Hello my pretties! This week I’m writing on an issue that’s close to my heart – realism in games and the general trend in the games industry of making games that are more and more realistic. When it came out, everyone was gushing about Half Life 2‘s physics engine and the ability it gives you to manipulate objects or affect the environment in ways that closely mimic real life. With every new innovation in technology, we are brought closer and closer to games that not only look like real life, but actually behaves like it and contains people that seem as solid as you or I. If you aren’t convinced, just take a look at Quantic Dream’s impressive tech demo:
It’s incredible isn’t it? People love this kind of thing and it’s no wonder that developers are scrambling over themselves to provide it for them.
You might think that being a huge fan of immersive RPGs like the Mass Effect series, I would love realism in my games. I’m not denying that it has its place or that I am eagerly awaiting the day where virtual reality becomes more than a game and becomes almost like a second life. However, I believe that there’s more to games than that, that we can take the medium further and that this obsession with realistic graphics, physics engines and AI and so on will have a negative impact on the industry we love so much.
My main issue with the trend towards ever greater realism is that I think it hampers progress. There is, at the moment, a huge focus and expense paid for tech that will make the game look amazing, but often at the cost of the narrative and characters – LA Noire and Uncharted are only two examples of this for me. This focus also hinders creativity and the development of other ways of telling stories or enhancing gameplay. Instead game studios are restricted by the narrow limits of gravity, realistic facial expressions, lifelike movements and getting rid of that dreaded deadness behind the eyes that 3D models often have. Major developers don’t experiment much with what has worked for them so many times. It’s understandable, considering the sway that hyper-realistic games like Call of Duty have had on the gaming community. They seem to leave the real innovation to indie developers like Blendo Games of Thirty Flights of Loving, which I reviewed here. What that game achieved, which so many modern games shy away from, is that it found a new way to tell a story. No words were required, there was no real linearity of time and it took your conception of what a game is and turned it inside out. Whether you like games like that or not, the fact that games like that are made, I believe is a good thing for video games and for storytelling generally, whether it’s movies or books or games. Reality hampers the imagination and limits the tools at your disposal in creating a work of art.
What developers fail to realise is that realism and immersion, although they often go hand-in-hand, do not necessarily lead on from each other. I love the unique cartoony animation style of Borderlands 2 and the game wouldn’t have been what it was without it. It’s also not realistic in any sense of the word, but it’s no less immersive as a game. Pandora was just a different kind of world to ours. I think that the trick is to build a world so full and rich that you’re transported there immediately and can’t help but be immersed in it. You don’t need realism to leave the real world behind you. How many hours did you spend on Mario and Sonic when you were younger and did you really think about the outside world during that time or were you not fully involved in that universe and its characters? True, you were probably younger and had a boundless imagination, but I don’t think that’s all there is to it. I obviously don’t need to remind you how unpolished those games look compared to the AAA titles of this day and age. The things we could achieve with the technology we have now! I’d like to believe that given the option, many people, even if its not the majority, would choose a game with an incredible story and gameplay over a game that has nothing going for it except shiny, pretty graphics. I feel that in modern day society we have been conditioned to believe that art is only beautiful if it closely resembles life and to me that’s a tragedy, especially considering what we have at our fingertips. You can see this happening everywhere from Hollywood movies to the proliferation of reality TV shows and even in pop music. In my parents’ day, songs told stories, whether personal or fictional. Now, not all, but much of pop music focuses on slice-of-life situations or specific inane aspects of people’s lives. Creators want you to relate to their game, TV show, song or movie and yet what they don’t realise is that all of the effort put into mirroring our regular lives isn’t necessary. In the days before all of this technology, before TVs and radios, people used to tell stories by word of mouth with nothing to aid them in their storytelling other than their talent and their own imagination. Many of these stories still live on today.
Lastly, a slightly more minor, but still important issue is centred around the uncanny valley effect, which states that as a robot or animated model’s similarity to humans increases, empathy also increases until there comes a point when the likeness is pretty close, but not 100% where we feel instead feel revulsion. As has been pointed out before, there are many creepy examples of this and you can probably think of a few yourself. My point is that sometimes when attempts to create extremely realistic characters and environments are almost achieved, but inevitably fall short (as we simply don’t have the tech at the moment to create animation that is indistinguishable from the real thing) what happens is actually the opposite of the desired effect. Rather than feel completely immersed, because the setting feels so familiar and the people look so much like us, we end up, sometimes unconsciously, noting the things that make that world false. LA Noire, for instance, uses advanced tech to very closely imitate the facial expressions of the actors to the point where you can tell if they’re lying (indeed, that’s the point of the game). The result is impressive. However, there is no chance that I would look at a screenshot from the game and think it was a real picture. It’s not an easy thing to pin down, as I think humans, to an extent, automatically identify those of the same species as us in ways that are subconscious, but there’s something about the deadness of the eyes, the slight stiffness of the movements and the lack of subtle nuances of the face that humans are capable of. Not to mention that the environment just looks kind of flat by comparison. Rather than feeling like I was really a cop in LA in 1947, I was even more aware of all the slight differences between the world of LA Noire and real life. The more they tried to convince me that this was real, the more I noticed that the people just weren’t moving right and that Cole Phelps, star cop, wielded a gun like it was a live fish he was wrestling. Countless other games are guilty of this. How many games have you played with amazing graphics where you couldn’t jump? It’s little things like that that actually take away from the realism of games for me, that actually makes games less immersive. I’m not saying that developers should just give up, but that they should perhaps try a little less hard to make everything perfect and focus more on creating a fully-realised world that works within its own boundaries.
In the end, I guess what I really want is more variety, more imagination, games that blow my mind and overwhelm more senses than just my eyes. I want developers to take realism less seriously and to expand their imaginative horizons and use the amazing tools at their disposal for more than just making faces twitch in just the right way. I want a revolution of what games actually are, of what they can do!
That’s just me anyway, what do you guys think?
[This article was originally posted on CheeeseToastieandVideoGames February 25, 2013]