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Why realism in games isn't always desirable

by Tauriq Moosa (Tauriq)  Posted Friday, April 25, 2014 2:29:00 PM


How realistic do we want games to be? A bullet can kill you in a single shot or lead to internal bleeding that requires extensive surgery; Mario’s fists would be pulp in the first few minutes; Bethesda’s characters would actually bend their knees and react to surfaces. All of these sound ridiculous (except for Bethesda one day creating more realistic characters than the current mounds of jerking dolls in Skyrim). Similarly, no one wants a city that actually extends as long as real ones, to get to their next destination.


Chicago: Watch_Dogs

Taking liberties with reality

For example, neither Infamous Second Son nor Watch_Dogs have a 1:1 ratio of the cities they’re played in. Infamous’ Seattle isn’t the same size as the real Seattle; neither is Ubisoft’s updated Chicago. What purpose would it serve to have 1:1? We aren’t trying to simulate civil engineering or city planning: we’re trying to have adventures and the spaces serve to aid that purpose.

Fiction by definition takes liberties with the reality it is based on. It’s not so much a mirror as a broken reflective shard jammed somewhere into reality’s skin. This highlights aspects of reality you might otherwise miss; as writer George Orwell put it: “"To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle." Thus, fiction actually makes you see more of reality, not less.

But the point is that fiction is not trying to perfectly emulate reality: that would simply be simulation. Fiction stories by definition cut out parts: toilet usage, eating, sleeping, driving. Sure, we’ve all seen scenes where characters do this, but usually they’re included for a reason. They’re not in it because a director is trying to perfectly emulate reality – which would just be, well, boring because much of everyday existence is boring.

We shouldn’t want perfect realism games. But that doesn’t mean we can’t wish for more realism. 20% more of something is not the same as 100% of it.

Realism, however, shouldn’t be a goal – just like size shouldn’t be goal. Making something more realistic or bigger doesn’t automatically mean you’re making it better. All these are tools and we should recognise them as such. What will make the game better: regenerating health, pick-ups or extensive three hour surgery? A game map the size of a real world city, with mostly empty space and nearly an hour to travel to locations – or a smaller city, with more dense objects and interactive points? In each case the answer undermines realism, but improves the game. And that’s what gamers should care about.


Seattle: inFAMOUS Second Son

The “real world” defence of gratuitous violence

What’s also important is to consider it as an excuse for story. What I mean by this is a reason to show graphic scenes and defend these depictions because they occur real life. In the last ESRB rating for Watch_Dogs, for example, the age restriction went up. As Jason Dunning explains, the rating went up due to “new [scenes featuring] nudity (instead of just “partial nudity”), strong sexual content (instead of just “sexual themes”), and use of drugs and alcohol (instead of just “alcohol”).”

Why should we want a game that features drugs and acts of sex? Creators are most likely smarter than us, knowing what can aid an environment. These horrible acts don’t occur all the time and everywhere, of course, but in specific locations and during specific times to aid whatever story or mission environment is occurring. We don’t necessarily want depictions of sex slaves, but we do want an environment that conveys how awful it is that it occurs.

The defence creators can make is that such events occur in everyday life. Murders, kidnapping and so on: we are most of us probably lucky enough to not have to face them – especially if we’re the kinds of the people who live lives where can afford to play videogames. Fiction operates within the safe space to tell unsafe stories: that woman isn’t really kidnapped, that man isn’t really shot. But the actions and behaviours surrounding those terrible events match those of the real world counterparts, allowing you to process them as if you had experienced them.

Of course the difference is the “you” in question is usually a grizzled, fit man with a gun. The point being that it’s still fiction and it doesn’t need to be accurate: indeed, it can’t be since accuracy is diminished when you’re looking at the problem down your iron-sights.


We don’t want ultimate realism, we want more and sometimes less depending on what will the game better – or just functioning. An example of non-functioning realism is perhaps the latest Thief game, where you boringly have to hit buttons to open windows and open doors and doors and endure loading screens because the map is “as big as a city”. Why not just have us spawn into the new mission locations instead of having us boringly trudge through the same, awkwardly designed city?

Realism like space or action are tools not aspirations. They must be utilised, not made the goal or the anchor of an experience.


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Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not MWEB Connect (Pty) Ltd


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