Maybe this title is a bit misleading. After all, realism does have a very important place in the gaming world. But there’s a time and place for everything, and certain elements of realism, such as life-like graphics and gritty story lines, have become a bit too prevalent in Western games lately. It’s not quite as bad as it is in modern cinema (Campiness seems to be a relic of the past, only coming up outside of comedy and the B-list in throwbacks like Crystal Skull or Die Hard 4, and even then it gets nitpicked to hell and back. And let’s not even start on the hyper-reality of the HD movement and CG effects.), but it’s nevertheless present.
Actually, let’s back up. For the sake of argument I’m splitting the notion of “realism” into three areas: graphics, gameplay mechanics, and storyline. Graphic realism is pretty straightforward, and is the most prevalent of the three in the gaming world, developers constantly striving to make their characters and environments emulate the real world more closely, Uncanny Valley be damned. Realistic gameplay mechanics come down to the developers deciding they want the game interactions to feel more grounded. This means no jumping five times your character’s height or a second time in the air – your character’s interactions are limited to what a normal human being could reasonably do. Finally, a realistic storyline in this case is usually defined by the dark and gritty approach which the Christopher Nolan Batman movies seem to be the poster children for.
Graphic realism is widespread, and for good reason: in a medium where technology is ever-evolving, you have to continue to push the envelope in order to make progress. Problems arise when designers mistake washed-out browns and tremendous amounts of light bloom for realism, but thankfully we’ve been moving away from these trends (at least the bloom) recently. The real drawback, I think, is that the amount of money it takes to produce these graphics often makes developers play it very safe with other elements of the game, and the finished product comes out bland and uninspired. It’s usually only the very high-end developers, who can afford these sorts of costs, that can play the graphic realism game and still try something new in other areas of the game. For example, you have to admit that FFXIII is a visually stunning game that makes bold experiments with its combat system, no matter how you feel about the results of these experiments. On the other side of the coin, there are a great deal of games like Lair and Dante’s Inferno that look great but play either poorly or like insipid copies of other titles. Smart developers realize these technical limitations and look for alternatives – retro graphics and cel shading are two popular ways to make a game look good without sinking tons of cash into realistic visuals or physics. Realistic graphics are pleasing and essential to the continued evolution of the technology, but I think that too many people are swept up by it when the costs are too high and their priorities should really be elsewhere. Leave it for the heavy hitters and concentrate on making your game fun, I say.
More insidious, perhaps, though not as widespread, are realistic gameplay mechanics. This mostly shows up in racing sims and FPS’s, where cars respond much as they might in real life, or your avatar is constrained by physical limitations or weapons that closely match their real-world counterparts. Now, I realize that games like Gran Turismo and America’s Army have their fans, and that’s fine: they fill a niche for serious auto- and hoplophiles. But it’s a direction I could easily see these entire genres move towards, which worries me. Other than Team Fortress, what multiplayer FPS’s take themselves lightly? Furthermore, I’m constantly seeing fans of these games complaining about the “lack of realism.” Personally, as long as a game is internally consistent, I’m fine with this. For example, if within an FPS the effective range of a weapon goes Sniper Rifle > Assault Rifle > Light Machine Gun > Submachine Gun > Pistol > Shotgun, I can accept these as the parameters of the game and not as an accurate representation of reality. I don’t really care if a shotgun would have drastically increased range in real life, or if people couldn’t really take as much punishment as they do in game – as long as the game is balanced and consistent with its rules, these alterations are acceptable and often necessary to make the game fun. Similarly, the steering in an arcade-style racer might be way tighter than it is on any car in existence, but as the recent releases of Blur and Split/Second show, this control scheme often makes for some great and hectic fun.
Finally, let’s talk about story. As I mentioned earlier, the dark and gritty theme of Hollywood hasn’t really struck video games as much as one might think. Maybe it’s because crazy, over-the-top shenanigans and campiness are ingrained in the sci-fi and fantasy genres that inform many gaming stories, but most games still embrace tales with little bearing to reality. Even the ones based on movies tend to harken back to action flicks of the 80’s and early 90’s, a la Uncharted and Modern Warfare 2. Other studios simply don’t put enough time or money into their stories, and they end up simple and childish – not even advanced enough to entertain these weary notions of disaffected irony or dark cynicism. However, the dark n’ gritty element does show up in spades in one place in a gaming world – the protagonists. Dour antiheroes are a dime a dozen, from Army of Two to God of War and everywhere in between. Much like the anthropomorphic mascot craze in the 90’s, every developer is creating dark and brooding leads, and it’s wearing thin. It wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t so prevalent (and it does work in some cases – Kratos’s games are so over the top that he serves as the perfect engine of violence taken to absurd heights), or if these characters weren’t so often one-dimensional. In most cases it just feels like a ploy to be hip and grab gamers’ attention – little more than a sales pitch.
Given realism’s ubiquity in gaming, then, it’s a bit strange that there are actually some places I feel would benefit from a bit more of it. Horror is one such genre, one that has trended away from its bearings in the real world towards crazy shoot-em-ups like RE5 and Dead Space. These are both fine games, but they lack the grounding and thus much of the horror element of their predecessors*. Another area that could use a dose of reality is the RPG, esp the J- variety, this time in the story department. Any genre that has its roots so firmly in the realm of high fantasy is bound to be a bit airy and cliched, but this is just ridiculous. It’s one thing to have a setting in which magic exists. It’s quite another to have great, primal evils and plucky bands of heroes and damsels in distress and predictably vapid plots and oh dear god i’m bored just describing it. JRPG’s broke the mold in the late SNES-era with Crono Cross and Earthbound, and Western RPG’s seem to be taking another stab at originality with Fallout 3 and the like. The genre’s stories as a whole are still mired in repetitive mediocrity, though, and I feel a more realistic setting and characters might serve to ground a generally flippant and inane body of works.
So realism has its place in the gaming world, but sometimes it gets applied a bit too liberally and across too many games. Pepper is a great seasoning – hell, it’s a staple of cooking – but just keep it out of my cereal.
* This is another big topic, though, and one I’ll save for another day.