A clip of motorcycle racing game Ride 4 running at 60 frames per second and 4K resolution on the PlayStation 5 took the internet by storm back in September, prompting amazement from onlookers that modern video games could appear so photorealistic. I was impressed by the footage myself but couldn’t quite put my finger on why. Fortunately, the experts at Digital Foundry are really good at answering such questions, and they did so in a video uploaded last week. I just watched it myself and felt it was worth sharing.
Before we get into that though, here’s the original video of Ride 4 that racked up nearly 5 million views as of this writing, showcasing a race in overcast, drizzly conditions at the Northern 200 in Northern Ireland:
No question it looks fantastic. To explain the magic behind it, Digital Foundry hones in on several key attributes. The first, as Thomas Morgan notes, is the camera perspective used. It aims to emulate the judder and lean of a helmet-mounted GoPro, giving this the aura of a real-life first-person ride uploaded to YouTube.
Interestingly, this particular camera angle is restricted to replays; there is a playable first-person view, but it isn’t quite as jumpy. That makes a world of difference, because a recording that’s too smooth would immediately signal to a viewer that they couldn’t possibly be watching real footage. On the other hand, you’d never want to actually play from the replay camera, as the constant, violent motion of it would probably leave you nauseous.
Beyond that, we have the graphics themselves. The crispness of the textures and the fidelity of trackside objects, like trees and buildings, certainly play to the footage’s strengths, but neither of those are the primary factor behind the photorealism afoot here. No — that has more to do with the dreary overcast conditions under which the race is run. As DF’s Alex Battaglia notes around the 7:20 mark:
“The color grading of the scene we’re looking at here, it’s already an overcast scene. In real overcast scenes in real life, there’s actually not a lot of contrast in the visuals at all, because, well, there’s no actually direct shadows to create contrast from because the sun is being obscured. Here in the video, and like you would see in maybe, you know, a rather modern color-graded video from, for example, some sort of film, is they kind of blow out the whites a bit and they also increase the contrast of shadowed regions.
“So if you look up at the sky, it’s almost pure white. And you look at the reflections of that sky on the ground, they almost start hitting areas of pure white. As strange as this sounds, this kind of way of color grading a game is a very modern approach. This is not necessarily realistic, but it’s just approaching a way we see media in other areas and we go ‘oh yeah, we’ve seen this kind of visual stuff before’ and it starts to look real to our mind.”
Battaglia goes on to point out that real-life overcast scenes look pretty miserable, which you surely know from experience and any attempts to immortalize a beautiful-but-rainy scene in a photograph. I can tell you for a fact that this lookout at the top of a hill not far from Connecticut’s Lime Rock Park was far more impactful and moving to me when I was actually there than it might seem from this muted, flat image I took with my iPhone:
But the inclement weather helps Ride 4 in other ways. Clouds obscure shadows, and to this day even the prettiest video games suffer from artifacts and jagged edges when drawing shadows. A scenario that eliminates shadows in turn eliminates another aspect of our daily experience the game would probably get wrong.
The sheen of wet asphalt and sporadic puddles create a sense of depth and intricacy to a world that doesn’t exist during sunny, dry conditions. The same goes for water drops and streaks on the metallic bodywork of a bike. And when all of these things are whizzing past you at 180 mph, as Morgan notes, you don’t have the time to nitpick parts of the environment that don’t quite pass the photorealism test.
It’s a confluence of factors that work in Ride 4's favor. Because, when you look at stills of the game during a clear-day race, the graphics certainly aren’t poor by any means, but they wouldn’t fool you.
This medium is delivering sights and sounds that are more realistic all the time, and racing games often find themselves on the forefront of that conversation. By the very nature of their speed and dedication to a realistic portrayal of the world, they tend to serve as excellent tech showcases for new hardware — whether you’re talking about a PS2 or PS5. Ride 4 might’ve fooled tens of thousands of people into thinking they were watching a moto YouTuber, but I reckon the next racer to pull this off is going to dupe exponentially more of us.