Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 may just be the best-looking game on PlayStation 5. But swinging around the game’s rendition of New York City and watching cutscenes of Peter and Miles, I can’t help but wonder what “best-looking” means. Realistic? Spider-Man 2 certainly tries to get closer to reaching the other side of the uncanny valley, but at a time when the race toward better graphics has diminishing returns, the industry should prioritize unique art direction over graphical fidelity.
On an otherwise uneventful afternoon in 2011, my mother walked into the living room where I was playing the recently released Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception on the television. Whatever set-piece was currently on-screen made an impression on my mother, who commented that she thought I was watching a movie.
I understood what she meant. Uncharted 3 was — at the time — the pinnacle of graphical fidelity on the PlayStation 3. A showcase for Sony’s console from the highly talented team at developer Naughty Dog.
In 2023, I don’t think my mother would make the mistake of thinking Uncharted 3 is a movie. That’s because The Last of Us was released in 2013 and was the new pinnacle of game graphics. Soon enough God of Wår (2018) on the PlayStation 4 took its place. Now, after three years of lacking a showcase of its power, the PlayStation 5 has Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 — and it’s the best-looking game ever. For now.
What strikes me most about Spider-Man 2’s graphics is how incrementally better they are than the first game, which was released in 2018. While the game does factually have better graphics, it is something that (at least in my experience) is only perceived when looking over the game with a fine tooth-comb. Five years of development and technological improvements have only gained so much ground.
It is undeniable when comparing Uncharted 3 and Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 that games have gotten better looking. That is, if we are purely looking at the prevalence of realistic art design in AAA games. But in recent years, that technological advancement has had diminishing returns. It takes longer for games to look only a fraction better than they did five years ago.
Even in the hypothetical situation that game graphics do keep getting better, the push for realism has an inevitable end. One day a game will look as good as real life. Then what?
The desire to make a realistic game is a technological challenge, not an artistic one. And while there is still art design within realistic games, the need for realism is itself a limit on the potential of what can be done. But what is the alternative?
While Xbox and PlayStation continuously push consoles to be more powerful boxes that can make more realistic graphics, Nintendo has almost entirely ignored that mentality. The Nintendo Switch has often been criticized as a lesser console due to its inability to compete with Xbox and PlayStation on graphical fidelity. Yet nearly seven years into the Switch’s lifespan it has become one of the best-selling consoles of all time, and outsold its current competitors without a sweat. But it can’t run a game like Marvel’s Spider-Man 2.
Instead, Nintendo has focused on delivering experiences with unique art styles that draw the player in. “There's a host of different styles overall on the platform, and I do think that's what separates us quite a bit,” Nintendo of America president Doug Bowser told Inverse in an interview coinciding with the launch of Super Mario Bros. Wonder. “It’s that diversity of content that's really bringing players in and keeping them on the platform.”
The Switch’s standout title, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (as well as its sequel, Tears of the Kingdom), is perhaps one of the strongest arguments for art direction over graphical fidelity. The cel shaded aesthetic defined by unique art design for the many cultures and people within the game helps make it a unique world to immerse oneself in.
It also has the added benefit of aging much better than the likes of Uncharted 3. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker still holds up as a gorgeous game thanks to its unique art style. Even realistic games can lean into unique aesthetics to fight off the trap of graphical fidelity alone. For example, 2009’s Mirror’s Edge remains a beautiful game due to its sparse but precise use of color to define the game’s architecture.
As 2023 draws to a close and I begin to look back on the year’s most memorable games, the titles that stand out with great clarity are those that stood apart from the pile of realistic AAA titles. Bayonetta Origins’ watercolor fairytale, Sea of Stars’ pixel-perfect retro adventure, and Venba’s cartoon feast all come to mind before Marvel’s Spider-Man 2.