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How real do you want it?

…You’re crouched low, hunched over and your shoulders are feeling tight. You shift your weight to ease the cramp starting in your thighs and hear the squelching sound as the mud sucks at your boots. A bead of sweat runs down your temple. In the back of your mind “The End” by The Doors is playing, but why has it just morphed to “Paint It Black” by The Rolling Stones? Weird. You just realised how thirsty you are. You hear the rotor blades of a Huey as it passes over your head. In moments you’ll be stalking through the dense foliage you are hidden behind. Your job is to find, and end, an enemy that has the same intention for you…

The previous paragraph could describe the beginning of a number of scenarios. The scenario could be the memories of a Vietnam War veteran. It could be the beginning of an awesome paintball game on a hot summer’s day in Pretoria. Or, it could be the opening moments of a mission in a computer game like Vietcong; you could probably omit the bead of sweat in this case. Now, here’s the question for this blog post “How realistic do you actually want games to be?”

… You’ve been walking down a shady path for 5 minutes when you hear the sound of a projectile whizz through the air centimetres from your ear. Before you’ve thought about it, your body has flung you to the ground. You glance left and see your squadmate do the exact same thing, only he was a split second slower. Pink mist erupts from his chest as the projectiles that missed you plough into him…

If you were playing a game of paintball your friend would be a bright pink colour and would turn around and stalk back to the staging area. He might even be muttering some colourful character descriptions of the guy who just shot him. You’d have one less player on your team; making the game that much harder. In the average computer game you’d shrug and try kill everything within firing range; being the hero of the story, you were going to do all the work anyway. Hey Rambo? If you were a real soldier you’d be dealing with a life & death situation, the potential loss of a close friend and the gore that accompanies violent death.

There are a number of ways games can approach realism. The two aspects I will mention are representation fidelity and fidelity of experience. Games can opt for graphic fidelity and try representing the world in the most photorealistic way possible. This is a truly challenging problem for the gaming industry as well as the animation industry. Accurate use of sound also falls into this category. Humans are great at finding flaws in representations of the world we live in. It’s easy since we deal with the real world 24/7. The guys at Extra Credits have a very good video that discusses this very topic, The Uncanny Valley. I think the gaming industry is getting very good at world representation. For an example I’d point you at Dice’s recent game, Battlefield 3. The visuals are spectacular but I think the use of sound is what makes the experience awesome. It’s a visceral gaming experience. A grenade going off near you or a tank driving by firing its cannon are about as terrifying as you’d imagine them to be.

The flip side of the photorealistic coin is stylization. This works especially well for games not based in a realistic world. Try imagining playing photorealistic Mario Brothers, where Mario gets covered in gore whenever he steps on a goomba. Not that great, I’d say.

The second realism aspect I’ll mention is fidelity of experience. This is how true to life playing a character in a game is. This is fundamentally limited by the fact that most games will be played through an interface; a gamepad or mouse and keyboard. Imagine a game where when your character woke up in the morning you had to brush their teeth. Not by clicking a button and the character performs the action, but where you have to move the controller to perform the action. Heavy Rain did exactly this

How is this fun? I believe games should be an escape. I don’t want to deal with the mundane stuff. I do that in the real world already. This is one of the reasons I rarely watch drama movies. If you push the same idea into the realm of the absurd you end up living a mundane life in a fake world. Here’s a video that describes just that,

The point of playing games is to have fun. The realism of a game should not come at the cost of it being fun. If we consider the interface issue, what would happen if the physical way you played a computer game changed? If instead of pressing the “W” key to run you actually had to run. You’d end up with something like this


which I think is rather awesome.

The implementation of ingame consequence is part of experience fidelity. What are the consequences of failure? How much does death in a game cost you? Are you punished for making a mistake? Few games enforce drastic punishment on players. Though, there are a few that use consequence as a game feature. In Eve Online you will lose your spaceship if you are unobservant while traveling through certain regions. The Witcher 2 is unforgiving if you go into a creature battle without the correct potions, poisons and spells. In both these cases mistakes can potentially set you back hours of play time. I’ve played both games. The Witcher 2 was challenging, but you got a sense of achievement out of the battles. You felt like you’d learned from the experience of losing and next time you’d be better. I didn’t get that from Eve Online. I don’t mind being punished for mistakes; I just don’t want to lose hours of my life because someone appeared and had better equipment than I did.

So, I like certain games I play to have an aspect of realism. I want some consequences. I want an experience. I want to be able tell stories about the adventures I’ve had in the virtual worlds I frequent. I don’t want to brush my character’s polygon teeth by jiggling an analogue stick. What do you guys think?

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