Video games transport us to places we'll never see and let us experience situations we never could in reality, but that doesn't mean they always look realistic. Plenty of developers are fine with cartoonish or stylized graphics, while others attempt photo-realism. Fantastical situations and gorgeous locations with true-to-life visuals are really something else. I'd say some titles have gotten really close to it already, but I can't help but wonder if this is an issue games will struggle with forever. Is true realism possible? Perhaps we do reach the summit of graphical realism? What then?
I find it hard to believe developers will ever reach a plateau regarding what can be done with video game graphics. Unlike audio, which I sometimes feel doesn't really get any better than what we already have, graphics continue to advance. (When I listen to any high-end sound system from the early 2000's, it still sounds great to me.) Think back to some of your favorite CGI-heavy films from the early 2000's. When the Lord of the Rings trilogy first released, I thought it was the most gorgeous thing I had ever seen. A few years later, I already noticed the CGI wasn't standing up to the test of time. This happens over and over with video games. Titles that look fantastic when they first release start to look a bit dated within a few years.
It's because of this that I imagine the battle for photo-realism will never end. There will always be a generation after us that looks at our games and thinks, “Man, this is old school.” What they'll see won't be the groundbreaking new technology that we saw. They'll see sluggish movements or characters who don't properly mimic the finer details of human expressions. We see titles like Forza Motorsport 7 and Gran Turismo Sport as the pinnacle of what games are capable of right now, with their stunning backgrounds, gorgeous cars, and weather effects, but perhaps the future generations will lament its lack of floaters in the player's eyesight or something even crazier.
Let's say developers do finally reach the top. Say they develop technologies that will never get any better. Games become mirror images of actual life. What then? As technologies evolve, they make leaps and bounds over predecessors, but then advancement stops or slows to a trickle. If we live in a world where game graphics are as good as they get, will developers stop trying? Will we reach a renaissance where, instead of focusing on one-upping each other graphically, devs focus on the stories they'd like to tell? Maybe stories will become more advanced, complex, and engaging. It's hard to imagine that, when there are so many wonderful games currently with stories that are practically perfect.
No matter what the future of holds, I think it's important for developers to continue to evolve. They should keep trying to create better and more realistic graphics, as well as quirkier and more unique styles. Yet, if a plateau is reached, they should also try to be even better at telling stories and creating histories for characters that are easy to follow. If one facet of video game development stagnates, then focus should shift to other areas.