The Xbox One X still can’t make games look real, and that’s a good thing

Microsoft brought its big guns to E3 2017. They included not just the Xbox One X – which we now know will launch November 7 and cost $500 – but a huge array of titles that will be playable on it and other Xbox One consoles.

Surprisingly, though, only a few of them looked realistic. Forza Motorsport 7 took pole position as usual, and it’s indisputably stunning. Assassin’s Creed appeared with its gorgeous take on ancient Egypt, and Metro Exodus impressed with an apocalyptic open world that puts Fallout 4 to shame.

Yet these weren’t the most visually stunning titles. That honor instead goes to games like Dragonball Fighter Z, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, and The Last Night. Though built by smaller studios, these games left our jaws on the floor with visuals powered not by realism, but art.

Realism’s diminishing returns

Perhaps this outcome shouldn’t be shocking. Gamers have noticed, and complained, about the lack of ‘next-gen’ visuals in many recent titles. Part of the problem, of course, is that no one can agree what ‘next-gen’ means. Yet it’s hard to deny that the year-over-year cycle of graphical innovation has slowed in the last half-decade.

Developers are using the Xbox One X for superbly unreal creations.

Despite its power, nothing at Microsoft’s E3 2017 conference proved the Xbox One can change that trend. There were moments of brilliance. Bioware, for example, defied the travesty of Mass Effect: Andromeda’s facial animations with a brief and beautiful NPC conversation. Yet that was the exception to the rule. Assassin’s Creed tried to impress with a feathery friend used to scout enemies, but something about him just looked a bit…off. Metro Exodus presented a deliciously dense landscape, but nothing about its monsters or characters put The Witcher 3 to shame.

And why would it? Better hardware can increase resolution (which, to be fair, is half the point of Xbox One X) and help with other simpler enhancements, like improved lighting, but the basic assets and art direction won’t change just because engineers throw more power at the problem. Developers need to build a game that looks good across many platforms, ranging from the Xbox One S to the original Xbox One which – on paper – is about five times less powerful.

What realism can’t offer, art can

Luckily, the long slog towards realism doesn’t mean visual progress has stalled. Instead, it’s being put to different use. Instead of powering graphics that look real, developers are using the Xbox One X for superbly unreal creations.

Dragonball Fighter Z was an unexpected winner at Microsoft’s conference. Whether or not the game is good (past Dragonball titles haven’t fared so well), it accomplishes something no game like it has managed. It looks like the anime.

We don’t mean it’s in the style of the anime. We mean it looks exactly like the anime. Cell-shaded games and cartoon graphics are nothing new, yet they’ve always made sacrifices that put them a notch below actual animation. Not Dragonball Fighter Z. It looks every bit as fluid, refined, and detailed as the actual anime. More so, actually, as the anime, first aired in 1989, was produced long before modern HDTVs.

It’s not alone in its gorgeous presentation. The Last Night, another surprise standout, arrived boldly with an unusual mixture of high-resolution effects work and pixel-art world design. These elements don’t sound like they should work together, but they do, particularly when viewed on a 4K display. The high resolution smooths out every imperfection, letting players see the game exactly as it was intended.

Then there’s Sea of Thieves. Rare’s multiplayer buccaneer romp has highly stylized visuals to lighten up its take on piracy yet, at the same time, the game brings stunning vistas and water effects that games attempting a more realistic style would love to boast. Its developers certainly could’ve given in to a gritty look, but keeping the visuals light and cartoonish helps place focus on effects that really matter, like the ocean, and the intimidatingly massive pirate ships.

Truly new worlds

Some might take these games as proof developers and console makers have failed. Realism has been promised time and time again, yet we remain achingly far from that goal. The Xbox One X doesn’t change that.

That, however, is a narrow view, because realism itself is a narrow goal. True realism, whenever it is achieved, will be a milestone. Yet the pursuit of it can also crowd out art. How a game looks can say almost as much as how it plays, and certainly as much as how it sounds, or how it’s written.

The power of Microsoft’s Xbox One X gives developers more tools to create their art, whatever that art may be, and — if the first burst of trailers from E3 are any indication — that’s all for the best.