Oct 17, 2016
With each generation, and each game in a franchise, fans revel in how much closer gaming is getting to reality. We want games to be reality! The Oculus Rift and 3D entertainment point towards a future where reality and the virtual combine. Yet is this step towards realism in video games a burden for the games themselves?
Of course, the first thing to address is, what is real? (Pardon the Matrix reference). In the gaming world, realism can relate to many things. This could be realistic physics, a realistic settings, realistic actions, or realistic morals or choices that can be found within the game. Games like Halo may have very realistic graphics and physics, but all in all, take place on another planet with fictional creatures. Other games like BioShock: Infinite may take place in a fictional historic setting, but the decisions and plot make what occurs in the game very real to the player. Which is why you probably wouldn’t allow a young child to play it, even if it isn’t all blood and gore. The point I attempt to make is, does introducing realism into video games hinder developer creativity? Or does it improve the game, because you become more immersed? There is obviously room for both formats, yet how far can realistic games go before it is no longer a game? Before it’s no longer fun? Before it becomes a simulator?
Although Gran Turismo is one of the most prestigious racing games out there, many are turned off by the fact it is all too realistic to remain fun. Games such as Motorstorm, Need for Speed, or Burnout have remained popular due to their polar opposite approach. it’s all about mayhem, and fun. Yeah, the physics may still be tied to this world, but for the gamer, ramming other cars spinning out of control is a lot more fun.
Grand Theft Auto V makes great use of realism, but also manages to keep certain levels of fun involved. I’m sure you’ve noticed that when a car is rolled over, you can simply roll your car back onto it’s wheels. This defies gravity, physics, and everything reality is based upon, but it does keep the game flowing and entertaining. Imagine being stranded in a forest, or on top of a mountain, purely because your car took a tumble, and is in perfect condition, except the fact it’s on it’s roof. This would become infuriating. Or during a police chase, a slight nudge tips your car topside. And you’re caught. It would frustrate even the most patient of gamers. So they chose to implement this feature. They have also resisted only allowing you to carry two guns, instead opting for the entire armory magically inside your jeans pocket. But it wouldn’t be a true GTA title without this option.
Of course, realistic games are often very good. Look at Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls, or LA Noire to experience facial expressions which are so close to reality it’s uncanny. These are huge parts of the games, with LA Noire needing you to translate facial expressions to distinguish whether they are lying or not. The whole game relied around hyper-realism, and was a very unique play-through, which many players enjoyed.
However, there are still features which may be slightly too realistic. GTA Online falls short on many of these fronts, due to it attempting to replicate real life and become as immersive as possible. I mean, who has ever considered insuring their vehicle fun? And regarding being labelled as a bad sport for destroying other players vehicles, I think Rockstar are forgetting what the series is all about. Having to pay $1000 of hard-to-earn money to purely be able to fly my helicoptor, that other players will seek out and blow up given half a chance, simply takes the fun out of things. I will simply not use my helicoptor and save my money. And saving money has never been a fun activity. I don’t want to worry about spending virtual money on virtual vehicles! It really takes the biscuit when I have to run halfway across the map for my own car because if I take someone elses the police will come after me, and having to pay for the right to have it returned, or even file an insurance claim. I mean, it’s a cool feature, but it’s time consuming and unnecessary. Likewise, having to cash my money at an ATM so that other players can’t steal it is another way realism hinders fun. After every mission, I feel the need to bank my cash, just in case some bonehead comes along to mug me for my virtual dollars.
I am in no way criticising GTA V or Online. I am a huge fan of the single player, and am addicted to the online addition. I think they’ve done a great job of balancing the series’ roots of mayhem against the advancements GTA IV made. It is one of the most immersive and thrilling games I have played to date. But these features do at least, indicate where the industry is going.
Of course, there will always be games based upon fantasy realms, or platformers which bear no resemblance to realism whatsoever. But when you look at mainstream franchises, such as Battlefield, Call of Duty, or Grand Theft Auto, they are all realistic. And if this is where money is made, this is where developers will no doubt end up. Call of Duty was of course, the game to popularise the concept of “one rifle one pistol”, which has since become the standard. I remember thinking this was ridiculous on Call of Duty 4, having previously played Resistance: Fall of Man on PS3, which had a huge array of ludicrously fun guns you could carry at the same time. Of course, Call of Duty 4 eclipsed the multiplayer of Resistance, yet it took some getting used to.
I mean, one place where realism is a questionable feature is in stealth games. Take The Last of Us for example; you die easily, and have to take on enemies one by one. That’s cool, because realistically, fighting off hoardes of enemies a la Uncharted would be quite unbelievable. And also, in games such as the Elder Scrolls or Metal Gear Solid, enemy guards often forget that there is a fugitive on the loose a matter of feet away from then when you’ve hidden for a matter of seconds. Even if you’re picked off every single one of their comrades, they will still continue to patrol like it’s an everyday occurrence. I mean, perhaps it is in Cyrodiil; but that certainly doesn’t relate to the realms of realism in our world. Even if developers can now create highly realistic environments, AI is something that needs to be tackled. The stupidity of computer controlled characters can often break the mirage of realism. Assassin’s Creed is a game which manages to create a living world with details pinned down to every brick or blade of grass. Yet the fact enemies take you on one by one to meet their maker simply baffles me. In the real world, if they were all to just ambush you at the same time, they would topple any form of Assassin. It’s just ludicrous. But hey, that wouldn’t make for a good game now, would it? And perhaps that is why realism restricts developers.
There are also a whole host of games which heighten the sense of realism in the world, only to fall back in one way. Red Dead Redemption was one of the most realistic Western video games to date; yet take John Marston anywhere near water and he suddenly cannot cope. This is a man who can take on all hosts of wild animals and outlaws, but cannot survive a little water anywhere above the knee. It takes you completely out of the game.
The fact of the matter is, that realism sells. And so it becomes a worthwhile venture for many studios to make their next game as realistic as possible. You only have to look at blockbuster games such as Call of Duty or Battlefield to see what their realistic rendition of the FPS genre pays dividends, and appeals to a wide audience. Games with fantasy elements like Dragon Age, or Sci-Fi like Mass Effect, may prove very popular; yet still lack the widespread attention from all forms of gamers that games based in the real world achieve. Take a look at the recent ARMA: III. It’s above and beyond what Call of Duty is; creating lifelike warfare with high-end graphics that consoles can only dream of. But that doesn’t mean it’s anymore fun, or that everyone should scramble to buy it. I mean, I struggled to come to terms with Battlefield 3 on my first play-through, as I had become accustomed to other FPS less punishing learning curves, and ARMA is yet another step up. Realism is the draw in this game, and attracts many hardcore gamers, but is essentially what also pushes more casual gamers away from the franchise.
Compare the generic FPS such as Call of Duty to games such as Spec Ops: The Line, which tackles the harsh reality of PTSD, and you get two very different breeds of video game within the same genre. Although Call of Duty may be realistic to an extent, both the campaign and online aspects are so over-the-top and adrenaline fueled that they are no longer possible in the real world. Yet the bleakness of Spec Ops with dark themes throughout manage to make the game a lot more realistic. But this is the reason there are thousands of teenagers playing CoD, yet very few playing Spec Ops. They appeal to very different audiences, because of how they manage to portray their realism. And of course, as war games are some of the most popular in the industry, why would you want them to become more real? War is perhaps the single most traumatic experience a human being can go through, and so why would you want to subject players to such an experience? That wouldn’t be fun at all. If players start coming away from a 3 hour online session with psychological damage, we may have a problem on our hands. Of course, many people have already been desensitized to violence through video games, but that is where the trend should end.
Considering games such as BioShock with it’s cartoonish graphics, or Borderlands 2 taking cel-shading to the masses, and you can see how denying realism can often be a good thing. Borderlands was initially developed in a similar vein to Fallout or Rage, yet mid-development switched to a more colourful and cartoony effect. This managed to make it much more unique, and is easily distinguishable in an over-populated crowd of post-apocalyptic shooters. This is a very good example where ignoring realism proved very successful, as the feel of the game changed entirely, highlighting the more humourous aspects, and allowed them to implement a lot more hectic and craze-fuelled gun toting on another planet. There is literally nothing about this game that is realistic, aside from humanoid characters. You can fall from great drops, there’s made-up elements, unimaginable weaponry, and a whole range of enemies to defeat. Which makes for an unbelievably fun game.
The Assassin’s Creed franchise does make good use of balancing reality and fantasy elements. The backdrop of history for it’s characters means that the realism is there; yet combining this with the sci-fi edge of secret Assassin’s theoretically make sense (excluding all the God-based storyline which still slightly eludes me). It manages to turn gaming clichés into things that make perfect sense. For instance, when I purchased the original game, I came across an invisible wall which disallowed me to enter another area. Annoying. But the game gives the reason that “this memory is not accessible at this time”. Well, now it makes sense in this instance. Which is a sight more believable than the classic GTA style of “if you enter this area you will get 5 stars and die”. So perhaps the answer is for developers to find ways around realism, and achieve a balance between the two. Of course, there will always be room for games which don’t adhere to any rules of reality or our world, but these aren’t the ones which we see selling millions of copies on an annual basis.
But at what point does realism stop being an improvement, and become a hindrance? There has to be a stage where our character running out of breath becomes annoying. Or when we have to stop mid-match to relieve our bladder, or take a snack because we have been playing online for 3 hours in the desert, and our soldier becomes parched and we need to have a drink. There has to be a line; the question is, when do we cross it? Or has it already been crossed? Insuring cars on GTA is surely a sign that the line is drawing closer. I’m not saying the insurance isn’t a cool feature, but it did worry me about where this trend could go in the future.
Of course, the inevitable upheaval of VR headsets will happen, and turn whatever it is we wish, into a more realistic premise. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean games have to be hyper-realistic, but one thing is for certain; we will have an abundance of realistic experiences in the coming years. It is up to developers as to how to make best use of new hardware. Whether that be fighting demons, or walking down the street. Instead of realism, I think it is more important for developers to aim to present an accurate experience of whatever it is they wish to portray. Managing to provide an authentic experience for the gamer is essential, because at the end of the day, games are largely about having fun. And if they all replicated reality so precisely, we wouldn’t be playing video games in the first place.