The short answer is photogrammetry (opens in new tab) , a method of scanning photographs (a *lot* of photographs) to create and texture highly-detailed 3D objects without any of the repetition associated with common video game techniques. A longer, but far more edifying, explanation can be found over at The Astronauts' tumblr (opens in new tab) , where Andrzej Poznanski explains in detail how the eight-person Polish team is using the technique to create The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter, its weird fiction-inspired horror game.
"Photogrammetry is incredible," he says. "I have been making games for 20 years, I have worked with amazing talented artists on huge AAA blockbusters like Bulletstorm or Gears of War, and you could say I am not easily impressed in the art department. But each new photoscan gets me."
It gets me too. The examples shown in the blog, including some very swanky rotatable 3D images, look absolutely startling. "So much detail, so many intricacies, but most importantly, all of them just make deep sense," continues Poznanski. "Cracks, stains, erosion – Mother Nature has worked a billion years on some of these assets, it's almost unfair to expect comparable quality from artists who spend no more than few days on similar assets."
The aim of the game with photogrammetry, according to Poznanski, is to create a world which simply feels correct. Essentially it sounds like the technique enables The Astronauts to help eliminate the uncanny valley of objects, all the technique can be used on faces too.
"We didn't scan all these assets for you to inspect every tiny pixel and marvel at technical excellence of our art pipeline. We went through all the hard work on these assets so that you can stop seeing assets and start seeing the world. Feeling the world. It may look photorealistic to some, it may seem magical to others, but if we did our scanning right, it should above all, feel right."
Intriguingly, he goes on to explain that The Astronauts goal for The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter isn't full photorealism, but the power and fidelity of photogrammetry frees up the team to focus on their overall artistic vision for the game, rather than getting bogged down in the traditional busywork of object creation.
"And the end of the day, photogrammetry is a tool. Nothing less, but nothing more. It's still up to designers and artists to decide what kind of world they are creating, and on what journey they want to invite the players."
The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter will be released this year. We call this next screenshot 'brown steel'.(opens in new tab)