise too crisp and sterile. And furthermore, the 60 fps footage produces a cool motion blur-like effect when filmed in 30 fps or lower.
So even though I generally dislike over the top post-processing effects, sometimes they can create interesting results for the reasons presented above. For instance, in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare the player can turn on in the cheats menu certain post-processing effects that render the game to look like over-saturated black&white photography, consequently decreasing the gap between simulation and reality to some degree.
And who could forget the notorious Death From Above scene from the same game, of which “thermal imagining” was almost indistinguishable from the real thing. The realness of the scene were very much due to the heavy noise and ghosting effects that masked the deficiencies inherent to real-time imagery, and thus, made it appear more real.
It seems that an additional medium on top of the real-time imagery can really push the (photo) realism further, at least to a certain extent. I’m not sure if the whole game should be carried out this way – it could get exhaustive fast (see Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days) –, but like Death From Above scene proved, highly “mediumized” real-time imagery can work really well in small doses.
At the end of the day, I believe the Death From Above scene did have the deepest impact on most of us in terms of Call of Duty games at large simply because it just looked so real. And even without the need to squint one’s eyes.