Tuesday 30 April 2013

Realism in gaming

I had an epiphany a few years into the 7th console generation. I found that I was no longer particularly fond of video games. This surprised me, as I had loved gaming ever since the early eighties and games had up to this point kept getting better as they evolved.

At the time, I had a clunky, big and somewhat noisy initial model Playstation 3. This was the one which was still backwards compatible with older Playstation titles, and I found that instead of enjoying new games on it, I primarily used it to watch movies or replay older Playstation games.

I initially figured that this probably meant I was getting too old to be a gamer. I had often suspected the day would eventually come, and that what still kept me around was likely just nostalgia.

As it turned out though, I was just playing the wrong games.

I had made the mistake of attributing my disenchantment with contemporary titles to internal factors, instead of the real issue, which was that most games at the time just weren’t very good.

This was the age of the “realistic" first or third person shooter, where realism mostly meant that level designers had to use a lot of grey or brown assets.

Fortunately, games like: «Braid» and «Geometry Wars» (which I discovered quite late), with their colourful and completely unrealistic play-fields rekindled my passion for gaming again. As it turns out, I like my games to not be "realistic".

The problem with realism

An interesting post on GamaSutra, by former People Can Fly creative director: Adrian Chmielarz, argues that as audio, visuals and story-telling gets better, playability suffers if game mechanics are allowed to rely on current gameplay tropes. He basically argues that there is an uncanny valley effect with regards to gameplay, which becomes more and more prevalent, as more realistic looking games are being made for the next generation.

The problem, as he puts it, is that increasing levels of realism in presentation, makes it harder for the player to connect mentally when encountering traditional gameplay gambits in the game world, like health packs and bonus ammo hidden in ancient temples.

Here are a few quotes from the post:

"Old game metaphors are dying, and we’re in a desperate need of a new dictionary."
"With the next-gen, our games are only going to get better – with better writing, better visuals, better audio – and continue their journey towards being a perfect sim, blurring the line between gameplay and narrative. If our game designs do not follow, our games will suffer."

These are valid sentiments, but I would like to suggest a counterpoint: Instead of trying to embrace realism and develop new tropes in order to fit the increasing real-world-simulation capabilities of modern gaming hardware, how about focusing our efforts on making modern games that are not simulations of the real world?

As I see it, this is where the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is.

Case in point

For instance, the critically acclaimed game «Hotline Miami», with its top-down, neon colored, «Miami Vice»-like visuals, can by no means be described as technologically advanced or even particularly pretty.

It is however, one of the most immersive games I have ever played. The minimalistic yet colorful graphics, atmospheric sound and ultraviolent setting eventually induces a sort of trance state, where kicking the door in the face of a guy before grabbing his weapon to gun down the next target, becomes reflex, almost second nature. It is in fact so immersive, that playing it makes me question my own psyche in ways I am not entirely comfortable with.

My point is: The power of the human imagination to immerse players in a game's world is unparalleled. And as Adrian Chmielarz points out, the capability to tap into this power gets increasingly more elusive as the audiovisual representation of games approaches realism.

The question then becomes: Is realism even worth chasing?

I would argue that the most important lesson which can be learned from the current state of gaming is that the minimalistic presentation of the old classics and some contemporary indie titles, are not just only still relevant, but may actually be superior to the quest-for-photo-realism alternatives.

UPDATED (01.08.2013): I usually don’t go back and dramatically alter posts after I publish them, but in this case I have. The initial post was unfocussed and lacked a clear opinion regarding the problem with realism in gaming. As this particular point is one which I consider to be of some importance, I decided to rewrite the post to make it clearer.

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