I’m an avid collector of free games on PC. I browse the listings on various digital storefronts and almost any time I see a title being offered for free I snap it up. Many of them have been crap – or at least not my idea of fun – but in amongst the advertisements and first attempts and games of yesteryear there are some real gems. One I picked up recently on Steam falls into that category.
Mýrdalssandur, Iceland is the name of the title, and it really isn’t a “game” as much as it is a tech demo, showing off what Unreal Engine 4 is capable of. Even on my ageing PC this interactive walking simulator looks absolutely incredible, and some of the screenshots and footage I’ve seen captured on far better rigs than mine are unbelievable.
The term “photorealistic” comes to mind, and while it is still possible to tell you’re playing a game, the level of detail, even when zooming in to look at small objects, is phenomenal. One thing that has surprised me over the last decade or so – really emphasised by the success of titles like Minecraft – is how there has been a movement among a significant portion of game developers and publishers away from ever-better and more realistic graphics. The jump in quality from titles of the 16-bit era, which is when I first got into gaming in my youth, to the 3D worlds that came later was massive, and graphics continued to improve over the years, pushing ever closer to photorealism.
Shenmue was the first game I can remember playing that genuinely felt cinematic, and small details like individual fingers on the hands of main character Ryo that moved independently were a huge part of how that game felt. Returning to Shenmue today shows it has actually aged rather poorly, even compared to some other titles of its era, but to me at the time it represented a huge leap forward in what games were capable of. Minecraft, as I mentioned above, took me by surprise in how popular it became partly because I felt that its pixel graphic style was simply out-of-date and that would be offputting to a gaming audience who had, until that point, generally favoured the march toward photorealism.
At least partly inspired by Minecraft’s success, there have been hundreds of titles released over the last decade or so that emulate the graphical style of older eras. Partly this is because such games are cheaper and easier to make – there are tools on Steam, for example, to let budding developers make their own titles in that style that are very inexpensive. A single person in 2020 can make a 2D pixel graphics platformer in a weekend that would’ve taken an entire team of developers months in the 1980s or 1990s. The entire “indie” genre – or a large part of it, anyway – is made up of titles like this, inspired by the likes of Terraria, The Binding of Isaac, and Stardew Valley. The graphical style is from another era, but people do still love those games and there’s a huge market for them.
In some respects, the growing market for titles that don’t try to do anything graphically new has probably slowed down the advancement toward photorealism exemplified by Mýrdalssandur, Iceland. But generally, games in that style are their own genre doing their own thing off to one side. Some modern games, especially the titles which make the most money for their companies, do try to look as realistic as possible, though. Franchises like FIFA and Madden in the sports genre, and big-budget releases like Call of Duty use the best graphics engines available to their development teams to try to look better with each iteration, even if they don’t really push the boat out. Almost the entire racing genre – especially those titles that feature real-world cars and are closer to simulators than arcade-style racing – always manage to look great.
Consoles, and the fact that there have been such long console generations in recent years, are definitely a contributing factor to the slower pace of graphical improvement. The Xbox One and PlayStation 4, to use the current lineup, were both released in 2013 – using components available at that time. Every aspect of their hardware is based on technology that is now seven years old, and even at the time of release they were still outmatched by high-end PCs using more expensive components. Every major title released this console generation has been constrained by that technological ceiling: games have to be able to function properly on an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 from 2013, despite the fact that technology has moved on since then. Were it not for that requirement, more games could push graphical boundaries and look even better. I know that’s straying into “PC Master Race” territory, but it’s not untrue to say it.
To get back on topic, Mýrdalssandur, Iceland looks stunning. A casual glance at the screen and you’d think you were looking at a photo or video. The imagery would fit right in with CGI created for the big screen – and looks a heck of a lot better than many of the CGI environments present in films from just a few years ago. My PC has certainly never run a title that looks this good, and I’m amazed to see what my graphics card and older processor can still manage.
If the title is still free on Steam when you’re reading this, I highly recommend checking it out. You won’t want to spend hours playing in this empty world – there isn’t anything to actually do, after all – but as an example of what graphics can be I think it’s well worth a look.
Mýrdalssandur, Iceland is available on Steam, and was free to download and keep at the time this article was written. Mýrdalssandur, Iceland is the copyright of Caves RD, and Unreal Engine 4 is the copyright of Epic Games. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.