Is realism in video games counter-productive to the escapism we seek when we play? You could be forgiven for responding “no”, just like that. Obviously realism is an important factor in some games, it can even add to escapism if used correctly and in the right amounts, but too much realism can kill games stone dead. For this reason I am edging towards the idea that realism in games is a bad idea…
For starters, no matter how much realism we have in games there are always elements that require we ‘overlook’ unrealistic aspects. Respawning is an excellent example of this. In most first person shooters we are supposed to accept that more soldiers randomly materialise? MAG tried to avoid this by having the player waiting to arrive with the next batch of troops. This felt more like a gameplay aspect though, to stop players from just sprinting at the enemy, dying and then starting over. Also, rather than dying instantly, being shot anywhere other than the head would injure the player, causing him to lay on the floor and tempting many players to scream “MEDIC!” down their microphones. Not bad for realism, especially when a bullet to the big toe can take players of Call of Duty down. The sad thing is the ‘magic’ gun that heals you back to life, but I can’t begin to imagine how annoyed players would be with having to watch their character spend months in hospital and so on.
Realism can create a much greater feeling of immersion, such as in Call of Duty and, to a certain extent, racing games. It is an important factor that the weapons in a weapon-based game sound authentic. Good developers would make an effort on that front. Certainly, I watched a video about Brink a while back shadowing the person responsible for recording weapon sounds. He spent the day with an arsenal even Duke Nukem would be proud of set out in front of him, mounting weapons amidst microphones and firing them until the recording was just right. This sort of realism is good. Similarly, with racing games there tends to be two types of handling that gamers are accustomed to: ‘Arcade’ handling and ‘racing sim’ handling. Anything else feels strange; it took me a while to get used to GTAIV’s car handling, for example. Obviously arcade-style handling isn’t very realistic, but that’s ok. Racing sim handling is supposed to feel like the real thing. This can lead to a terribly punishing difficulty curve, but that’s exactly what some people love. Yet there are many other types of realism that developers have tried to engage gamers with.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (and Fallout: New Vegas to a certain extent) had the player monitoring hydration, nourishment, fatigue and radiation levels (aspects of the character’s personal wellbeing, basically). Is this too much, though? I could buy into this idea of treating a character like a human, but the sudden and instantaneous drop-off of stats once hunger reaches a certain point. If real life was like that the world would be an interesting place! Not to mention the fact that eating an entire loaf of bread seems to take only one mouthful… So how long before the player is forced to take a break from the action so he can squat behind a bush? Where is the line?
The Sims found a good balance between realism and escapism – yes, bathroom needs had to be monitored, but at the same time that aspect of the game was unobtrusive enough that the creativity of the environment took the fore. How many of us spent hours making our own houses and families? Or making castles or giant manor houses for our sims to live in? That aspect of the game was, in my opinion, much more fun than the more individual focus of the current Sims games. It is not only the games themselves that try to give a sense of realism though.
Gaming peripherals are a prominent way that the gaming industry has tried to offer greater levels of realism to the player. One thing that has always confused me slightly is how a vibrating controller contributes to realism in gaming. I can just about understand this feature in a driving game, where the gentle hum of the tarmac contrasts with the jolting crunch of gravel, but beyond that am I truly expected to believe that a vibrating controller emulates the recoil of a weapon, or the impact of bullets into my body? But looking beyond even the peripherals, it is clear that the very medium presents problems to any developer chasing realism.
The very fact of playing a video game immediately restricts the realism of the experience. If the player has an RPG launcher and there’s a wall between him and his objective (barring the most recent Battlefield games), he has no means of destroying that wall to continue, as he might in real life. A piffling wall that, usually, will emerge unscathed from the attack save for a small burn mark at the point of impact. The fact is the player can only go where the developer wants him to go, can only do things programmed into the game, can only collect the things he’s ‘allowed’ to collect. In some games this means no jumping, in others it means there might be a perfectly good wooden plank on the floor that could be used to brain someone, but cannot be picked up.
This brings me to one of the most important aspects of gaming – not just escaping reality but escaping the reality of one’s actions. If you shoot, stab or run over pedestrians, steal cars, attack the police or drive off a bridge in a Grand Theft Auto game, it’s because it’s fun to play outside the rules. In Gran Turismo 5: Prologue the penalty system was terrible (and I’m sure it can’t be the only offender). Being nudged by an opponent more often than not led to YOU being penalised, which isn’t really fair BUT IT’S THE RULES! It’s much more fun to play Blur or even Mario Kart (hell, it’s not one of the most popular racing series ever for nothing!) and spend the entire race ramming, aggravating and shooting annoying things at opponents.
Finally, where would an article like this be without a look at the other end of the scale; the more ‘pure’ escapism? Escaping the rules is such an important factor in any RPG: how else would we summon magical creatures, freeze opponents and travel through time? In any shooter, how else would one man or woman fight off hordes of enemies single-handed? Video games are the doorway to a world where imagination is reality, where anything is possible and where we can hide from our problems, stresses and worries for a time. And while realism can be a good thing, too much can, at worst, evoke the very elements of life we play to get away from. Games provide a consequence-free environment where you can let your hair down and behave the way you decide, and that’s the way it should stay.
Video games were a part of Chris's life from the Mega Drive onwards. He has many happy gaming memories, including the first time he collected all the chaos emeralds in Sonic 2, collecting all SSBM's trophies (yes, all of them) and, more recently, collecting far too many platinum trophies on his PlayStation 3. In the real world, he has a degree in French and is currently living in Frankfurt, Germany. Follow him on Twitter @DPrime_Chris
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